Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jack Wrangler


One of the few adult film stars to achieve general celebrity, Wrangler's unabashed homosexuality and his masculine self-confidence made him an icon of the early gay liberation movement. He was born into a Hollywood family (his father was producer/director Robert Stillman, his mother was a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals) and he made his professional debut as a child on the Sunday morning program The Faith of Our Children, a religious drama series of the early 1950s starring Eleanor Powell (go here for Powell's Dance Party in these pages). He studied theatre at Northwestern University, considered at the time to be the top drama school in the country, and performed a few bit parts in The Mod Squad and Medical Center under his real name, John Stillman. He worked as a bartender and go-go boy in West Hollywood before joining the adult film world (he took his porn name from the label of his work shirt), and eventually achieved cult status. In the 80s, he crossed over into heterosexual pornography, but publicly maintained his homosexuality (he claimed his first sexual experience with a woman was onscreen).

Wrangler's celebrity might have remained in the gay subculture if not for his startling relationship with aging pop singer Margaret Whiting. The singer, whose hits included "That Old Black Magic" and "Moonlight in Vermont," was 22 years older than Wrangler, and their unusual pairing kept them in the limelight for decades. Though he never claimed to be straight, Wrangler said that he and Whiting saw things the same way, "comically, professionally, and romantically," and they eventually married. (Go here for my obit for Whiting.)

Anyone who saw a Wrangler film knew he was never padding his pants, though he may have padded his resume a bit. He certainly appeared in Robert Patrick's early stage classic T-Shirts, and he claimed to have appeared in Doric Wilson's gay play Forever After; the playwright himself disputes that claim. He has also said Wilson wrote A Perfect Relationship with him in mind. (Wilson replied, "I never even jacked off with him in mind.")
Wrangler moved out of the adult film industry soon after meeting Whiting, and began a career producing musical theatre and cabaret. He co-produced several revues celebrating the music of Johnny Mercer starring his wife, who was one of Mercer's favorite singers.

Since the 80s, Wrangler and Whiting have remained visible parts of the Manhattan theatre scene, and have been active in HIV/AIDS charities. Here they are with female impersonator Charles Pierce:

Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, a full-length (no pun intended) documentary about Jack's life and career, was released last year.

Jack Wrangler died from complications of emphysema and lung cancer this week at the age of 62.