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The Cinema of Fabian

In a recent interview for the Pure Cinema Podcast, Quentin Tarantino talked at length about his influences for the Rick Dalton character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Among such names as Ty Hardin, George Maharis, and Edd Byrnes was the pop-star-turned-actor Fabian, whose talent was admired by the director (in the film, Rick Dalton took over a role meant for Fabian), leading to Tarantino scheduling three Fabian movies at his New Beverly Cinema in July 2019.

Fabian is still probably best known for his (relatively) brief heyday as a pop star – specifically the year 1959 when he had three top ten hits – “Turn Me Loose”, “Tiger”, and “Hound Dog Man”. Yet he also had a career as a motion picture leading man that spanned over a decade. It’s one that is worth revisiting.

Early Career

Fabiano Anthony Forte was born in Philadelphia in 1943. His launch into showbusiness was  something out of a Ruby Keeler musical: in 1957 his policeman father had a heart attack at home; Fabian was waiting by the ambulance when spotted by record producer Bob Marcucci. Marcucci was on the hunt for a good looking teen who could be the next Elvis Presley and asked the fourteen year old if he was interested in a singing career. Fabian, wanting to help his family financially, agreed to give it a shot.

Fabian wasn’t a natural singer, but he worked hard, looked good and could at least put over a song. Marcucci gave him singing lessons and new clothes, made him lose the crew cut and get an Elvis-style pompadour, and shorted his name to “Fabian”. After a few false starts the teenager started appearing at Dick Clark record hops, lip syncing to songs. Girls went wild, Clark put him on American Bandstand and a star was born.

Right from the start Fabian was something of a joke within the industry – his name, inexperience and limited singing ability were all much mocked (for example on the comedy album 2000 Years With Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks there’s a interview with the teen idol “Fabiola”). But the baby boomer teens who formed the bulk of his audience didn’t care – Elvis was in the army and they needed a new idol. By 1959 Fabian was earning $250,000 a year and Hollywood came calling.

Fabian seems to consciously ape Elvis a lot in his debut, playing a yes ma’m type complete with Southern drawl. … Every time he sings, however,  Don Siegel arranges it so the song is interrupted – a dog barks, or Fabian walks off in anger, or something, I’m not joking – this happens four times. Actually some of the tunes are good, notably the title track and “This Friendly World”.

20th Century Fox

Fabian (or, rather, his managers) elected to go with 20th Century Fox, who had a decent teen idol track record: they made the highly successful debut features of Elvis Presley (Love Me Tender) and Pat Boone (Bernandine), albeit also the flop first film of Tommy Sands (Sing Boy Sing).

It was a smart decision – Fox gave Fabian a top producer (Jerry Wald), skilled director (Don Siegel), colour and CinemaScope, plus a decent budget  and source material – Hound Dog Man (1959), based on the novel by Fred Gipson who had written Old Yeller. His co-stars included two Fox contract players: Carol Lynley coming off Blue Denim (1959) and Stuart Whitman, an emerging name. There was also Arthur O’Connell who played paterfamilias to pretty much all the teen idols on screen around this time, and an excellent line up of character actors including Royal Dano, Claude Akins, and Edgar Buchanan. While Fabian was top billed he really had a supporting role – the protagonist was Blackie Scantling, the “Hound Dog Man”, played by Whitman.  This was in line with Love Me Tender where Elvis made his debut supporting a more experienced actor, Richard Egan. 

The film is set in 1912 Texas and revolves around shiftless Blackie going on a hunting trip over the weekend with young friend Clint (Fabian). It doesn’t have the heavy plot of Love Me Tender  – that was a serious Western with brothers betraying brothers, shoot outs, Civil War, and so on. Hound Dog Man is a more slice-of-life, coming-of-age piece – a little hunting, some singing, Claude Akins pops around periodically to snarl at Whitman, Lynley pants over Whitman as does Akins’ wife. There’s a comic doctor, a dog, a barn dance. It’s actually a sweet film – well made, with great production values, and a very strong cast.   

