Guy Madison had no real ambitions growing up in central California where he was born in 1922. His life was rather unremarkable with his railroad machinist father, homemaker mother, three brothers and one sister. His folks provided food, shelter and safety but there wasn't a lot of guidance beyond stay out of trouble. By and large they were a shy family, not given to bragging or giving less than a hard day's work.
He, too, was shy and might have been nearly pathologically so had he not had that face. In the beginning it embarrassed him terribly, especially when he was out somewhere with his mother and a stranger would call attention to his face. He couldn't believe how he, a klutz, would have an army of adoring girls surrounding him at school dances. As he grew into a blindingly handsome teenager, someone was always telling him that he needed to make a living with his face, a performer of some sort. He thought they were crazy. He was too shy to perform in public. He had a brief stint as a telephone lineman when decided to join the Navy.
All decked out in his Navy whites, he was in Los Angeles when he attended a broadcast of the then-popular Lux Radio Theater. Can you imagine what this man looked like in a uniform? Gay talent agent Henry Willson practically got a case of the vapors watching the handsome young man from across a crowded room. Willson was a talent scout in those days for producer David O. Selznick and knew that the boss was looking for an unknown to play a sailor in his currently-filming Since You Went Away (1944). Willson told him he was going to be in the movies and young Robert Moseley, as he was known then, couldn't quite believe what he was hearing.
It's only one scene, Willson, declared, just be yourself. Willson had a tendency to fawn over handsome young men and was longing for the day when he could be a full-time agent and have his own stable of talent... or whatever they called it in those days. He wanted mainly men to sponsor, they had to be gorgeous and willing and eager. Talent would come in time, he reasoned. First things first... Moseley would have to be outfitted with a new name. Willson expected he would rename all his clients and Guy stuck out for some time. When a Dolly Madison truck went rolling by, he knew he had his new name.
Luckily, Selznick was suitably impressed. He thought Madison had a certain something that the ladies might like, so he wrote a second scene for him. What nobody anticipated was the flood of fan mail that would come pouring into the studio. Never mind stars like Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple and Robert Walker, everyone wanted to know who the drop-dead handsome sailor was but unfortunately Madison had to return to active duty. Once out of the service, Selznick had nothing new for the neophyte but RKO did... the romantic lead in Till the End of Time (1946) opposite Dorothy McGuire.
While still at RKO, Madison was rushed into another film with an actress also on loanout from Selznick, Shirley Temple. The film, called Honeymoon (1947), was kind of cute as no end of mishaps bewilder a young couple in Mexico on the eve of their wedding. Selznick seemed to take a dislike to Madison that appeared to coincide with Willson's growing fixation for him. Selznick said that Madison's acting was too austere, he offered no surprises, was too wooden and needed training but that he (Selnznick) wasn't interested in providing it.
Willson left Selznick to open his own agency and Madison became his first client. Rock and Tab and Troy would follow, as would scores of others. Willson became obsessed with Madison's beauty and came onto him all the time. It's been said that he usually declined but there were plenty of times the two became intimate. Despite being balding and paunchy and looking at least 10 years older while only in his mid-30s, Willson knew how to work it. All he had to do was feign disinterest in Madison and he would have the actor eating out of his hand. Willson advised his young client on all issues regarding grooming. He sent him to the beach with a bottle of lemon juice to help the sun provide blond streaks. He taught him table manners and how to talk and walk. Willson appeared to some as more of a fussy mother hen than an agent.
Willson wanted to promote men as sex symbols... why should women hog the field, he reasoned. He was among the first to promote the idea of men being photographed shirtless and with hairy chests, if they had them. He reasoned that instead of elegant but la-di-dah photos by George Hurrell that were haughtily foreign, he would bring the American soldier to the forefront, partially undress him, wet his lips, tussle his hair and train the cameras to look at his abs, pecs and trail of hair from below his belly button to inside his unbuttoned jeans.
Willson was forever taking his own pictures of Madison that most of us have never seen. When movie columnist Sidney Skolsky saw one shot of Madison, it's said he coined the term beefcake.
