Exclusive Interview By Sue Russell
It all started with a kiss from Joan Collins. Now her Male Model co-star is fronting his own CBS series called Cover-Up. But make no mistake - handsome Hexum is much more than a drop-dead clotheshorse.
A first-look snap judgment: Jon-Erik Hexum is the male answer to Christie Brinkley.
The evidence? For one thing, his blatant muscle display in a topless pinup poster. For another, his TV-movie debut playing a beautiful clotheshorse in Male Model. And now his new series, Cover-Up, targeted straight at the Tom Selleck watchers and featuring a fashion parade by top designers such as Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis. Hexum, 25, plays a renegade Green Beret who tackles secret missions disguised as - what else? - a leading fashion model.
Furthermore, consider the raw material: a six-foot, one-inch, 190-pound physique featuring a chiseled jawline, stunning Adriatic blue eyes, deeply resonant voice and brawny, well-contoured muscles. All in all, Hexum certainly qualifies as the sexiest shape o America’s small screen.
But those pretty-boy superficials turn out to be highly deceptive. Beneath them is a man of tenacious ambition who’s planning for the long-term future rather than just soaking up the immediate advantages. He’s more likely to be working out at the health club or driving himself through daily acting classes than smiling for the paparazzi with his arm around the latest young, blond starlet. “I am passionately strict. I am a perfectionist,” says the actor, who insists he will someday produce his own films.
A more revealing piece of evidence: Back when he was still scrubbing grimy floors and mixing drinks at a sleazy Times Square disco to earn his keep, he turned down half a million dollars’ worth of TV contracts. Specifically, Hexum thumbed his nose at the hit series Chips and The Dukes of Hazzard, as well as the short-lived Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He also turned down the opportunity to replace Jeff Daniels in the Broadway hit Fifth of July.
Hexum vividly remembers how his California-based manager, Bob Le Mond, would jet into New York, pull up in a limousine outside Hexum’s place of work, tell him to turn down all the offers, then drive off into the night. Meanwhile, Hexum was struggling to keep his head above water.
“We are talking about turning down a half-millions dollars,” Le Mond admits. “and the daytime shows would have taken Jon-Erik in a hot minute. I admire him and really respect him for holding out. I think it was trust - knowing Jon-Erik, probably a little begrudging trust - in my judgment, and a deeper trust in his own potential.”
At Le Mond’s urging, Hexum reluctantly moved to California in September of 1981. Four months later, he landed the Voyagers! TV series, an offer that they both felt had the right stuff. Voyagers! held on for 22 episodes, but placed opposite 60 Minutes, it naturally settled at the bottom of the ratings with a resounding thud.
Undeterred, Hexum pumped $50,000 of his own money into a self-promotion plan that had him traveling around the country doing talk shows, cutting ribbons and generally capitalizing on the fact that although his show was about to bite the dust, the reviews were good and so was he. Five weeks later, he got Male Model.
Cut to August 1984 and Cover-Up’s murkily ugly-beautiful San Pedro, California, location, which will pass for Central America onscreen. You need only spend a couple of afternoons with Hexum and all preconceived ideas crumble once and for all.
For a start, there is none of that tedious denial of his beefcake status; no trying to transform the launch of his unabashedly commercial poster into high-minded art. No pretending someone took the picture when he wasn’t looking. He says he flogged the poster around himself, got rejected five times, made a sale on the sixth and that’s that.
When Male Model elevated Hexum to “potentially hot” in October of 1983, offers poured in. But it wasn’t until Glen Larson pitched the concept for Cover-Up that Hexum was hooked. “I thought it sounded wildly commercial,” he says. Although the Cover-Up story is completely different from Male Model, Hexum acknowledges that his series was born from the success of the TV movie.
In a nutshell, the Cover-Up plot has Mac Harper (Hexum) being thrown out of the Green Beret special forces, but not before posing for a Join the Marines poster. This is spotted by Jennifer O’Neill (Cover-Up’s answer to Joan Collins), whose husband has been murdered. On learning that he was an outrider spy for the CIA, she hires Harper to help her track down her husband’s killers. Their cover? A glossy, jet-setting model-photographer team.