Fabian seems to consciously ape Elvis a lot in his debut, playing a yes ma’am type complete with Southern drawl. It’s an ideal role for him – a bored young teen on a farm – occasionally sulky, but a decent kid underneath it all – and he is extremely well protected. Every time he sings, however,  Don Siegel arranges it so the song is interrupted – a dog barks, or Fabian walks off in anger, or something. I’m not joking – this happens four times. Actually some of the tunes are good, notably the title track and ‘This Friendly World’.

The film was not a box office success. Maybe it was too “plot lite”. Maybe it needed more star power than Whitman – Robert Mitchum was attached to play Blackie in the early 50s and he would have been ideal; an elder singer, like say Pat Boone or Ricky Nelson, could also have worked. Fox didn’t lose faith in Fabian, however, and decided instead to shift him to support roles, where he would be teamed with an older star of a different generation.  This was a common device at the time (eg John Wayne and Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, 1959), the logic being the film would then appeal to two demographics.

Fabian’s second film was High Time (1960), directed by Blake Edwards, starring Bing Crosby as a restaurant magnate who decides to go back to college, where his fellow students include Fabian, Richard Beymer, and Tuesday Weld. The film is set over four years giving it a surprisingly wistful time-moves-on quality; there are bright colours and some funny jokes though it is badly hurt by the performance of Nicole Maurey as Crosby’s love interest. Fabian has a decent role as a jock who struggles at college and winds up with Weld at the end.

Far more enjoyable was North to Alaska (1960), a comedy “northern” set during the Klondike Gold Rush with John Wayne.  It’s the sort of movie that could have gone disastrously wrong – battle of the sex comedies with Wayne often had an abusive vibe about them (eg McLintock (1963)); female star Capucine was the producer’s mistress, a model who had only made one film before; and filming started without a completed script. But it completely works – it’s charming and sweet, director Henry Hathaway keeps the pace fast, and Capucine turned out to be one of the best co-stars Wayne ever had. Fabian has a great little role as the younger brother of Wayne’s partner (Stewart Granger!) who tries to seduce Capucine; he sings a song and joins in on a few comic brawls. His performance won him the “Uncrossed Heart” award for least Promising Actor of 1960 in Harvard Lampoon’s Annual Movie awards – a completely unfair accolade but typical of the snarkiness with which Fabian was treated at the time. High Time was reasonably popular but North to Alaska turned into a big hit and affirmed Fox’s commitment to Fabian; in November 1960, they signed a new contract with the singer, to last for seven years, with an option to make two films a year.

Fox had a lively TV division and assigned Fabian to star in an episode of the anthology series Bus Stop (based on the 1956 Marilyn Monroe film) – “A Lion Walks Among Us”, directed by Robert Altman. Fabian plays a drifter who rocks into a small town and soon makes waves: hitting on the middle aged drunken lady who gives him a lift, robbing and killing a grocer, singing without permission at a tavern, starting a brawl and pulling out a switchblade. He’s hauled into prison and is arrested but remains cocky, keeps singing to himself a lot and actually gets freed at the trial… whereupon he propositions a blonde groupie, kills his lawyer, then is killed in a murder-suicide by the drunken lady. It’s excellent television, superbly directed by Altman, with Fabian giving his best performance.

Unfortunately the episode screened at a time when America was undergoing one of its periodic moral panics about the influence of television violence on children. Part of the problem apparently was Fabian’s presence – he’s handsome, young, sings a few songs, is shown to be attractive, speaks a lot of groovy early 60s slang, and gets away with it (for the most part). This perceived glamourisation of violence was very confronting for some: Jack Gould of the New York Times wrote not one, not two, but three separate columns decrying the episode; several sponsors withdrew their support from the series and and a number of stations would not run it. The episode was criticised in congress, leading to Bus Stop being axed and and the president of ABC being fired.

To be fair, the show was intense, not really suitable for young kids, but it is worthy adult drama. Apparently Fox wanted to turn it into a feature, but Fabian refused to shoot the necessary extra scenes – it’s a shame, because then this would be better known, and his fine work more widely seen.

The blow back didn’t seem to hurt Fabian personally – indeed, he decided to quit singing, buying himself out of his contract with Marcucci, and focusing entirely on acting. When Fox’s management underwent major restructuring in the wake of the Cleopatra (1963) debacle, numerous people lost their jobs but Fabian held on to his contract.  One possible fall out – Fabian veered away from villainous roles for the next decade. He played anti-heroes, yes, but not out-and-out villains, which I feel in hindsight was a mistake.

