Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ultrahot Furry Obsession

I first discovered the British sci-fi show UFO in the late 1980s in reruns on cable TV, where I managed to catch it only intermittently. So it took me a long time to figure out that the events of the show, produced in 1970, were actually taking place in 1980 – that is, already almost a decade in the past. This made the show even quirkier than I think its creators intended – it was like instant retro-future, automatic camp.

But the show was more than just a pile of kitschy clich├ęs – as seemed to be the case with so much Brit TV from that time period, it combined great acting with mediocre writing and piss-poor set and costume design. So frequently the dramatic tone of an episode would be dramatically at odds with its packaging. In other words, it really helped if you got stoned to watch it.

So while the promise of weird sci-fi lured me to the show in the first place, what kept me watching it long after I tired of the premise was Michael Billington, who played a supporting character, Paul Foster. (It seems that Brits at the time liked their lead heroes to be brainy leaders, relegating muscle to middle management. Americans, of course, want it all in one package: the leader must be a good looking stud, and at the same time brainy or at least street smart - but never, of course, merely “book smart”.)

Billington was one of those hairy, well-muscled Brits, like Sean Connery and young Jason Statham, whose natural-seeming buffness is just so much hotter than the gym rat look that even teen idol American stars strive for today. Then again, the show was made in 1970, and HGH and fat blockers and personal trainers were non-existent, so natural buffness was pretty much the only kind available (oh allright, natural buffness possibly aided by some free weight reps). Billington’s presence, his handsome face and muscular body covered with beautiful dark brown fur, was the most humanizing element in the spacey series; his earthiness contrasting nicely with the silver uniforms and fembot-like worker drone gals and his boss’s Bowie-esque bleached platinum hair (the lead character, Ed Straker, played by Paul Bishop, often in a wig), like an antique mahogany desk in an IKEA showroom.

Some shots of Billington in roles prior to UFO:

The show didn’t last long, and I never saw Billington in any other role, but a nice warm spot is reserved in my psyche for the nearly naked Paul Foster sitting in a steambath, pouring water over his chest, and singing in a delicious baritone, “Beautiful Dreamer…”

UFO had some interesting uniforms.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Best Chest in the Wild Wild West

To my knowledge there’s never been a “When Did You First Know?” poll, but if there were, I’d bet heavily that “watching Wild Wild West reruns” would take the number one spot for gay/bi men who grew up in the 60s through 80s. In forum after forum whenever this question is asked, several replies commenting on Robert Conrad’s chaps, cheeks, and, especially, chest immediately hit the board. And whenever someone brings up the subject of Conrad as Old West secret agent James West, any number of guys volunteer that watching his handsome face and muscular pecs/abs/buns, frequently in leather chaps and/or bondage, was how they first knew they were attracted to men.

It’s easy to see why. Even without Conrad, The Wild Wild West was one of the campiest and kinkiest TV shows in the most campy-kinky decade of all, the Pop Sixties of Andy Warhol and Batman and Emma Peel. Combining as it did Western, sci-fi, and spy genres, The WWW took advantage of every opportunity those genres offer – which is plenty – for softcore bondage and shirtless hero striptease. In this context, almost any handsome, decently built actor playing the part of the oft stripped-and-bound James West would have become the object of budding young homosexual lust. But because that actor was the incredibly ripped and exquisitely handsome Robert Conrad, The Wild Wild West was off-the-charts sexy.


Conrad had the perfect male torso (make that the perfect male upper body, since his biceps, shoulders, forearms and even back muscles were all perfection as well). His pecs were sharply defined, thick, shield-shaped filets of macho man-meat; his abs looked like they were etched in steel by Dr. No’s laser beam. And both were coated with just the right amount of beautiful brown man-fur.

And then there was the face. At the start of The Wild Wild West, Conrad was in his prime and was about as handsome as any leading man Hollywood has ever produced. He looked like some mad scientist – Dr. Franknfurter if not Dr. Loveless - had taken Tony Curtis and genetically reworked him to make him simultaneously both prettier and more ruggedly masculine. Conrad’s bright green eyes (which often looked blue, depending on what he wore), his walnut brown hair, his round boyish face all combined to make him - no other word for it - gorgeous, but his rugged jawline, sharp cheekbones, and heavy beard kept him from looking too pretty or boyish.