“Mac Harper is a cross between Hawkeye Pierce, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Mr. Magoo and Superman,” Hexum says, while lounging in his trailer between takes. “but I’m telling you how I think the show should be, and that ain’t necessarily how the show turns out. I consider myself phenomenally fortunate, but I kind of hoped for more creativity.
Hexum’s tinge of disappointment has another source. He accepted a part in the recent film The Bear (which stars Gary Busey as Alabama football coach Bear Bryant) solely on the strength of a challenging dying scene - which ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Hexum admits that as an actor on a formula TV-show he’s something of a commodity, like a new brand of coffee: “Sure, but so is Tom Selleck, and I think he’s real good in some of his Magnum scenes. Sure there’s a danger in becoming a product, but you can get beyond that if you have the talent and are willing to work on it.
“Look at Paul Newman - he had his shirt off in Hud. So did Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. That beefcake, hunk thing has been going on for years and it’s no big deal.
“Look at Harrison Ford. The guy’s very rakish. he’s got that hat, the beard, the whip; he’s got his shirt all open. It’s not that different. Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are not loaded with dialogue, but there’s plenty of opportunity for him to do some good acting.”
Hearing about Hexum’s childhood explains a lot about his determination. born of Norwegian immigrant parents in Tenafly, New Jersey, he was only four when his father, Thor, walked out. Gretha Hexum immediately knuckled down to the task of keeping a roof over the heads of her two son, Jon-Erik and Gunnar. She juggled three jobs at once, working as a secretary, a waitress and scrubbing floors. Somehow she also managed to take her young son to Broadway plays; but since she could only afford one ticket, she’d wait for him in a nearby coffee shop.
Hers was a silent effort, made without a lot of fanfare either then or now. Hexum says his mother doesn’t feel she made any special sacrifices, and even now that her son has real-estate interests, she’s not about doing odd jobs, like fixing toilets.
Hexum’s cut-and-dried assessment of those early days: “My dad didn’t do his job and my mom just did what she had to do.” He hasn’t seen his father since he was nine. It’s his choice; he has not desire to.
Rather than ruminating on the past, Hexum focuses obsessively on his work. “I’m real fired up,” he shrugs, adding that small talk bores him and idle chitchat sends him running. he is tough and judgmental toward himself and others.
“Given the opportunity, I’ll fire people as fast as I can for incompetence, myself included. I have high standards, although I don’t like up to them a lot. I still get disappointed with myself.”
Bob Le Mond, who used to guide John Travolta’s career, calls Hexum “a hundred percenter.” Attempting to describe the way he works with his clients, Le Mond leaps to his feet and bursts into a frenzied bout a ya-ya shaking. “You know,” he says, “when you’re an Ikette behind Tina Turner and you’re up there shaking away and she’s up there shaking away, well, as long as she’s in front shaking just as hard or even harder, you can’t bitch, you just keep right on shaking! That’s how it is with Jon-Erik.”
The real saving grace with all this frenzied, one-track-mind working - and the reason those around him seem to genuinely like his company - is Hexum’s sense of humor: sometimes wacky, often self-depreciating.
Publicist Guy Thomas reports that Hexum once come into his office wearing a pair of vintage 1958, winged, rhinestoned-studded specs, held together with a safety pin at one side. His own glasses were broken so he’d borrowed an old pair from his mother. he wore them totally straight-faced and left without explanation or comment. Thomas grins, “My new assistant was appalled. She said, ‘That’s Jon-Erik Hexum?’”
One the usually sensitive subject of sexual preferences, Hexum simply laughs off the rumors. His only long-term relationship (4 1/2 years) broke up a year ago, and his ex is now married. Apart from a flurry or rumors about a liaison with Joan Collins, there has been no rampaging romance for him. So some reporters resort to speculating that he’s gay. Rather than react angrily, Hexum plays along.
He’ll leave phone messages giving the name of a gay bar and say, “Have him call me at the table, the regular one.”
Ask him about growing up handsome and he answers: “ I certainly wasn’t real confident with girls.” Long pause, “I guess that’s what got me started with guys.” Another pause, “and small animals.”
Getting serious for a second, he explains. “I really don’t care if people think I date a lot or a little, if they think I’m gay or if they think I’m aborigine. Who gives a shit?
