BEEFCAKE IN T-SHIRTS: an interview with Jack Wrangler 


The Westside Mainstage Theater, in the heart - or should I say garbage disposal? - of Hell's Kitchen, is in utter chaos. The cast has been rehearsing only a week, the set is still being built, the lobby is a shambles of plaster powder and chainsaws, and the show opens in two days. No one seems to mind.

Even though the show is under Equity contract as an Off-Broadway (i.e., commercial) production, it appears to be guided by the hey-kids-let's-do-it principle passed down from Mickey and Judy to Off-Off-Broadway. This is, no doubt, attributable to the presence of author-actor-director Robert Patrick, the prolific playwright who has penned 150 scripts since that day in 1961 when, rumor has it, he wandered by accident into the Caffe Cino, birthplace of OOB, where low budgets and high spirits were the rule.

Today Patrick has on his director's cap and is maneuvering two fellow actors through a scene. "Here it's like you're both poised for action and trying to decide what to do next," he says, his sweet, high voice betraying a trace of his native Texas. "There's a stillness, like that moment just before you come."

One of the actors, a well-built, flannel-shirted blond, looks up. A slow grin wrestles with a straight face. "Just before I come," he deadpans, "they start rolling the cameras."

The play is Patrick's T-Shirts, and the sculpted pecs that are its central metaphor belong to Jack Wrangler, a self-made sex symbol who is currently the No. 1 star of gay porn flicks and nominated as "best actor" in the Erotic Film Festival for the straight-porn film Jack and Jill. Wrangler and T-Shirts are teamed up for a run at the Westside Mainstage (424 W. 49 St.), produced by the gay theater organization The Glines. But you can also see him at Times Square's Big Top Cinema in Dynamite!, in which he plays a madman who plants a time bomb in a white box among the dildos for sale at Christopher Street's Backroom Bookshop and lingers for a few bouts of casual sex before retiring to his hotel room next door to phone in bomb scares to the Post.

And that's only one of Wrangler's 78 feature-length skinflicks. Others include Curb Service, Heavy Equipment, and the ground-breaking Hothouse, in which for the first time Wrangler goes down on another guy, thereby breaking with the tradition of pornstar "studs" who will only be serviced.

Wrangler's work didn't always receive an X rating. Born and reared in Hollywood, the son of Robert Thurston Stillman, who produced television's Bonanza and Rawhide, Wrangler made his acting debut at age eight in the children's TV series Faith of Our Children.

"I went to the Beverly Hills Community Presbyterian Church, and my Sunday school teacher in the third grade was Eleanor Powell," he explains, with mischievous matter-of-factness. "She was asked to do this Sunday morning soap opera, and she needed someone to play her son. I read my lessons well in class, so she had me audition, and I got the part. We ran for three years and won an Emmy for it and everything - but not because it was any good. That was the year they had trouble with censorship on television and ours was the cleanest show on the air!"

The first thing you notice about Jack Wrangler, as he shakes your hand and looks straight in your eyes with that sincere-starlet gaze, is how short he is. Like many leading men, he looms larger onscreen; in real life he's no taller than five feet, six inches, compact yet well proportioned. With his well-tended tan, his straw-colored hair and sparkling blue-gray eyes, he's a living doll. Over lunch at Curtains Up, during which Wrangler nonchalantly keeps his flannel shirt unbuttoned to the waist, the actor charts his progress from Faith of Our Children to fuck films.

After prep school in Rhode Island, he went to Northwestern on a swimming scholarship, studied business administration and law and acted in stock to make spending money. After graduation, he continued acting and eventually went to work for Star Systems Inc. - an outfit that packages has-been movie stars in fluff comedies for dinner theaters around the country - directing stars such as Yvonne DeCarlo, Betty Hutton and Jane Russell. When Andy Devine dropped dead during one of his shows, Wrangler had some time on his hands, so he took a job playing an ex-hustler in a gay comedy called Special
in San Francisco. The show was non-Equity, so he couldn't use his real name (Jack Stillman), and the night before the program went to press he was wearing a Wrangler shirt, and - voila! The play was a hit, "Jack Wrangler" became a popular centerfold-and-cover-boy in Bay Area porn sheets, and before long he was asked to do what he politely calls "X-rated stuff." He consulted his parents, who weren't opposed, so he said why not?

