Jack's Story

- By KC Conley

Jon-Erik (Eric) “Jack” Hexum was born in Englewood, New Jersey on November 5, 1957 to Gretha and Thorlief Hexum.

Raised in Tenafly, New Jersey, Thor deserted his family when Jack was only 4 years old. In an effort to provide for Jack and his older brother Gunnar, Gretha often had to work several jobs at a time to make ends meet.

The acting bug bit Jack during elementary school, when he starred as Dopey in a 2nd grade production of Snow White, and Mr. Rabbit in the 3rd grade Farmville Parade. 

He was considered quiet and shy during his teenage years, until his senior year when he became class president and the first male cheerleader in the history of Tenafly High School.

Jack graduated as ‘Mr. Everything’ in 1976, and went on to Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, before transferring to Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. 

He studied biomedical engineering with the intent to become an artificial heart pioneer, then, after deciding it “wasn’t fun anymore,” he switched his major to philosophy, and graduated in 1980 with a BA in Social Science. 

He worked his way through school doing odd jobs and parlayed his velvet bass voice into a job as a late-night disc jockey for local Lansing radio stations, using the name “Yukon Jack.” 

Click to hear a 5 minute sample from Jack's DJ days:

Here's a fun tip: Take that clip, download it as an MP3 file, and separate the bits into individual files.  Load them onto your iPod/MP3 player along with your playlist.  Then hit shuffle.  Every so often, spaced between your songs, you will have your own personal Yukon Jack DJ talking and giving you weather updates and sports scores!  I've done it. It's a sweet surprise to have that velvet bass voice in your earphones!

Jack decided he wanted to be a football player for MSU, so he spent 8 hours a day bulking up from 165 pounds to an impressive 205 pounds of muscle to play. 

 

Unfortunately, the effort didn't pay off, Jack scarcely made bench warmer.

 

In pursuit of the perfect career, he considered several different options: being an Olympic athlete, artificial heart pioneer, champion figure skater and pro football player.

But acting proved to be where Jack's heart was, and he decided to become an actor. 

He talked his way into the drama class and landed the lead role in the school's play.

 

The day after he graduated from MSU, Jack hit the pavement in New York, going to auditions and working more odd jobs, trying to make his way in the world of acting.

His first big break proved to be a lost opportunity.  He was cast in the movie production of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, chosen as one of 8 principal dancers out of 2000 applicants.

But to his dismay he and the other dancers were let go when the choreographer was replaced. 

Jack got his feet wet in the acting pool when he worked as an extra on soap operas, and in the movies A Little Sex and Deathtrap. 

In the summer of '81, Jack tried his hand at theater, at the Merry Go Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY. 

He had roles in Guys and Dolls, and The Pajama Game, and he played the lead Johnny Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the Pirate King in the Pirates of Penzance, and Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

Here's a picture of Jack as "Johnny Brown," with Mickey Lord as "Molly" in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Jack was finally discovered at a chance meeting with his manager Bob LeMond, while working at a job cleaning apartments. At the time LeMond was John Travolta's manager, and he saw something extra special in Jack, and agreed to represent him. 

 

At LeMond's suggestion, Jack relocated to Los Angeles in September of 1981.

He tried out and lost the lead role in the movie Summer Lovers to actor Peter Gallagher. Never one to sit back on his haunches, Jack knew he had a lot of work ahead of him if he wanted make it in the business.

 

He again worked in all sorts of odd jobs and pounded the pavement, claiming later on The Merv Griffin Show that he went on over three hundred auditions.

He had been in LA a mere 4 months when he won the lead role of Phineas Bogg in the NBC time-travel adventure show Voyagers! alongside seasoned young actor Meeno Peluce playing his sidekick Jeffrey Jones.

The character, originally written for a forty-something, stuffy professor type, was immediately re-worked to suit Jack's dynamic personality and handsome appearance.

 

But Voyagers! was almost doomed from the start, with a time slot against the legendary 60 Minutes.