“I would rather people didn’t think I was gay, but I don’t ‘rather’ it a whole lot. It doesn’t upset me a whole lot, and I’ve been to gay bars with friends and I don’t worry about it. If that’s where you want to go, OK. If you want to go to Studio One, OK. If you want to go to American Boy, OK. I’m not going to The Manhole, though!” he grins.
All this activity is nothing new. In school, he played horn in the orchestra, later switching to violin to get better parts. he played organ in church for two years, has played piano since he was nine and has been known to earn a crust playing in bars. he still plays for fun on his recent (and rare) indulgence - a Yamaha grand piano equipped with stereo speakers.
At Michigan State University, he began studying bio-medical engineering because he was fascinated with the idea of making artificial hearts and kidneys. A year into the medical course, having worked like crazy, he found him self 58th in a class of 60.
Switching to philosophy, he started reading Aristotle and Thoreau. “I said, ‘Wow, this is heavy, this is hot! Wow, I’m an intellectual.’ Then after a while I thought, ‘I think this is bullshit!’”
He also took up football - training almost eight hours a day and putting on an extra 50 pounds. Unfortunately, he found himself benched.
At night, Hexum worked as a deejay “Yukon Jack,” making his way around six local radio stations.
Hexum collected his diploma on a Saturday and two days later was on a plane, heading for New York and an acting career. He then started poring over the trade papers, cultivating casting directors, chatting up secretaries, and sending out 300 pictures and resumes a week.
At night, he took jobs as a busboy, bouncer, waiter and bartender, and during the day landed a few minor modeling jobs.
“I worked at a disco in Times Square,” he smiles. “Four thousand people, all decadent as hell. All the drugs, all the drinks, 22 bartenders at peak business. I lied my way in there, too -- I could only do three drinks. People would try and order a Brandy Alexander, and I’d say, ‘I can give you rum and coke, a screwdriver or beer. That’s all we make in this section. You want to see the manager? He’s over there.’ Meanwhile someone else would say, ‘I’ll have a rum and coke.’ I lasted five weeks like that.
It was at this point that Bob Le Mond came on the scene. He saw Hexum cleaning a friend’s apartment. “There’s no denying his looks,” Le Mond concedes, “ but everyone under 25 is gorgeous these days. Managers don’t handle many people, so you go with people you believe will be stars. Jon-Erik has what I call star energy.”
In the Voyagers! series which is now in syndication, Hexum plays a sixteenth-century pirate recruited to travel through time and keep history on the right track. “You know, stuff like making sure Thomas Edison did invent the light bulb and didn’t quit and become a librarian, which is what he had planned to do.”
Five weeks after he finished Voyagers! he landed Male Model with Joan Collins, who was hotter than a fireball at that point.
Hexum recalls his somewhat bizarre audition: “There was Joan, all dressed up in a green dress, high hells, earrings, the makeup, the hair and stuff. She said, “Hi, I’m Joan Collins’. I said, ‘I know.’
“We had about five scenes to do and Joan got right into it. We were sitting on the couch in front of about 25 people from the studio. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really weird! Hollywood!‘“
Halfway through the third scene, Joan smiled, everyone exchanged knowing looks, and Aaron Spelling leaned over, said ‘Congratulations’ and sent Hexum shopping for $9,000 worth of clothes in a chauffeured limousine. Five days later he was on the set.
“I was trying to be really kind of cool and slick. Hey, no big deal. But really I’m going ‘Wow! Shit!’ During one scene, I said: ‘Joan, I really don’t think you should get up on that line.’ She said, ‘Good God, darling, you’re a director, too! I have an idea: Why don’t you do your part and I’ll do mine!’ And I said, ‘We could try that!’”
Rumors of a romance were sparked when Aaron Spelling invited the cast to a charity party. “So we all got in the limousine. I was in my tux, and the cameras were going like crazy. Joan smiled and said, ‘We’re going to be in the papers.’ Boom! Next week, cover.”
But Hexum insists they were just friends. And it is highly unlikely that Hexum would choose to support Joan’s expensive tastes. Obviously, his family’s financial struggles taught him the value of money early on, but Hexum guards his dollars as though they’re about to go out of print.
