Dec 15, 2012

Who's the Boss

Many 1980s sitcoms had an anti-nuclear family
message.  Moms and dads were utterly inadequate at raising children; it took an outsider -- a college kid (Charles in Charge), a proper English butler (Mr. Belvedere), a white guy (Webster, Diff'rent Strokes) -- or a hunky working-class schmoo from Brooklyn.

Who's the Boss (1986-92) transformed Taxi hunk Tony Danza into Tony Micelli, housekeeper to uptight Angela Bower (Judith Light) and her blond waif son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro, previously Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream).  Tony's daughter Sam (Alyssa Milano) and Angela's horny mother, Mona (Katherine Helmond) filled out the household.

Let's review: Tony Danza, who played a gay-positive character on Taxi and posed for the gay magazine In Touch. Judith Light, a tireless proponent of gay rights.  Gay ally Alyssa Milano. Katherine Helmond from the gay-positive sitcom Soap.  Sounds tailor-made for a gay-positive sitcom.

Nope.  No gay characters, no gay references.  At least Tony is cool with the kids' gender-transgressive interests; Sam's passion for basketball and Jonathan's for gymnastics. But the main plot arc involved everyone trying to set up Tony and Angela, who for some reason denied that they were attracted to each other.

Meanwhile everyone in the cast, including Jonathan, was busily falling for the wrong person, cheating on their partner, accepting and then rejecting marriage proposals, worrying about prom dates.

Fortunately, there was a lot of beefcake.  Angela kept stumbling across Tony in the shower or wearing only a towel. When Danny Pintauro became a flamboyantl gay adolescent, he got some shirtless and semi-nude shots in teen magazines.

Sam had a series of hunky boyfriends, such as Jesse (Scott Bloom left, with brothers Brian and Mikey).  And the super-stud Billy Gallo had a recurring role as "Mr. Al."

In 1997, five years after the program ended, Danny Pintauro was outed in The National Enquirer.  His tv family was supportive, except for Tony, who later said "The Danny I knew died last year."  But in 2005, they reconciled enough for Danny to appear on Tony's talk show. They discussed their memories of Who's the Boss, but carefully avoided any mention of "it."

Dec 14, 2012

Alf: from Melmac to West Hollywood

Alf (1986-90) was one of the "I've got a secret" sitcoms of the late 1980s (others included Harry and the Hendersons, Out of This World, and My Secret Identity).  It aired on Monday nights, opposite the female buddy-bonding Kate and Allie and the hunkfest MacGyver, so I rarely watched.  But you couldn't miss hearing about Alf, the sarcastic, irreverent Alien Life Form who crash-lands on Earth and imposes himself upon a nuclear family: nebbish Dad Willie Tanner, Mom Kate, eye-rolling teenage daughter Lynn, lonely preteen son Brian (Benji Gregory), and outcast Cousin Jake (Josh Blake).

Like all of the "family friendly" sitcoms of the 1980s, gay people did not exist.  Gay actor Jim J. Bullock had a recurring role as Uncle Neal, but his character was heterosexual.  Actually, every character was heterosexual.  Alf had a girlfriend back home, and started dating a blind woman (who didn't realize that he was an alien). Even ten-year old Brian had his share of crushes on girls (later photo, left).

Some teen idol attention fell upon Josh Blake, with some shirtless and semi-nude photos in teen magazines. His character was heterosexual, too, but his awkward attempts to form emotional connections with Alf allow for some gay readings.

Alf ended on a cliffhanger, with the government discovering Alf and carting him away.  Five years later, the movie Project Alf (1995) continues his story.  Fans were universally livid with rage; the Tanners were absent (none of the original cast wanted to be involved) and Alf was portrayed as far more antisocial and belligerent than in the tv series.  And he gets to make a homophobic crack about the army's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Bobby Sherman: Here Come the Brides

Here Come the Brides (1968-70) was a quasi-Western that delivered lots of bare chested bravado and created two teen idols. In the back story, the idyllic frontier Seattle of the 19th century is inhabited by hundreds of tall, broad-shouldered men in tight jeans, but no women except the matronly Lottie (Joan Blondell), who runs the local saloon. So far it sounds like a homoerotic Eden, but then the three Bolt brothers, Jason (Robert Brown), Joshua (David Soul), and Jeremy (Bobby Sherman)  get the idea that some of the men might be interested in women, so they arrange for some to be transported from Boston. These aren’t mail order brides, however; they live in a dormitory with chaperones, waiting to be courted nice and proper.

