On this week back in 1984, the entertainment world lost Jon-Erik Hexum, one of its fast rising stars, in an on set incident. At the time, his shocking death was as headline grabbing as the TWILIGHT ZONE set deaths of Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen two years earlier or the death of Brandon Lee while filming THE CROW ten years later. These days, most people don't even know who he was.
It was such an unlikely end for such a promising guy. Two years before, Hexum had been an unknown actor working as a house cleaner in New York and auditioning for part after part. His break came when he found himself cleaning the home of John Travolta’s manager. The manager liked what he saw, signed Jon-Erik, and sent him out to L.A. Soon enough, Hexum was cast as swashbuckling Phineas Bogg on the NBC time travel series VOYAGERS! (1982-1983).
VOYAGERS! Opening credits (narrated by Hexum)
The show has become a cult classic in the decades since but in its time it was a ratings dud. Despite that, Hexum impressed. Raw and still developing as a performer, he proved to have that necessary star combination: stunning good looks, a natural ease before the camera, a great voice, and a self-deprecating good humor about himself. He was likeable and well liked and industry insiders tapped him for going far.
After VOYAGERS’s demise, Hexum starred opposite Joan Collins in THE MAKING OF A MALE MODEL (1983) one of the top rated TV movies of the year. He guest starred on the hit series HOTEL and his episode was one of the highest rated of the year. He landed a co-starring role in the Bear Bryant movie biopic THE BEAR (1984).
For the fall of 1984, he found himself back on TV starring with Jennifer O’Neill in the new CBS thriller series COVER UP playing secret agent Mac Harper, a part written specifically for him. The show proved an early season hit. More movie auditions lay ahead. The future was wide open. To put it in today’s terms, Jon-Erik Hexum was on his way to becoming the Channing Tatum of the 1980s.
On Friday, October 12, 1984, the cast and crew of COVER UP were on the 20th Century-Fox lot struggling to finish that week’s episode called “Golden Opportunity”. The complete episode can be found here:
It was past 5pm and they were in the middle of filming a minor scene on a motel room set. Hexum had to sit on a bed and load blanks into a Magnum handgun. It was not going well. After a few unsatisfying takes, the director called a break to adjust things. Exhausted from another long day at the end of another long week in the marathon that is making a network TV series, Jon-Erik placed the handgun on the side table, lay down on the bed, and dozed off. He napped for about ten minutes then suddenly startled awake. He sat up, grabbed the Magnum, and asked if they were ready to go again.
The crew said they were not. No one has ever exactly agreed on what Jon-Erik said next but it was along the lines of, “Can you believe this? It’s enough to make you want to –“ then before anyone could say or do anything, he put the Magnum to his right temple. Maybe he had forgotten the blanks were still in the gun or maybe he thought blanks were harmless. It was probably meant as a sight gag to break the tension on the set. Either way, he pulled the trigger and the gun fired.
The force of the explosion at close range was the same as if a real bullet had been in the chamber. The blank’s cotton wadding shattering his skull and drove a nickel sized piece of bone into the heart of his brain.
Jon-Erik slumped back on the bed, immediately unconscious. Not wanting to wait for an ambulance, the crew loaded the gravely injured Hexum into a station wagon, and drove him straight to the nearest hospital. He lingered in a coma for a week before he was declared brain dead and passed away on October 18. It was all over so fast. PEOPLE magazine’s article on the tragedy summed it up well: Jon-Erik Hexum had been “A Brief, Bright Star”.
Hexum’s death was ruled an accident. The handling of firearms on movie and TV sets was reviewed and reformed. Hollywood moved on. After a short hiatus, COVER UP returned with Antony Hamilton playing Hexum’s role. A clumsy (yet still touching) tribute scene was tacked onto the end of Hamilton’s first episode:
I became a Hexum fan after the fact. A 22-year-old film student at the time, I tended to ignore melodramas and network television. His death was the first time I had even heard of him. But by the end of 1984, VOYAGERS! went into syndication and I watched every episode. Two years later, his COVER UP episodes re-aired on Lifetime TV. The more I watched, the more I saw him grow as an actor, the more of a fan I became. The only drawback was that there would be no more. Jon-Erik Hexum’s career was over with only his promise left to make us wonder.
Since his death, there have been many many many chiseled, stunning leading men come and go on the big and small screen (including Channing Tatum!). And yet none of them have had the looks, voice, humor, and down to earth demeanor of Jon-Erik Hexum. If he’d lived he would be 57 this November.
While the COVER UP tribute famously spelled his name wrong, the rest of the wording was correct:
“When a star dies, its light shines across the universe for millenniums. Jon-Erik Hexum died in October of this year but the lives he touched will continue to be brightened by his light forever and ever.”
Thirty years on, Jon-Erik Hexum’s light has long since gone out but his memory remains and still brings a smile to those who remember.
Jon-Erik Hexum on Merv Griffin a month before his death:
10/19/2014 05:21:56 am
Glad to see you're posting in your blog again! Now if you would only return to Twitter.
10/26/2014 05:18:43 pm
OMG - You remembered!!!! Thanks, Rich. BTW -- Amazon has "Making of a Male Model" on pre-sale so it must be coming out on DVD soon. Here's the link if anyone wants a copy: http://www.amazon.com/Making-of-a-Male-Model/dp/B00MRDW4H0/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1414383459&sr=1-1&keywords=making+of+a+male+model
10/26/2014 10:56:40 pm
Yeah, I remembered. Apparently, only you and I did though as this post just kind of disappeared with little reaction. Oh well.