Of course, there’s no rule book that says he has to emulate a flashy, film-star lifestyle. If the prospect of parting with $250 for a couch gives him indigestion, why should he buy one? He’s the one who’ll have to sit on boxes. And if he likes sharing his three-bedroom Burbank home with four male roomates, why shouldn’t he cover his mortgage payments, live rent free and make a couple hundred bucks on top?
If it’s beer cans he like collecting, why affect an affinity for Renoirs? If he’s happy in his 1972 Maverick, why fork out for a Mercedes? “It’s very simple,” he says. “I hold onto the cash because you don’t know what is going to happen.”
And let us not forget that he has progressed from sharing an 8-by-12-foot room in Venice with two illegal aliens. (He paid $70 a month for that place - even after he’d shot the Voyagers! pilot.) And he did spend $280 for a bed (on sale). And he did buy the Yamaha piano.
Hexum earned $10,000 a week for his 22 episodes of Voyagers! and $50,000 on Male Model, so it has been a while since he was on the breadline. But he likes to stash his money away toward his pet project - getting his film production company rolling.
“I don’t get a kick out of buying things, so there’s no real sacrifice involved. But even so, I’m real careful. I don’t go out to dinner a whole lot,” he comments.
Neither does he treat his dates. It’ll be a cold day in hell before a gold digger gets her claws into him - or would want to. “I treat the girls I go out with like friends,” he explains. “I say, ‘Why am I paying? I don’t get it.’ They say, ‘Well, you’re the guy.’ I say, ‘So?’ they say, ‘Well, because you make more money.’ I say, ‘Well, are you eating half of the meal? Did you see the movie? Then why am I paying? Because I have more money and I’m the guy?” I don’t understand that.
“One girl got in a bad mood because I picked her up in the Maverick instead of the Chevy. Then we went to a movie and I paid for it because it was kind of awkward. We got popcorn and all that other stuff, and I paid for that. Now I’m getting in a bad mood. Then we went to eat something. I pulled into Denny’s. She said, ‘I don’t mean to make trouble, but I don’t eat here.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ I took her home. I didn’t see her again.
Well at least no one can accuse him of being a chauvinist. Hexum doesn’t think he’ll marry for years, but predicts he’ll probably choose a strong lady with a career. “I like strong women because I’m kind of tough in that way. I don’t like people who don’t accept responsibility. If they don’t have what they want and they’re not doing anything to get it, it’s their fault; I hate it when they start dumping on everyone else about their terrible lot in life.”
He doesn’t often fall in love these days, or even in major infatuation. “Maybe I got a little burned out or something. There are a lot of beautiful, stunning women out there - but that in itself doesn’t really thrill me. A woman’s personality is much more exciting than her appearance.”
He’s used to admiration and has confronted some blatant overtures: “I had one girl in Cleveland show up at the airport in four-inch spike heels and an overcoat.” He pauses for effect. “Yes, that’s it. And six yellow roses. I’ve seen her twice. I get naked pictures and stuff in the mail. The crew get those; we’ve got them pinned up.”
How anxious is Hexum to become a big star? “ I don’t have an perverted desire about fame,” he says. “I don’t think about it much. What I think about all the time is the quality of my work - I have a lot of anxiety about that. I’m real unhappy with a lot of things about Cover-Up, but I’m sure that a lot of people at Exxon are unhappy with the way that company is run. Or the corner drugstore. But I’m wildly appreciative to be here.”
Hexum has reservations about the amount of violence in Cover-Up and other TV shows, but says he sees nothing wrong in hot, sexy scenes in films because, he says, they reflect reality. “People get very passionate sometimes. It happens, so it’s appropriate. Whether the actions are good or bad is something each person has to decide. But movies and literature and the arts help people to make those evaluations, those moral decisions. I don’t think ignoring the subject is the answer; you can if you want to- you don’t have to go to sexually frank movies - but I don’t think it’s healthy to close your eyes completely.
“There are so many people who don’t know about sex and passion between people, and what it is they go through and if it’s OK to make noise or not. Or what if you fall off the bed? All the things that can really happen.
“Why not show that? There are a lot of people who don’t know, and what the hell, that’s what the arts are for, seeing other people’s life in perspective, seeing what the world is about. And sex is a big part of being alive.”