Fox loaned him to the producers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s who put him in a teen comedy at Paramount: Love in a Goldfish Bowl (1962). Fabian played a coast guard who comes between two platonic friends – newcomer Toby Michaels and fellow pop star Tommy Sands, whose black hair was dyed blonde so he would look different from Fabian. The film has problems of movies of its time – for instance, Fabian basically tries to sexually assault Michaels – but also its pleasures (the cinematography and tunes – Burt Bacharach and Hal David did the title track). It’s very possible to do a gay reading of this film, with Sands displaying zero sexual interest in Michaels or any woman throughout the film. Or maybe that’s too limiting: because when Fabian puts the hard word on Michaels, she is very coy and not keen at all, despite flirting heavily with him until then. So maybe it’s more accurate to describe this movie as being about two people with low sex drives who find each other. Sands has the showier role but lacked the chops to pull it off (he’s not a believable intellectual). Fabian is far more comfortable in a more straightforward part.

Fabian was one of many Fox contract players who appeared in The Longest Day (1962). He played a US Ranger who stormed Normandy alongside other teen idols like Tommy Sands, Paul Anka, Robert Wagner and George Segal. Okay maybe Segal wasn’t a teen idol but the others were – it’s like a late 50s pop supergroup put into a war movie. The film was a blockbuster – the most commercially successful movie Fabian appeared in, although his role was brief.

He was one of several names in Irving Allen’s Jules Verne adaptation Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). The studio had previously made a terrific film based on Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) with Pat Boone, but Five Weeks is not in that class. It has bright colours and solid actors (Cedric Hardwicke, Barbara Eden), but too many of them seem miscast, such as Red Buttons trying to channel Clark Gable. Fabian has relatively little to do though he sings a song – the title track, which did not become a hit. The film was a box office disappointment that helped kill off the Jules Verne cycle.

Fox teamed Fabian with another old star, James Stewart in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), a sweet comedy about Mr Hobbs (Stewart) and his family, well, taking a vacation. Fabian’s role is not big but he has a lovely scene – Hobbs pays Fabian to dance with his lonely awkward daughter but Fabian has so much fun he refuses the cash. The film, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Henry Levin, was popular, leading to two more comedies from the same team – Take Her She’s Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965).

Fabian with James Stewart in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.

Fabian was meant to be in Take Her She’s Mine alongside Stewart and Sandra Dee but doesn’t appear in the final film – presumably because he was meant to play Dee’s boyfriend and Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck eventually decided to make that character French. He is in Dear Brigitte (1965) playing the boyfriend of Stewart’s daughter (Cindy Carol); it’s not a very good movie and flopped at the box office, though Fabian has some decent moments trying to exploit a child genius at the race track – the film would have been better had they done more with this storyline.

In between these films Fabian was borrowed by Columbia Pictures for a surf movie, Ride the Wild Surf (1964). Production on this was difficult – original director Art Napoleon was fired and replaced by Don Taylor; Fabian’s original co-stars Jan and Dean (fellow pop artists) got the sack when a good friend of theirs kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr. and were replaced by Tab Hunter and Pete Brown. The resulting film is, however, one of the best beach movies of the 60s – it actually makes an attempt to understand surf culture, has decent female roles, and features some spectacular surf footage. Fabian has a solid part, accessing his pseudo-Elvis schtick playing a surfer with a chip on his shoulder. He is charming with Shelley Fabares, although yet again there’s a scene where he uses rough handling on her – this was very common in 60s cinema.

Fox announced Fabian for several projects which did not happen – adaptations of the novels Beardless Warriors and A Summer World, as well as a Western, Custer’s Last Stand. He made no more films for the studio after Dear Brigitte, but it had been a good  run. 

In 1965, he appeared in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians for producer Harry Alan Towers, playing a singer who is the first guest killed. He was also appearing regularly as a guest star on episodes of TV shows such as Wagon Train and The Virginian, always doing professional work – though never under a director as good as Robert Altman and they never came up to the standard of A Lion Walks Amongst Us.