10/6/2016 01:57:18 pm
Your post has not disappeared. As a child fan of Jon Erik's I love finding articles and blogs about him. I just do not usually comment on things. Thanks for remembering him so others of us can enjoy.
10/6/2016 04:10:29 pm
Thank you for visiting. Been thinking about him again as we come up on the anniversary. Definitely someone I would like to have met. And thank you again for stopping by.
This is one of the nicest tributes to Jon-Erik I've read. Most often people just spread the false rumors and insinuate he was dumb or an idiot. It was just a tragic accident. Thanks for shedding light on that. As a JEH fan, if you haven't seen it, you may like my Voyagers Guidebook website. :)
10/6/2016 04:12:37 pm
You're welcome, LadyG. Thanks for stopping by. I will definitely check out your Voyagers! site. Time travel shows seem to be all the rage again.
10/6/2016 09:16:20 pm
Thank you for writing this article and paying tribute to an icon I call him. He was the most humble person in Hollywood, a real down to earth kind of guy, I was in high school when he passed and when I heard about his death I was devastated. The world did lose a talented man that day and thanks to all who keep his memory alive.
10/6/2016 10:46:41 pm
You're welcome. I like the fact that he was still driving his old beat up car at the time of his death and that he had yet to buy furniture for his new house because he still wasn't sold that his stardom was going to last and he wanted to save his money. I am sure he would be quite touched to know he has so many devoted fans so many years later.
10/6/2016 09:40:19 pm
Thank you for this tribute, for making sure he isn't forgotten. I had just celebrated my 10th birthday when news broke of his death. I cried then and, still today, it makes me cry. There was something very special about him, no doubt he'd have gone far. I'm among those who are unwilling to let him be forgotten about and I absolutely hate it when someone calls him stupid or dumb for what happened or that all he had was a beautiful face. The number of websites, tributes, fans etc prove otherwise
10/6/2016 10:51:46 pm
Exactly! The guy had brains, was branching out into real estate, and had a very honest assessment of himself, what were his strengths and where he needed to improve. He was also very appreciative of his fans. A rare combination, indeed. Thank you for visiting, Samantha.
10/6/2016 11:57:59 pm
This article is a GEM. I Jc never read anything so honest and real about JEH, the accident and his life. I am not a "blog person" so in order for me to see a blog article, it has to be posted/linked on Facebook and/or Tumblr. LOL
10/7/2016 06:53:19 am
Thank you very much, Dayna. Just wanted to give Jon-Erik his do. Thank you for reading.
11/6/2016 03:15:40 am
Hello. Love the article and love the picture. I believe Jon-Erik would have made a huge impact if he had lived. He was the whole package and even to this day no one has matched his looks, his voice. Back in September of 1984 my two co-workers and I planned a Spring, 1985 trip to LA. We decided to go to LA, try to meet Jon-Erik before he became too big. The next month our dreams were shattered. We were numb. Our thoughts & prayers immediately went to Jon-Erik's family. How thoughtful of Jon in being an organ donor. I will never forget this gorgeous man.
2/20/2018 04:14:34 pm
10/12/2018 11:19:49 pm
Coincidence ? I sat here in Scotland in the wee hours between Friday 12th/Saturday 13th October 2018 reading about Joan Collins's career on wiki and then led me to a co-star Jon-Erik Hexum and I read about this handsome talented upcoming actor and I am glad I did, watched interviews and a wonderful humble, funny, quirky human being came across. I then noticed it says this accident happened on Friday 12th October 1984, 34 years to the day and I was reading this ! RIP JEH xx
7/1/2019 02:46:53 am
Hi nice that people still think of him. I can't accept his death as an accident. He was too smart maybe immature but very strange accident.
9/15/2019 02:11:22 pm
I stumbled upon this article, thank you. He was my childhood crush when I was 7 and watched Voyagers! on tv. Never forgot about him!
3/30/2020 05:33:17 pm
Hi. I was 14 at the time. I had been a devoted fan of Voyagers! the entire time it was on tv! I also greedily anticipated and saw the movie "Making of a male model" and devotedly watched the series "Cover Up". Not only was Jon-Erik sexy as heck, smoldering, one might say, but he was intelligent AND funny! I knew I liked men since I was little but growing up in a Christian household, I couldn't readily scream out I WANT him! I remember the method in Voyagers of how they would transport, time travel, to these various times, Jon and his little cohort would come through a set of white double doors descend down a couple of stairs with nothing but blue sky and clouds in front of them and then poof!! Jon and his little buddy would disappear ... How I wished it could've been me he was disappearing with!!. But , I knew he was straight. But, I admired him for his intelligence and wit, and envied and drooled over him for his looks! And how I wanted someone like Jon-Erik to notice me!
10/27/2021 06:33:26 pm
I remember hearing about this handsome fascinating young actor's passing back in October of 1984! I was new to L.A. at the time a struggling young actor fresh out of a small Michigan farm town. I was devastated at the time and agree totally that he remains unsurpassed in looks and talent ! I was recently reminded of him strongly since this recent incident on a movie set in New Mexico involving Alec Baldwin. I feel a strong spiritual connection to him even after all these years and feel blessed to have seen him performing! May God continue to bring comfort to his many many fans and family
10/28/2021 09:31:24 am
Hi James! Thanks for writing. Sad to see Jon-Erik back in the news due to the "Rust" tragedy. There was so much more to the man than his death.
Leave a Reply.