In the mid-late 40s Francis McCown joined Willson's agency. He was tall, dark and handsome, agreeable and eager to make a name for himself on the silver screen. First his name was changed to Rory Calhoun (after Francis rejected the name Troy Donahue) and then Willson gave him the rush just as he had Madison. Willson sent them out together with two starlets they hardly knew to be seen and photographed at the Mocambo. Willson was a good teacher and soon both men were pretty cocky which Willson didn't like. He had more to be concerned with when the young actors began sleeping with one another. Willson made a habit of spying on them.
|Rory Calhoun and Guy Madison|
What Willson didn't much care for was how indiscriminate the two had become. One did not do as one pleased in 1940s Hollywood. By and large, morals clauses in studio contracts kept stars on the up and up. Calhoun may have had quiet liaisons with some men but women turned out to be his main focus. Madison preferred the boys. Both needed to keep their private lives more private. Soon Willson insisted his two handsome studs get married and both obeyed and both married actresses. In 1948 Calhoun married Lita Baron and Madison married Gail Russell a year later.
In 1949 Madison and Calhoun went off to Arizona to make their only picture together, Massacre River, a standard cavalry v.s. the Indians horse opera. I got a kick out of it knowing the boys were still getting a kick out of one another, marriages be damned.
It's been said the early years of the Madison-Russell courtship and marriage was fun and that they appeared to love one another. She was without a doubt more pathologically shy than he had been. She was never comfortable being a movie star and at a young age started drinking just to get through the movie-making process. Oddly, she was always self-conscious about people looking at her. It's not likely that he was faithful for very long and Russell knew it which, in turn, increased her drinking. The more she drank, the more they fought and the more he was absent. The prospect of a happy life with a gorgeous husband found Russell at her best but the glow didn't last long, her drinking and bizarre behavior went out of control and Madison filed for divorce. It had lasted five years.
|Madison and Gail Russell|
His career was going nowhere. He had only made five films in the 40s and only the first two had caused any notice and only one of those was the romantic lead. His acting was considered too wooden and he was known as little more than a handsome face. Television producers were looking to make a series on western legend Wild Bill Hickok. Madison was signed for the role in 1951 and enjoyed seven good years in the limelight and the series was very popular. He also made some of his most well-known films during this same period.
|As Wild Bill Hickok|
I am sure the first time I ever saw him was in 1953s The Charge at Feather River, another cavalry v.s. Indians epic that arrived in the exciting new process, 3-D. When those flaming arrows came shooting right at me, I ducked. It was a favorite childhood western but my attention was on Vera Miles as a white woman captured by the Indians. The following year he made a similar movie, The Command, and this time I paid more attention to him. For the first time I noticed his looks and began watching the Hickok series. It was a bit later that I saw Till the End of Time and to say I was blown away by his looks is an understatement.
He costarred with newbie Kim Novak in a casino-robbing caper, Five Against the House (1955), which wasn't bad at all. The same year he joined Victor Mature, Robert Preston and Anne Bancroft for another western, The Last Frontier, always good for a rainy Saturday afternoon in my cowboy hat. He left his horse at home while he made On the Threshold of Space, a fairly decent account of an Air Force flight surgeon who performs daring experiments in space medicine.
Madison made Hilda Crane (1956) opposite Jean Simmons but the story of a woman who returns to her hometown to live down her New York reputation only to have it start up again with two men did not live up to its early promise. Reprisal, the same year, did a bit better because Madison was back in the saddle, if one can consider his part of a half-breed as believable.
After his TV series ended, the phone also stopped ringing. His second marriage to sometime-actress, Sheila Connolly, which began a few days after his divorce from Russell was final, was also in jeopardy. It would last 10 years and produce four children. (His son, Robert, born in Rome in 1967, became an actor.) The couple moved to Europe where Madison spent almost a dozen years making German movies and Italian westerns that did very little to enhance whatever reputation he had back home. He returned to the States and TV guest shots.
I worked at Universal Studios in the 70s and one day as I was eating my lunch somewhere out on the lot, I noticed a man nearby twirling a rope. While he had attracted a small crowd, I observed that he seemed very shy. I had absolutely no idea that it was Guy Madison even though we talked for a few minutes after the crowd dissipated. A coworker who had seen us talking later in the day told me it was Madison. The following picture is how he looked at the time. No wonder I didn't recognize the hunk from Till the End of Time.
In 1988 he was in a serious automobile accident that damaged his lungs. Health problems continued to plague him throughout his later years and he worked very little. He died in Palm Springs, California, in 1996 at age 74 from emphysema.
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