Few courtships and fewer marriages actually occurred during the show’s two-year run. Instead, plots mostly involved the brothers facing shady lumber dealers, crotchety prospectors, decadent Shakespearean actors, wannabe Mormons, snake-oil hucksters, and miscellaneous scalawags. Bobby Sherman played youngest brother Jeremy, a shy outsider and a stutterer, as cuddly as a teddy bear, yet muscular enough to wander around Seattle with his shirt off. Although he was sweet on one of the brides, his plotlines were never heterosexist. He rescued boys from marauders and evildoers, or else got carried off by the marauders and evildoers himself, tied in a back room while his older brothers mounted daring rescue. And sometimes he sang.

Born in 1943, Bobby Sherman had been performing since the mid-1960’s, but his career didn’t take off until he became Jeremy Bolt. Within a year he had four charting singles, and his anthem, “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?,” hit #2 in September 1970. His first two albums were boring: most songs had “girl” as every other word and even a titular protestation of Bobby’s heterosexuality, such as “Little Woman” or “She’s a Lady.”

The only gay content was in “Hey, Mr. Sun": the lonely singer notes that “I've been running all my life / In search of something I can't find,” but then he looks up and realizes that “Mr. Sun” will always be beside him. It is only a small step from the sun to a human boy who will “tap me on the shoulder and whisper to me from behind / Remind me of the yesterdays I tried alone.”

With Love, Bobby (1970) and Portrait of Bobby (1970) were more interesting, with gender-neutral songs like “Spend Some Time Loving Me” and “Message to My Brother,” as well as the strangely seductive “Sweet Gingerbread Man,” originally sung in the gay-friendly Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart, starring Don Johnson (1970).  Pop music aimed at preteens often associates sexual desire with food, as in Archies’ "Sugar Sugar" (“You are my candy girl”) and the 1910 Fruit Gum Company’s "Yummy" (“I’ve got love in my tummy”). And in this case the object of Bobby's desire is “all tasty and tan, sweet gingerbread man.”

In 1971-72 Bobby starred with Wes Stern in the gay-subtext Getting Together.   When his teen idol star faded, he became a EMT.

Married and divorced twice, Bobby is reputedly bisexual.  According to a 2011 biography, he and gay actor Sal Mineo became lovers during the 1970s, before Sal settled down with his long-term partner. 

Dec 13, 2012

Dungeons and Dragons

When I was in college in the early 1980s, every boy was expected to spend the early part of every week screwing up his courage to ask out The Girl, the one who walked in slow motion across the quad, her hair blowing in the wind.  If she agreed, he would spend Friday or Saturday night with her, dancing to Depeche Mode, watching Cannonball Run, and having sex.  This was his goal in life, all he could ever want or hope for or dream of.

If she refused, he would be forced to endure the humiliation of hanging out with other boys, eating take-out pizza and playing Dungeons and Dragons and waiting to try again iwith a new girl.

No one understood that many boys liked to eat pizza and play Dungeons and Dragons.  Especially those whose goal in life was to spend time with boys, not girls.

Gary Gygax invented the fantasy role-playing game in 1974, and by 1978 it was a phenomenon, being played in high school and college dorm rooms all over the world.  You developed a character (Elf, Dwarf, Wizard, Barbarian, and so on), endowed him with abilities (Strength, Charisma, Intelligence) and trekked with other characters through a heroic fantasy world, solving dilemmas and fighting enemies as you searched for a fabulous treasure.  

My character was usually a titan.

Six hours in a dim room with that cute chemistry major on one side and that hunky fratboy on the other, sitting so close that your legs sometimes brushed together and an occasional smooth bare chest was visible through buttons that had come undone.  Channeling the worlds of Conan the Barbarian or The Lord of the Rings. Pretending to be Boris Vallejo musclemen, without the nude ladies.  Plus you got pizza.  What's not to like?

The adults disapproved, of course, thinking D&D players were abandoning the real world, turning psychotic, or worshipping the Devil.  Several movies in the early 1980s featured teenagers turned catatonic or suicidal by the insidious board game.  For instance, in Mazes and Monsters (1982), some college kids (including Tom Hanks and Chris Makepeace) play in creepy caverns, and Robbie (Tom) gets so lost in the game that attacks his friends with a sword.

But we were just engaging in a little male bonding.  And sometimes Dungeons and Dragons games developed into something involving unzipping, nudity, and sausage sightings.

See also: 6 Naked Men in a Dorm Room

Dennis Quaid

One of the movies I saw in the famous summer of 1978 was Seniors.  It was a terrible teen-sex comedy with one redeeming characteristic: a remarkably buffed, underwear-clad hunk named Dennis Quaid.