AIP

Samuel Z Arkoff, one of the vice presidents in American International Pictures, wrote in his memoirs that he wanted Fabian to co-star alongside Annette Funicello in Beach Party (1963), but was prevented by Fabian’s contract with Fox. Even if the story is accurate – Arkoff was notorious for bending the truth – it was probably lucky for AIP they got Frankie Avalon instead: the amiable actor-singer had a broader, more cartoon-style persona that fit those movies better.

AIP were still keen on Fabian however and signed him to a seven-picture contract in November 1965. By then the studio had made six beach party films and the formula was waning so they took key members of the team – notably Avalon, Funicello, and director William Asher – and put them in a stock car racing movie, Fireball 500 (1966)…co-starring Fabian. The film awkwardly straddles the broad surrealistic musical comedy of the Beach Party movies with AIP’s more serious works of the late 60s – it has a claymation title sequence, Avalon does a double take at the camera and characters break out into song, but it has more adult themes (characters have sex, people die, 50% of Julie Parrish’s dialogue is sexual innuendo). Fabian brings his pseudo-Elvis snarling to this one and it works well – he was a believable race car driver, angry but good underneath. Funicello winds up with Fabian at the end rather than Frankie, which after all those beach party movies she made with Avalon feels like cheating.

The film was produced by Burt Topper who put Fabian in another stock car racing film for AIP, Thunder Alley (1967).  It co-stars Funicello and Diane McBain under the direction of later cult favourite Richard Rush (Getting Straight, The Stuntman). Thunder Alley is a far more cohesive and successful film than Fireball 500 – a solid drama with a thumping soundtrack (some of which Tarantino appropriated for Death Proof) and Annette Funicello is really good – but then it’s a strong role, perhaps her best ever for AIP. Fabian is also strong – cocky, arrogant, but haunted and basically decent; it’s one of his best parts.

In between these two movies AIP sent Fabian to Italy to replace Frankie Avalon in Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), a sequel to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) starring Vincent Price. Girl Bombs, directed by Mario Bava of all people, is a nutty comedy that was mashed up between two different styles of films – a Goldfoot sequel (Price reprised his role) and vehicle for the Italian comedy duo Franco and Ciccio. There are two main versions of the film – one for America (with more Vincent Price) one for Italy (with more Franco and Ciccio). Fabian is an amiable straight man but it’s a terrible movie, considered among Price’s and Bava’s worst.

Fabian’s third racing film for AIP was very different from the others. The Wild Racers (1968) was shot on location in six different countries throughout Europe. Producer Roger Corman supervised a tight crew who would go from race to race shooting footage (a method he had used earlier on The Young Racers, 1963). It’s a very arty avant garde film, directed by Dan Haller – shots rarely go longer than ten seconds, most dialogue is voice over. Fabian is very good as the cocky race driver who is meant to help his more senior partner win but can’t help winning himself. That’s the gist of the plot – plus a romance with a stunningly beautiful Mimsy Farmer. There are plenty of scenes of cars zipping around, groovy music and credits, great production values, and consistently interesting techniques – Nestor Almendros did the cinematography. There’s not a lot of drama going on and only Fabian gets a full-fleshed character – the way the movie is made causes you to feel distance from it. Still, it’s worth seeking out if you’re interested in a race car movie that is very “late 60s funky”. It’s Tarantino’s favourite race car movie.

Fabian’s fifth film for AIP was a surprisingly conventional drug drama, Maryjane (1968), where he  plays a teacher who uncovers a marijuana racket at his high school. It’s bewildering to think that AIP made this the year after The Trip (1967)… but then Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson were concerned about the former movie being too pro-drug so maybe they churned this out to cover their bases. Maury Dexter’s handling is generally quite lively and there is some decent enough acting, but this is just silly, with gangs of kids puffing weed and driving off cliffs, like in Reefer Madness (1936). It’s a little odd seeing Fabian play a teacher; he’s alright, but it’s a shame this wasn’t made a few years earlier when he could have played the charismatic bad student.

