May 14, 2015

Henry Willson: The Man Who Invented Beefcake

During the Cold War of the 1950s, the Clark Gable-Cary Grant- Fernando Lamas model of  masculinity, the suave, sophisticated bon-vivants who sipped champaign at El Crocadero, fell into disfavor.  Movies began to display a new model of "youthful masculinity" featuring regular guys, small-town boys who sipped sodas at maltshops.   They had to be wholesome -- God-fearing, mother-respecting, patriotic -- yet sexual, overbrimming with erotic energy, aware (without stating it) that sometimes things happened in bedrooms.

They had to be stunningly handsome, of course, and muscular -- for the first time ever in the movies, they would rip their shirts off regularly, providing a beefcake spectacle that might draw audiences away from the still-prudish tv.

Walt Disney and his minions scoured the countryside to provide a stable of Adventure Boys for the teen and preteen audience -- James McArthur, Roger Mobley, Boomer East, David Stollery,  Tommy Kirk, Tim Considine, and many others.

For adult beefcake, the go-to guy was talent agent extraordinaire Henry Willson.

 Born in 1911, Willson began his career as a talent scout for the Zeppo Marx Agency, where he signed on future film great Lana Turner.  In 1943, he became the head of the talent division for David O. Selznick's Vanguard Pictures.  He and his assistants prowled gyms, modeling agencies, athletic events, and community theaters looking for prospects. Muscle Beach was a good bet, training ground to dozens of bodybuilder hopefuls drawn in by Earle E. Liederman's chatty columns in Muscle Power.

Since he was gay, Willson tended sign up men who were gay, or bisexual, or at least "gay for pay."   He spruced them up, arranged for acting lessons and gym memberships, and gave them strong, macho, all-American names:

Orton Whipple Hungerford III = Ty Hardin
Robert Mosely = Guy Madison
Francis Durgan = Rory Calhoun
Merle Johnson = Troy Donahue
Roy Harold Scherer = Rock Hudson

They present a straight facade to the world, of course, so Willson conspired with movie magazines and gossip columnists to send them on dates with female stars or link them romantically with in-the-know starlets.  Sometimes he even arranged "Hollywood marriages."  It seems that the "hiding in plain sight" was part of their appeal, adding a salacious twinge, "is he or isn't he"?


In 1953, Willson opened his own agency.  He didn't need to seek out prospects anymore; he was receiving 9,000 letters per week from high school football players and small-town thesbians anxious to make it big.  And some did -- if they were willing to make it on the casting couch first, or at least flirt a bit.  Almost every Hollywood hunk of the new beefcake model got his start as a Willson boy:

Doug McClure
James Darren
Chad Everett
Dack Rambo (left)

John Saxon
Nick Adams
Clint Walker (left)
John Derek
James Gavin

Willson didn't care for bodybuilders, except for Cal Bolder -- they had to find their representation elsewhere. And a few other hunks managed to find work without him.  But even if they weren't discovered by Willson, they often realized that connections are everything, and gay, bi, or straight, they became regulars at his weekly pool parties:

Ed Fury
Farley Granger
Van Williams
Robert Stack


Roddy McDowall
Steve Reeves
Tony Curtis
Aldo Ray
John Bromfield
Gary Conway
Gary Lockwood
Richard Long
Robert Wagner (left)

Disaster hit in 1955, when Willson made a deal with Confidential magazine to keep the rumors off Rock Hudson in exchange for a story about Tab Hunter's arrest at a gay party in 1950 (the actor and agent had a falling out).  The deal fell through, and Willson was effectively outed.  His established clients left -- most denied that they had ever met him -- and it became difficult to sign new clients.

During the 1960s, the fresh-faced, wholesome look became  "square," replaced by shaggy and androgynous,  and Willson's career ended.  Destitute, drinking heavily, forgotten by his former friends, he moved into a rest home for indigent Hollywood stars, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.

But he left an amazing legacy, a 1950s world where "gay" was always just beneath the surface.