But of course, no man is perfect, and in some departments Conrad came up short – all too literally. He was probably no taller than 5’7” and from the waist down he was a bit less hot than from the waist up. His thighs and even calves were muscular but for my tastes too thick and stumpy-looking. On Hawaiian Eye, where he often wore little more than swim trunks and where he was accompanied by taller male, and sometimes even female, stars, he often looked more like a sidekick than a hero, more of a young punk than an alpha male, especially alongside Van Williams or Anthony Eiseley. The producers and directors on Wild Wild West seemed to have been well aware of Conrad’s shortcomings, however, and accentuated the positive, giving him cowboy boots with significant heels and dressing him in a distinctive quasi-Latin American bolero-vaquero outfit, with tight high-waisted pants that made his legs look longer and more slender. They also refrained from shaving his abs as was done on Hawaiian Eye (although on WWW from episode to episode the manner of and degree to which Conrad’s torso fur is trimmed varies from Shatnerian-shaven to practically Baldwinesque), which definitely pumped up the manliness factor. Thus prepared, the WWW producers/writers/directors then, whenever possible, took his shirt off and often tied his wrists behind his back, to prominently project his pecs and abs. “Shamelessly Shirtless Sexiness” would have been as good a description of WWW as “Weird Way-out Western.”

Conrad went on to other notable roles, especially in “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, where he portrayed Pappy Boyington, and on “Battle of the Network Stars”, where he played an asshole (himself), but none of his subsequent roles have endured in the public memory as WWW has. This is due in no small measure to the show itself of course; it was fun, strange, innovative, and action-packed, featuring some of the best fight scenes every filmed up to that time as well as some of the coolest gadgets that 19th superspy technology had to offer (if you want to see the origin of steampunk, look no further than Dr. Loveless’s lab). But the greatest reason for its enduring popularity was Conrad himself, whose James West set a new standard for secret agent studliness.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

To Sir With Lust

On "Shindig" in early 1965, the singing duo Jackie and Gayle, then recently departed from the New Christie Minstrels, performed their debut single, an odd but danceable ditty voicing teenage frustration over the gorgeous but unavailable high school teacher they desired - and the monster mash-up of a faculty they were stuck with instead. "Why can't my teacher look like Mr. Novak?" ("I really want him!"), they warbled in their paean to the hottest educator then (or ever) on TV.

Decades later, I had occasion to ask myself the same question. I was skipping school, something I did a lot but might not have done so habitually if in fact any of my teachers did look like Mr. Novak ("instead of", as Jackie and Gayle put it, "like Mister Ed"). Flipping through TV channels looking for something to satisfy my teenage lust, I chanced upon re-runs of a black and white TV show featuring one of the most handsome men I had ever seen, a wiry blond stud with a ruggedly gorgeous face that practically typified masculine beauty. Now I had seen James Franciscus before, in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" (kind of an understatement actually, as he was my first male crush, and in a big way), but I didn't recognize him in this role. Maybe it was the beard he sported in "Beneath"; while it seemed really sexy in "Apes", he looked even better without it.

But more likely the reason he seemed so strikingly different- and so striking, period - was that the TV show was shot in black and white. In color, Franciscus's golden hair and intense blue eyes and luminescent white teeth and contrasting Mediterranean swarthiness were dazzling distractions; but in black and white you could see just how perfectly shaped his facial features were on their own. Whereas in the movies in which I'd seen him, Franciscus looked like a blazingly colorful comic book hero come to life, in "Mr. Novak" he looked like an archetypal 1940s matinee idol. With "Mr. Novak" reruns as an added incentive, I played hooky quite a bit that year, probably not the behavioral response the show's producers had in mind when they tried to create a series about high school that kids could supposedly "dig".

There's something really hot about authority figures - cops, coaches, Old West lawmen, military officers, even lifeguards (Sam Elliott!) - but until "Novak" I never thought of teachers, especially male teachers, in that light. Suddenly that changed. I was in those days lusting primarily for the shirtless bolero-vaquero look of James West in bondage, or the nearly naked Sam Elliott in a Speedo. But John Novak, fully dressed in his white collar-drone suit, complete with skinny tie, and brandishing a briefcase full of grammar lessons instead of cool weaponry or a surfboard, immediately beat out those semi-nude demi-gods as number one with a bullet on my Hit-That Parade. Suddenly there was nothing more attractive than a lean, clean, razor-cut dude in a suit and tie, which was a weird turnabout for a slobby anti-establishment brat like me. Of course, since I'd already seen Franciscus flaunting his wares for an entire feature film wearing nothing more than a buckskin diaper, my imagination had no trouble placing Mr. Novak in extracurricular situations that required him to set aside his suit and tie and starched BVDs. For educational purposes of course.

I had not seen "Mr. Novak" in many years, but recently some episodes, or clips of them, have found their way onto YouTube and confirmed for me that it wasn't just a trick of memory - Novak really was one of the all time smokin' hot heroes of the tube. It's unlikely that the show will ever be released on DVD, but if it ever is, consider it worth checking out just to see the super-tasty Mr. Franciscus at his hottest and freshest.