Rubbing against the grain of a leading man who put the the wood in Hollywood
Written by Chuck Stephens
When Chad Everett left the building earlier this summer, he took with him some of the best, and worst, haircuts in the history of American popular culture.
At the peak of his stardom, as the emotionally arid Dr. Joe Gannon on the hit TV series Medical Center (69-76), Everett, as far as much of his audience was concerned, was his hair, and little more: a good-looking but almost comically constricted performer with an incredibly precise coif—the fin de siècle Hollywood he-man as dense, inert, freshly milled lumber. When Everett’s hair was all together—as it was throughout the early Sixties, perfectly Brylcreemed and beveled, with edges raked sharp enough to cut glass, and on into the Seventies, when television superstardom and “the dry look” gave his hair license to drift down like soft, sweeping grasses that entirely covered his ears—the world seemed a dumber, if somehow more coherent, place. Then came the Eighties, and Everett’s haircuts—along with just about everything else—began to fall apart completely.
Always bordering on the cartoonishly handsome, Everett (born Raymon Lee Cramton in South Bend, Indiana, in 1937) sold his twinkling smile and glittering eyes to MGM for a seven-year contract fresh off the bus in 1961. He found himself constantly on loan to whatever studio needed him for TV guest bits on Westerns like Maverick and Bronco, and “hip” private detective dramas like Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6. His feature debut was in the Erskine Caldwell–penned Claudelle Inglish (61); George Cukor called on him to play a well-built delivery boy who gets sexed up and sloughed off by Claire Bloom’s tragic nymphomaniac in The Chapman Report (62). His lean frame, conservative grooming, and potentially lewd smile found him often cast as semi-swinging record execs and quasi-playboy entrepreneurs in lightweight romances, winning the heart of bombshell Ann-Margret in Made in Paris (66) or unsuccessfully batting his eyelashes at a devout Debbie Reynolds in The Singing Nun (66).
Made in Paris
Aspiring to an archaic brand of canned naturalism, Everett had grown up admiring action stars like Burt Lancaster and Alan Ladd. He later credited another of his Hollywood heroes, Robert Taylor (with whom he twice co-starred), with teaching him the value of always coming prepared to a set, lines carefully memorized and ready for any reading a director might throw at him. He eventually Taylor-ized his work ethic down to a single imperative: “I come loaded for bear every time I open my mouth.” (He wasn’t kidding: an amateur vocal-impressionist and accomplished voice-over artist, Everett was eventually selected by John Wayne’s family to provide the dulcet tones for the animatronic “Duke” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.)
A Christian conservative who once outraged Lily Tomlin on The Dick Cavett Show by describing his wife as part of his “personal property,” Everett was as politically far right as some of the projects he chose were perversely far out. Could the actor possibly have been taking himself seriously when he recorded his appallingly sober 1971 album All Strung Out? And while never played for laughs, how could anyone suppress their giggles during the centerpiece of Medical Center’s final season, a ratings-bait two-parter entitled “The Fourth Sex” that found Everett’s befuddled but entirely sympathetic Dr. Gannon helping his old pal Robert Reed (paterfamilias of The Brady Bunch) through the emotional and physical turmoil of sex-reassignment surgery?
What did Gus Van Sant and David Lynch remember that the rest of us had forgotten? As the leering real-estate client in Van Sant’s Psycho (98), Everett seemed suddenly to rematerialize in American cinema where one least expected him: as a blast of sweetly smarmy air in the middle of the director’s colorfully queer Hitchcock rethink. Was it Everett’s brief, brilliant turn in Psycho, or his rich career-long legacy of wooden acting, that drew Lynch (of Lumberton and the Log Lady) his way? As Woody Katz, Mulholland Drive’s maximally leathery Hollywood lothario, Everett at last delivered the performance of a lifetime, thrusting the full force of his mighty “Chad Everett”–ness directly into Naomi Watts’s lap during the aspiring actress’s big audition. Purring, grimacing, nuzzling, and groping his way through an electrically charged interchange of only 30 lines or so, the actor succinctly demonstrates every lesson the business ever taught him. In a movie so very much about actresses, Everett brings with him, for just those few moments in the middle of the most critically acclaimed film of the 21st century, the entire testosterone lineage of 20th-century Hollywood. When he opens his mouth, old-school macho magic happens. He’d come loaded for bear, not a hair out of place.