It failed to gain the audience it needed to survive and was canceled before the final episodes aired on national television.

The fans began a letter writing campaign that ultimately pressured NBC into running the last few episodes that had been filmed. 

 

Voyagers! ran for a mere 20 episodes but it has remained a fan favorite in reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel during the 1990's. Voyagers! eventually became the template for another NBC time travel show, Quantum Leap.

 

Voyagers! found a new audience 25 years later, after being released on DVD in 2007.

 

The children who faithfully watched the show are now adults and are introducing their children to Phineas and Jeffrey's adventures through time. 

Five weeks after Voyagers! cancellation, Jack won the role of Tyler Burnett in the television movie The Making of a Male Model, playing opposite Joan Collins of Dynasty

 

The movie went on to be one of 1983's most successful TV movies. While critics universally panned the movie, they praised Jack for his acting chops. 

 

The role garnered him the reluctant title of hunk, a classification that, while he tolerated it at the start of his career, grew to become more of a burden later on as he fought to be taken seriously as an actor.

Jack's next role was on an episode of Hotel entitled Tomorrows. It was a variation on the Cinderella theme seen so often in movies in Hollywood.  In the script, poor Irish maid Emma Samms is swept off her feet by Jack's character Prince Erik.

As in all storybook romances, they fell madly in love and lived happily ever after.

His next role was playing real-life quarterback, Pat Trammel, in the movie The Bear, with Gary Busey. It was the story of legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Jack wanted the role based solely on the death scene he filmed with Busey, thinking it would give him the opportunity to act in much more serious roles.  Unfortunately, it was that scene that ended up on the cutting room floor, never to be seen again.

The movie premiered weeks before Jack's accident, and was pulled from the theaters shortly after his death.

Jack's next television role proved to be his last. 

In the crime-drama Cover Up he played Mac Harper, an ex Green Beret turned CIA agent, posing undercover as a male model with Jennifer O'Neill as photographer Dani Reynolds, and Richard Andersen as their boss Henry Towler. 

From the beginning, Jack had been promised an opportunity to direct and have more creative control of the series.  He was greatly disappointed when that opportunity never transpired.

He found himself working 12-16 hours a day on the Cover Up set, while simultaneously traveling to promote The Bear, a movie he was largely cut out of.

At the same time he was commuting to Las Vegas to train as an acrobat in an upcoming episode of Circus of the Stars.  It worked him into a state of utter exhaustion, and the stress of his schedule gave him a terrible case of insomnia.

 

All of these things combined together created a recipe for disaster.

On October 12, 1984, after a particularly extensive day of shooting Cover Up, Jack lay down on the prop bed between scenes and fell asleep. 

He was awakened by the news that there would be even more delays, practically guaranteeing that he'd miss his flight to Las Vegas that night for Circus of the Stars. 

Extremely frustrated, he picked up the prop gun, held it to his right temple and pulled the trigger.  The gun, a 44 magnum, was loaded with blanks.  A wad of paper from the blank shell blasted a quarter-sized piece of his skull deep into his brain.

And in that instant, Jack was mortally wounded.  Bleeding profusely, cast and crew scrambled to get him medical care. 

Afraid to lose time waiting for an ambulance, the crew loaded him on to a prop door and into a company station wagon, and rushed him to Beverly Hills Medical Center.

The staff worked frantically for several hours to save Jack, but their efforts proved to be in vain. 

He was officially declared brain dead and remained on life support for 6 days until he could be transferred to San Francisco and his organs could be harvested for donation. 

Over the years there has been much speculation as to what actually transpired the day of the accident.  Reports ran the gamut from suicide to a game of Russian roulette gone horribly wrong.  All of which were proven to be false.  Those that knew him personally say with complete certainty that he was absolutely NOT suicidal. Nor was he a "ticking time bomb" that no one knew "when he would go off."  Police reports ruled out the Russian Roulette theory.  If the investigators ruled it out, then that should be considered end of discussion, don't you agree?

