Encore

Jon-Erik Hexum's Fatal Joke

A decade ago, kidding on the set, the actor shot a blank from a gun and killed himself

Before there was Brandon Lee, there was Jon-Erik Hexum. On Oct. 12, 1984, the 26-year-old star of the CBS adventure series Cover Up fatally shot himself on the show's set with a .44 Magnum pistol loaded with blanks.

The actor, who played Green Beret-turned-model Mac Harper in the new series about international intrigue and fashion photography, had been napping during delays in filming. After learning there would be still more delays, Hexum held the gun to his head, reportedly joking, ''Can you believe this crap?'' and pulled the trigger. The impact from the blast fractured his skull, driving a bone fragment the size of a quarter into his brain and causing massive hemorrhaging. He was rushed to the Beverly Hills Medical Center, where, * despite five hours of surgery, he would remain comatose until he was pronounced brain-dead on Oct. 18.

Born in Tenafly, N.J., Hexum was reared, with older brother Gunnar, by their mother, Gretha, after their father left when Jon-Erik was 4. In 1982, he landed the role of Phineas Bogg in NBC's time-travel series Voyagers. Although Voyagers lasted only one season, it brought the 6'1'', 200-lb. Hexum to the attention of Joan Collins. The two starred in 1983's steamy TV movie The Making of a Male Model, and in 1984, drawing on his experience as a wide receiver for Michigan State, Hexum made his film debut as quarterback Pat Trammell in the Bear Bryant biopic The Bear.

After Hexum's death, Cover Up hung on only one season, with Britisher Antony Hamilton as its new hero. A few years later, Gretha Hexum won an undisclosed out-of-court settlement with Twentieth Century Fox Television and Glenn Larson Productions. But Jon-Erik Hexum's legacy literally lives on: Michael Washington, now 46, was the recipient of the actor's transplanted heart. For the former Navy SEAL, that donation transcends issues he claims the media ''sensationalized'': that Washington, an African-American, was (and still is) the owner of Swinging Susy's escort service in Las Vegas.

''The Hexum family didn't really care about all that,'' Washington says. ''What they cared about was giving the organ to help a family, and seeing someone survive. It gave an opportunity for my two kids to still have a father.''

Time Capsule / Oct. 18, 1984

Readers embraced Leo Buscaglia's Loving Each Other, while Stevie Wonder crooned, ''I Just Called to Say I Love You.'' Teachers was the No. 1 movie, and TV's Dynasty reigned supreme.

Originally posted Oct 14, 1994 Published in issue #244 Oct 14, 1994 Order article reprints
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