During the summer of Meatballs (1979), I saw him again, in the buddy comedy Breaking Away.  In the university town of Bloomington, Indiana, a group of working-class boys contemplate their future while swimming semi-nude in the limestone quarry where their dads work.  The hunky Mike (Dennis Quaid) wants to "light out to the territory" and become a cowboy. Moocher (Jackie Earl Haley) wants to marry his girlfriend. Dave (Dennis Christopher), wants to become Italian and win The Girl.

But you could easily ignore the heterosexist plot and concentrate on the primal beauty of the four friends sunning on the limestone.  In the end it was about friendship.

Strangely, Dennis didn't show off his physique much during the 1980s, but he did a lot of buddy-bonding. In Enemy Mine (1985), a future soldier and his enemy, a Drac named "Jerry" (Louis Gossett Jr.), are stranded,  and develop a touching, homoromantic bond.

They end up having a child together (boy Dracs don't need girl Dracs to get pregnant). When Jerry dies, Davidge raises the child alone, and after they are rescued, returns with him to the Drac planet.

In Far From Heaven (2002), Dennis goes beyond homoerotic subtexts to play a conventionally married businessman in the 1950s who recognizes and explores his gay identity, while simultaneously his wife establishes a interracial romantic friendship.

Dennis  is even more ripped today than in 1978. How many 50-year olds do you know with an 8-pack?

Dec 12, 2012

Bobby and the Beanstalk

I liked Greek mythology, and to a lesser extent Norse, but I hated fairy tales.  Even when I was little.  There were three main sources, none with many fairies.

The Grimm Brothers (one of whom was gay): mostly about children being threatened by evil parents or stepparents (Hansel and Gretel, Snow White)
Charles Perrault: mostly about girls being threatened by evil suitors (Red Riding Hood, Bluebird).
Hans Christian Andersen (who was gay): mostly about people dying.

So I wasn't happy on the night of February 26th, 1967, when Mom and Dad insisted that we watch a live-action version of Jack and the Beanstalk instead of  It's About Time.

It was even worse than I anticipated: they turned it into a "fade out kiss" heterosexist fable. Jeremy, the peddler who sells Jack the magic beans, becomes his companion in the quest to climb the beanstalk and steal from the giant.  They rescue Princess Serena, who has been transformed into a talking harp and can only be restored with a kiss.  Upon returning to Earth, Jeremy discovers that Jack's mother looks exactly like Princess Serena -- maybe they're the same person -- so they fall in love.  There's even a love theme -- "One Starry Moment."

Cover your eyes, groan, and rush downstairs to your room to read comic books.

But there were three things for gay kids to like in Jack and the Beanstalk.

1. The 1960s was overloaded with "precocious" kids who claimed to be experts on adult heterosexual practice or even doted on girls themselves.  But Jack (9-year old Bobby Riha) is utterly oblivious to feminine beauty and  disapproves of "love junk."

Bobby Riha was a popular child actor through the 1960s, with a starring role on The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969-70) and guest shots on Mannix, Bonanza, Bewitched, and The Brady Bunch (not this episode; I just like this picture of Greg).  

He retired from acting in the mid-1970s, and is now a professional photographer.

2. Jeremy was played by Gene Kelly, the star of a dozen gay-subtext musicals: Anchors Aweigh, Singin  in the Rain, On the Town, The Pirate, and finally Xanadu. I had never heard of him in 1967, but you couldn't miss the bulging muscles.  He could outmatch Burt Ward's Boy Wonder anytime.

He was never shirtless or nude on camera, but off camera -- that's another matter.

3. The Woggle Bird Song was kind of cool, with a "be true to yourself" message.

Matthew Lawrence

Born in 1980, Matthew Lawrence is Joey's younger brother, just as muscular, and even more gay-friendly (if that is possible).  It is  hard to think of a project he's been in that didn't involve extensive buddy bonding.

1. The tv series Boy Meets World (1993-2000) was mostly about the romance between high schoolers Cory (Ben Savage) and Shawn (Rider Strong) -- even Cory's girlfriend Topanga (Danielle Fishel) commented on it.

But when Cory married, they needed a new buddy-bond, so during the 1999-2000 season, Matthew arrived as Jack Hunter, Shawn's older half-brother, who immediately fell in love with Cory's older brother Eric (Will Friedle).

2. In Jumping Ship (2001), Matthew plays Jake Hunter, a sullen sailor hired by Michael Woods (Joey Lawrence) to sail him and his brother (Andy Lawrence) to Australia.  On the way they are shipwrecked, learn to work together and care for each other (with their shirts off, naturally), and by the time they are rescued, they have become permanent partners.  The movie ends as Michael is introducing his new partner to his dad.

