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: