Mad About The Boy: Guy Madison

Guy Madison was one of Hollywood’s original ‘beefcakes’, a man known and adored more for his looks than his acting talent. But in the burgeoning visual age of the mid 20th century, that was more than enough.

Mad About The Boy: Guy Madison

He looks like just another Hollywood hunk to us now, but Guy Madison was once one of the most familiar faces in America. His role as television’s Wild Bill Hickok in the 1950s made him one of the biggest stars on screen, an icon of undemanding mass entertainment. The tough-but-fair cowboy figure he established in that role was what would keep him in work for 40 years, but in truth that was already his second act. Before then, he had made his name as one of the first male pin-ups of a new era of film, packaged and sold to the public as a sex symbol, regardless of acting talent, in a manner that would help define the next 50 years of entertainment.

His first appearance on film, in 1944, is said to have caused girls to fall out of cinema balconies. The masculine square jaw, straight nose and, crucially, soft eyes
made him just the right combination of familiar and unattainable. This picture of masculine perfection was zealously marketed via a steady stream of carefully sexualised photographs, usually taken at the beach and always without a shirt, putting him at the forefront of a new group of male stars quickly dubbed ‘beefcake’, to match the ‘cheesecake’ of the actresses who had long received the same treatment. As the Golden Age of Hollywood faded into an era of hastily made B movies and cheap television series, this was a way of grabbing attention in an ever busier marketplace, and one that worked. We may not remember Guy Madison often now, but for many years it took him into almost every American home and in many more around the world. 

Beyond his head-turning looks, Madison was not suited for stardom, and even less ambitious for it. Born Robert Moseley, he was a shy boy, raised in the 1920s outside Bakersfield, an oil town that may have been in California but was spiritually distant enough from Los Angeles to have spawned its own strand of country music. His father was a railway mechanic and farmer, and Madison’s childhood was spent, usefully as it turned out, roping calves and breaking horses. He became not a cowboy but a telephone lineman, repairing broken wires, before he signed up for war service in the Coast Guard. 

Guy Madison and Shirley Temple behind the scenes of the 1947 movie Honeymoon.
On set in 1940.
Doing the gardening with his wife Gail Russell.
Stepping out of the shower.
In his most famous role, Wild Bill Hickok.
With Dorothy McGuire in Till the End of Time (1946).
A publicity shot for On the Threshold of Space.
At the beach in 1940.

He was still serving when, on a weekend’s R&R, he attended a radio theatre broadcast and was spotted by a talent scout working for Henry Willson, on staff for David O. Selznick. The producer of Gone with the Wind and Rebecca, Selznick was persuaded to hire Moseley for a small part in his next feature, Since You Went Away, as a marine who appeared at a bowling alley with leads Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones. Overcoming his reluctance, Madison took it on as a diverting adventure and returned to his duties. 

On the film’s release, the studio claimed to have received 43,000 letters, all asking for more information about this “dreamboat”. Willson made him his new project, one of many that would also include the equally handsome Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, starting with a screen name. Moseley was nearly Rock, until it was felt that Guy better suited his boy-next-door qualities — the guy every gal wanted to meet. The rest was about being seen in the right places and accommodating the right people, very possibly including Willson himself. As with almost all handsome stars of Hollywood past and present, Madison’s sexuality is much debated. According to Darwin Porter’s Howard Hughes: Hell’s Angel, he was the lover of both Willson and Hughes, who supposedly clothed and housed him and flew him around the country on private jets. He may, too, have been more than friends with Willson stablemate Rory Calhoun. 

Whatever the truth of this, Willson treated him exactly as he might a starlet, giving him lessons in grooming and etiquette, telling him what to say and whom to say it to, and photographing him with as few clothes as he could get away with. It’s possible he even told his charge whom to marry, though Madison’s taste in women had by now been set by a relationship with Barbara Payton, then a model but later an actress whose career was derailed by drink. Gail Russell, the first Mrs. Madison, was another actress and another alcoholic, a factor that, along with Madison’s infidelity, ended their marriage. Russell died in 1961, by which time Madison was settled with his second wife, Sheila, with whom he had four children before they divorced in 1963. 

If the pouting pin-up shots were exploitative, the truth was that Madison’s acting talent was never going to win him employment in the first decade of his career. Selznick gave up on him after 1946’s Till the End of Time inspired The New York Times to comment that Madison was “a personable youngster but he has much to learn about the art of acting”. 

Posters of Madison’s feature films and television shows Drums in the Deep South (1951), 5 Against the House (1955), Outlaw’s Son (1954) and Honeymoon (1947), On the Threshold of Space (1956), Jet Over the Atlantic (1959), The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), and Two Gun Marshal (1953). 
Massacre River movie poster, 1949.

The following year’s Honeymoon took him to Mexico City with Shirley Temple, but the film was so slight it’s chiefly notable for behind-the-camera shots of the pair by the pool. 

Salvation came from the new medium of television, where he could be a big fish in a small pool. From 1951, he took on the title role in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, the gun-toting lawman of the Wild West, and became a household name. The show ran for five years, during which Madison’s square jaw was to be seen on breakfast cereals, bubblegum cards and toys, one of the first benefactors of the incredible reach and appeal of T.V. Episodes were shamelessly merged into 17 movies, too, which in turn brought new cinema roles. He starred in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River, a western produced in the first flush of 3D technology, with flying arrows and falling horses to the fore. There was also 5 Against the House, a casino heist flick that saw him alongside Kim Novak and Victor Mature, though these were high points. More typical were cowboy B movies such as The Hard Man, or outer-space westerns like The Beast of Hollow Mountain, where he shared the screen with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

When Bill Hickok ended, Madison needed to find pastures new. Nearing 40, he was still an imposing figure, with both cheekbones and hair firmly in place, but the dreamboat and beefcake days were over. It was his status as a screen cowboy that was now his principal selling point, and in 1960s Hollywood this was devalued currency. He turned instead to Italy, where the outmoded genre was being given an unlikely revival as the spaghetti western. 

The next 12 years were spent in Europe, with occasional forays to the Philippines or Mexico, making fun but forgettable romps financed by Italian or German production companies very happy to put his name on their posters. He played a gun-toting preacher in Son of Django, a bounty hunter in Reverend’s Colt, took on Wyatt Earp in Gunmen of the Rio Grande, and dabbled in war movies and swashbucklers. Staying on screen meant braving the ignominy of titles such as Bang Bang Kid or LSD Flesh of Devil, but his time in Rome was not all work, with a son, Roberto, born in 1967. 

On his return home, in 1970, he contented himself with sporadic guest roles and ended his career with a made-for- T.V. remake of an old western, Red River, in 1988 (eight years before his death, of emphysema, aged 74). No one was asking him to take his shirt off, but still, bearded and even balding, he remained absurdly handsome, and those eyes still inspired total trust. As his career proved, that was more than enough. 

Photo Credits: Getty Images