3. In Cheats (2002), about high schoolers who run a test-cheating business, Victor (Matthew) is obviously in love with Handsome (Trevor Fehrman).  Yes, he's actually named Handsome.

Cheats has some overt gay content: Handsome pretends to be gay to score a passing grade from a gay teacher, and starts a "lesbian rumor" about the school principal, played by comedy legend Mary Tyler Moore.

He also rips his shirt off.

4. In The Hot Chick, Billy (Matthew) discovers that his girlfriend has been transported into the body of a 30-year old man, Clive (Rob Schneider).  He responds with surprise, but without the least homophobic disgust.  Ok, he can't bring himself to actually kiss Clive, but lots of gay men would be equally squeamish about kissing and um. . .the other stuff,  if their boyfriends suddenly turned into girls (others wouldn't mind, of course, figuring that love is love regardless of the body).

In case you were wondering, yes, he does take his shirt off in almost every movie.

See also: Joey Lawrence; Andrew Lawrence.

Dec 11, 2012

The 24 Months of Jon-Erik Hexum

In the early 1980s, we were holding out for a hero.  As the song goes,

He's gotta be sure, and it's gotta be soon,
And he's gotta be bigger than life.

We got Jon-Erik Hexum.  But he was a gift to the world for only 24 months.

Born in New Jersey to Norwegian parents, Jon-Erik hit the L.A. scene days after he graduated from Michigan State in 1980.  He had a number of failed auditions, mostly because casting agents didn't know what to do with him.  He couldn't be a New Sensitive Man: he was massive, with a swoon-inducing hairy chest, massive shoulders, and biceps like baseballs.  But his dark blue eyes, pretty face, and well-groomed hair disqualified him from roles as man-mountains who fight off enemy armies with their fists.

In the fall of 1982, they cast him in the science fiction series Voyagers!: he and his young ward (Meeno Peluce) traveled through time, making sure that historical events turned out right.

It was put on Sunday nights opposite 60 Minutes, which the oldsters liked, and just before Chips: obviously aimed at an audience of kids, especially gay boys, who couldn't forget the sight of Jon-Erik in a brown vest and a white shirt unbuttoned to his navel.

Voyagers! wrapped up after 20 episodes, and Jon-Erik spent the next year being courted as the Next Big Thing.

He starred with super-famous Joan Collins in a tv-movie, The Making of a Male Model (1983).

He played a Prince on an episode of Hotel (1984).

He co-starred with Gary Busey in the football drama The Bear (1984).

There were rumors of destructive behavior, fast cars, all-night clubbing, orgies, drugs.  Maybe they were just rumors.  Or maybe Jon-Erik was becoming too famous, too fast.

He was often seen dancing in gay clubs, so maybe he was gay in real life.  Or maybe he just liked the adoration of both male and female fans.

Later in 1984 he landed the starring role in Cover-Up, a tv series about a male model and a female photographer who go undercover in exotic locations to solve crimes. He filmed six episodes.

While filming the seventh, on October 12th, 1984, he was playing Russian roulette with a gun loaded with blanks. Or maybe he was just joking around.  Apparently he didn't know that at close range, blanks can kill.

Cover-Up tried to slog on without him, but after 22 episodes it was cancelled.

The world tried to slog on without him, too.

The Last Boy on Earth: Kamandi and his buddy Ben

In 1972, Marvel began to publish two comic book series about gay-vague teenage boys: Werewolf by Night, about a teenage werewolf, and Kamandi, about the last human boy on Earth.

An attempt to capitalize on the popularity of The Planet of the Apes franchise (1968, 1970, 1971, 1972), it is set an a post-Apocalyptic world where sentient animals rule (everything from apes to rats), and humans are extinct.

Except for Kamandi, the last of the human survivors bunkered in Command-D (thus his name), who is raised by his elderly grandfather and emerges into chaos, hunted for sport, imprisoned in a zoo, experimented on by scientists who want to know how a human could be sentient.

Though described as "a boy" and "a tyke," Kamadi is drawn as an extremely muscular teenage with long blond hippie-hair, naked except for tight cut-off jeans.

He is captured a lot, muscles taught and struggling.  Or he fights with high kicks that display his bulging pecs and 8-pack abs almost as well.

Just as the werewolf, Jack Russell, had a middle-aged boyfriend, Kamandi soon meets other humans (he's the last boy on Earth, not the last man). He is rescued by Ben Boxer, leader of an underground human-resistance movement, and his colleagues, Steve and Renzi, who are not shy about physical displays of affection.