"I'd always been interested in the idea of being a personality performer rather than a working actor," says Wrangler. "As a director I saw how hard it was, all those poor kids sitting around at auditions! Besides, the personality performers were the ones I grew up with in Beverly Hills. My neighbors were Jimmy Stewart and Lucille Ball and George Burns, all on one block. I thought they were neat because, regardless of what they did, it was the personality first and the character second."

Before he'd waded too far into skinflicks, Wrangler hooked up with an old family friend named Bob Meyer, who became his manager. Together they hatched their plan to develop Jack into a modern-day sex symbol without the help of the studios by going straight to the sex-film audience. Much the same way Hugh Hefner mass-marketed his Playboy bunny as a horny girl-next-door, Wrangler and Meyer settled on an eroticized All-American image, only personalized in the character of Jack Wrangler.

"It had never been done before, but we knew someone would do it if we didn't. So we went about it very methodically," he said. "I practically locked myself in the gym for two years and really worked on my body, and then we started merchandising the character, making the first endorsements for products before people even knew who Jack Wrangler was. It was clever, and we just got them to buy it."

The Wrangler enterprise has since become a thriving industry, selling movies, posters, photo sets and a complete line of "adult toys," including autoerotica like the Jac-Pack ("a hot hole you can really get into!") and a rubber model of the prodigious Wrangler wang that goes for $100. In addition, Wrangler does "personal appearances" at gay porn houses during which he strips while recounting sexual fantasies and then simulates orgasm (he didn't learn that from Lucille Ball!). And a year and a half ago, he successfully broke into the heterosexual porn field; until then, he confesses, he had never made love to a woman.

Still, the Wrangler phenomenon goes beyond canny marketing. The blond boy bimbo from Beverly Hills has amassed a bonafide cult following who ply him with letters, birthday cards, even hand-made gifts. It's not hard to figure out why. Wrangler's mixture of John-Boy Walton-like wholesomeness and Marilyn Monroe's alluring vulnerability is a classic commingling of sexuality and pure romance, self-sufficiency and open desire - a welcome relief from the hard eyes, the creepy leer, the macho brutality associated with most conventional male sex symbols. gay or straight; porn or otherwise.

The question remains as to why a Hollywood golden boy from "a good family" would decide to pursue a career as an erotic film star. Wrangler dismisses charges of John Rechy-ish narcissism as "bullshit," and thinks even less of the notion that he's subtly mocking his father by (homo)sexualizing the masculine stereotypes Bonanza portrayed (I like that theory myself). He maintains it's purely a star trip.

"I wanted to be adored," he said. "I needed it! I was a skinny. scrawny, unattractive kid around very attractive people who were known all over the world for being very attractive. That can be tough. People have always complained that other people only wanted them for their bodies. I'm just the opposite. People always knew I was warm and charming and had a mind, but nobody ever wanted my body! I wanted people to want me just for that.

"It hasn't worked out, though." he sighed. "I'm really shy and bad at meeting people. I thought it would be so neat to be Wrangler because I could go into a bar anywhere and people would know me, and we'd have something to talk about. No way. I go to a bar, and first I'm shy so I'm quiet. Then people think I'm stuck up, or they're afraid to talk to me for fear I'll tell them to go fuck themselves. Or if you do go home with somebody they expect you to swing from a trapeze or do something gymnastic for them, or they're so intimidated by the whole idea of going home with you that nothing happens. But I wasn't much good at that before Wrangler, so it's no change. I go home and watch television."

Soho News, April 23, 1980

see also: review of T-Shirts