The Devil’s Eight (1968), produced and directed by Topper, was an AIP rip off of The Dirty Dozen where agent Chris George recruits a bunch of convicts to take on moonshiner Ralph Meeker. Fabian’s role is surprisingly small for someone second billed – he plays a convict with a drinking problem, and he’s fine, but his part is not as good as Ross Hagen, who plays a former moonshine driver whose ex is Meeker’s mistress. Maybe Fabian didn’t seem Southern enough, or they only used him in the movie under sufferance. The film was the first credit script credit for John Milius and Willard Hyuck and was based on a story by Larry Gordon – all would become major players in Hollywood in the 70s, but none of them used Fabian again. Neither did other collaborators who went on to bigger things, such as Mario Bava and Richard Rush.

Fabian took time out from AIP to play a Depression-era gangster, John Ashley, in a film for Crown International – Little Laura and Big John – a low budget knock off of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Fabian gives a decent performance as does co-star Karen Black, but the film, shot in 1968, was not seen until 1973. 

A still from Fabian’s AIP swan song, Bullet for a Pretty Boy.

Fabian’s seventh and final movie for AIP was Bullet for a Pretty Boy (1970) another Depression-era biopic of a gangster, in this case Pretty Boy Floyd. It was mostly directed by legendary schlockmeister Larry Buchanan, given his biggest budget ever, with Maury Dexter coming in to shoot some additional scenes. Fabian gives another accomplished performance as a gee-it-isn’t-his-fault-kid-forced-to-crime. His physical attractiveness is exploited heavily in the movie – surprisingly few films did this considering Fabian became a pop star mostly by being good looking. Here he’s got Jocelyn Lane and Astrid Warner throwing themselves at him, as well as a brothel madam. The film itself is competent rather than inspired – it could have done with more passion – but isn’t bad.

Later Career

Without a contract to a studio, Fabian found himself in considerably less demand for feature film work in the 1970s. He made a few career missteps this decade – he posed nude for Playgirl and regretted it, was involved in a car accident. He had the lead in some low budget features that few people saw – Soul Hustler (1973), directed by Burt Topper, where Fabian plays a drifter who becomes a Christian rock star; and Disco Fever (1978), disco-sploitation effort with Casey Kasem.

Fabian returned to singing and hit the nostalgia circuit, notably in places like Las Vegas; he was well-received and still remains in demand for this in 2019, sometimes teaming up with fellow idols like Avalon and Bobby Rydell. On a personal front, he had two unsuccessful marriages but struck gold with the third, marrying magazine editor Andrea Patrick in 1998. A son from his first marriage, Christian, wrote the film Albino Alligator (1996).

Fabian continued to act through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, mostly guest shots on TV shows – Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, and so on. Perhaps his best performance from this period was the George Peppard TV movie Crisis in Mid Air (1979) where Fabian plays an airport worker who kills taxi drivers. He was a cop in the zombie film Kiss Daddy Goodbye (1981), Joe Dante gave him a small role in Runaway Daughters (1994), and he had a cameo as himself in Up Close and Personal (1996).

He wasn’t forgotten as a cultural touchstone. The leads in Laverne and Shirley were obsessed with Fabian, as was the Nicholas Cage character in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). “Turn Me Loose” was used in Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981) and Fabian provided the inspiration for the character of Cesare (Peter Gallagher) in The Idolmaker (1980), a thinly-disguised account of the rise of Bob Marcucci directed by Taylor Hackford. (Fabian sued the filmmakers and won an out of court settlement.)

Conclusion

What to make of the cinematic career of Fabian Forte? He was no Elvis Presley, or even Pat Boone, but he certainly did better as an actor than, say, Tommy Sands or Bobby Rydell. His career was more analogous with his fellow Philadelphian Frankie Avalon. He was mainly called upon to play basically nice young men, sometimes with a chip on his shoulder. When offered a meaty role he usually rose to the occasion – Hound Dog Man, A Lion Walks Among Us, Thunder Alley – and when he had to support he did it effectively – North to Alaska, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation. He wasn’t a great actor but he was a good one, and should be better remembered.

About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

One comment

  1. Fabian always struck me as the standard for prefab pop stars, but I appreciated his self-deprecating turn, along with former teen idol Bobby Sherman, in Allan Arkush’s “Get Crazy” as yes-men toadies of bad guy Ed Begley, Jr.

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