For the next 30 issues, Ben and Kamandi fight together, rescue each other, search the ruined cities for each other.  Kamandi occasionally meets girls, momentary dalliances that mean nothing.  And there is no question for Ben: he has eyes only for the blond muscle god.

See also: Jim Steranko; and DC Comics Muscle.

Dec 10, 2012

An Old Steve Reeves Movie

20 years before Arnold Schwarzenegger personalized the bodybuilder, a decade before William Smith brought bodybuilding Western heroes out of the closet, Steve Reeves became an icon for gay and straight men -- but mostly in Italy, with his voice dubbed in by someone else.

Born in 1926 in Montana, Reeves developed a massive physique during the 1940s, when it was still considered a weird affectation.  After minor roles in U.S. movies and tv sitcoms -- and physique shots in Bob Mizner's pro-gay Physique Pictorial -- he moved to Italy, where the peplum or sword-and-sandal genre promoted Italian nationalism through man-mountains in togas who wandered around the ancient world, fighting oppressors.

Reeves' Hercules (1957) became a sensation, even after it was released in the U.S. in 1959, and spun Reeves into a sequel, Hercules Unchained (1959), as well as a Hercules fad in comics and on tv.

 Soon Reeves was playing every ancient hero the studio could dig up or invent, 15 in all: Goliath (not the Biblical Goliath), Glaucus (from The Last Days of Pompeii), Morgan the Pirate, The Thief of Baghdad, Agi Murad,  and Phidippides  (I've never heard of most of them, either).

The plots were similar: Hercules, or Goliath, or Agi Murad fights to help a civilization throw off the yoke of a tyrannical oppressor, gets captured and tortured, rejects the advances of an evil black-haired woman and rescues and marries a good blonde-haired woman.

His lines were dubbed in English in post-production, so no one heard his real voice except in two American movies, the bodybuilder-exploitation Athena and the police drama Jailbait.

There is minimal buddy-bonding, as in the original Hercules, where the demigod tags along with Jason and the Argonauts.  But both Hercules and Jason fall in love with women, and at the end of the movie they part.

In Romulus and Remus (Duel of the Titans, 1961), Romulus (Steve Reeves) and Remus (Gordon Scott) are raised as brothers, and fight the evil oppressors together.  But then one becomes good, and the other evil, and they must duel to the death.

Gay fans had to make do with Steve Reeves' superlative musculature, which was displayed extensively in every movie.

He retired in 1967 after an injury,  and devoted the next 33 years to promoting fitness and raising horses on his ranch in central California.  No information on whether he supported his gay fans, but since they were an integral part of his fame, one imagines that he enjoyed  the homage in The Rocky Horror Picture Show , where Dr. Frank-N-Furter tells Brad and Janet:

If you want something visual, that's not too abysmal,
We could take in an old Steve Reeves movie.

The Greeks Had a Word for It

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I loved the beefcake potential of Greek myths:
Jason and the Argonauts
Clash of the Titans (about Perseus)
Michael Forest played Apollo on an episode of Star Trek.

 Casper the Friendly Ghost visited the Elysian Fields, an island in the sky inhabited by Apollo, Hermes, Zeus, and Pan, all with teen-idol cute faces and beautifully sculpted physiques.

And Hercules in cartoon (The Mighty Hercules), in Italian sword-and-sandal epics starring Steve Reeves, in comic books (Adventures of the Man-God Hercules).

There weren't many toys.  No action figures (this was before the 1997 Disney version). The syndicated tv series Sons of Hercules (1965) spawned a puzzle with a muscle hero apparently being kicked in the crotch (if you put it together in just the right way, those hooves looked like something else).  And a board game with two nearly naked heroes pairing off in a Roman arena.

But the books that I picked up at garage sales and library discard sales were great.  They usually had amazingly buffed gods and heroes on the covers.

Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch, depicted a slim, bare-chested Icarus, wings spread, flying too close to the sun.

Gods, Heroes, and Men, by W. H.D. Rouse, depicted Icarus again, but this time his bronze, muscular body is falling out of the wispy lavender stuff he uses for clothing.  Were they expecting gay kids to be the primary audience?

Edith Hamilton's Mythology depicted a bronze, amazingly ripped Perseus, completely naked, with a phallic sword rising. The logo said it was from a statue by Benvenuto Cellini.  So if I went to wherever the statue was displayed, I could see the parts that the sword was hiding!

Unfortunately, the texts inside closeted the gods and heroes, emphasizing their heterosexual loves and demoting their many, many same-sex loves to mere friendships, if they were mentioned at all.  My high school class in Greek Mythology and my college class in Greek Literature did the same, joyfully erasing same-sex experience from the ancient world.