Some say he wasn't aware that the prop guns were deadly  That's a possibility. Insiders say he was never properly trained on the use of the guns and how dangerous a blank can be.  How many of us who lived in that era knew how powerful they were? I certainly didn't.  I thought a prop gun was basically like a child's cap gun: loud bang, with no damage.  Without proper training, how would he know any different?  When I heard the initial reports, the severity of the accident didn't quite register. How could he be in critical condition?  Couldn't they just bandage him up and send him home?  Apparently it was a common reaction. Countless fans had the same opinion.  Surely he was going to be fine.  But sadly, the reality was entirely different.  Jack was gone.

There have also been differing accounts as to what he uttered in his last moments, however none of them have ever proven to be true. No one knows for sure exactly what he said, or why he pulled the trigger.

 

New reports have recently surfaced from weapons masters in the industry at the time that claim 20th Century Fox, in a budget conscious move, sent the weapons master home early that day.  An improperly educated prop man was the one to bring the gun to Jack to film the next scene, and he allegedly failed to follow proper set procedures to lock up the weapon after the scene was shot.* 

 

As exhausted as Jack was, upon waking up disoriented, he may have thought the gun hadn't been loaded, or maybe he really didn't realize the blanks were dangerous. Jack may have put his trust in the professionals that worked around him, and unfortunately, that trust cost him his life.  It's very likely that he put the gun to his head in mock frustration at further filming delays, as if to say, "Just shoot me now."  He pulled the trigger, and regrettably the blanks proved fatal.

Jack was cremated and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean, near Point Dume State Beach, where episodes of Voyagers and scenes from The Making of a Male Model and Fantasy were shot.  It was one of Jack's favorite beaches.

 

As per the family's wishes, there was no official funeral for him, although friends in Hollywood and his hometown of Tenafly held their own services to remember him by.

Gretha Hexum filed a lawsuit against Fox Studios for Jack's wrongful death, and their case was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum of money.

 

As a result of Jack's death, stricter prop gun laws were enacted on television and movie sets, in an effort to ensure that an accident of this magnitude would never be repeated.   

 

Jack has been gone for over 30 years now, but his memory shines bright in the hearts of many fans that remember the handsome hunk that stole their heart, and left a magical impression that will never fade.

 

His friends remember him as a fun, charismatic, kind-hearted, generous friend, someone who loved people and stood behind you through good times and bad. Someone who inspired the best in everyone around him.

An addendum to the comments on the accident: I recently received an note from Jack's Friend Yvonne de La Paix, who is also in the industry.  She shared her thoughts on it, and I'd say her note is pretty enlightening:  

 

"I know a set firearms coordinator who uses this unfortunate death in his seminars as a teaching tool -- on the irresponsibility of trying to save money by using a regular propmaster to handle, prepare and secure the guns on the set.....and he's very much for the education of the actors about how dangerous a mildly-named 'blank' really is."

Yvonne, thanks for saying what I was already thinking.  Now I will use this opportunity to add my own editorial on the subject of Jack's accident, and I will do my best to be brief.  Because believe me, you'd be here all day with the comments I'd make, and not all of them are family friendly.  This note just reinforces for me the thoughts I already had on the matter: someone at the studios messed up, BIG TIME.  And we lost Jack over it.  It's tragic, to say the least, and I'll shut up now, before this becomes an obscenity laced rant, and I really don't want to go there.  To quote Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit:  "The whole thing stinks like yesterday's diapers."

 

I have poured over many articles to bring this site to you, and I've come across a few that have just further added to my thoughts. If you want to read them, go to our Accident Facts page and see what you think, and if you agree with me.  Drop me a line, I welcome an intelligent, adult conversation on the matter.

NOTE: If you're one who wants to argue that he was stupid, or that he was suicidal, playing Russian Roulette, or somehow a troubled, angry young man, save your keystrokes. You're wasting your time.  I'll be happy to discuss differing opinions, however, I WILL NOT tolerate trolling, disrespect or rudeness.  Take it elsewhere.