THIS LIST OF HOLLYWOOD STARS DIDN’T ONLY STRUGGLE WITH HAIR LOSS; THEY WORE TOUPEES, OR WHAT ARE COMMONLY KNOWN TODAY AS “HAIR SYSTEMS”.
“Bald” and “Hollywood” historically have not gone together very well. Oh, there have been plenty of bald men (and the occasional woman) on screen; but by and large, bald actors tend to get relegated to playing comic sidekicks, nefarious villains, or wise old patriarchs.
Yul Brynner is an obvious exception, and more and more contemporary actors such as Vin Diesel and Bruce Willis have made inroads into parts that have traditionally been reserved for the “hair affluent.” But when you look at films, most leading men belong to the “coiffed set” – at least while the camera is rolling.
Once they’re off the set, however, things may look different. A surprising number of Hollywood’s leading men have opted to wear toupees to disguise varying degrees of hair loss. (A 1954 “Time” article on make-up expert Max Factor claimed that 9 out of 10 male stars over 35 wore “hair additions.”)
“One of the screen’s most distinctive “tough guys,” Humphrey Bogart, was also a toupee devotee.”
That’s to be expected, of course. Appearances are important in Hollywood, and it’s the rare leading player that can achieve lasting fame while shaking up perceived notions of attractiveness, sexiness, etc. It happens occasionally, as when Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman helped redefine what was acceptable in a star’s appearance in the late 1960s. But more often, a performer who really wants to be a star has to play by the accepted rules, and that includes notions about hair or the lack thereof.
So this article isn’t intended to denigrate the stars it mentions for wearing hair, which is a perfectly acceptable personal option. It’s merely intended to point out some stars who you may not have realized belong on the hair loss list.
Would “Stage Coach” and “Casablanca” have been the same?
Topping that list is the actor who, in terms of ticket sales, is the biggest star America has ever produced: John Wayne. The Duke started disguising his spot in the mid-1940s, but his real pate can be viewed in its glory in 1957’s “The Wings of Eagles.” Wayne wears his rug for most of the film, but near the end, when the film moves forward in time, the hairpiece comes off. It’s a bit of a shock at first, but hair or lack of it had no role in what made the Duke the legendary figure that he is. In 1974, when asked about his phony hair, the actor responded that it was real hair. “Of course, it’s not mine, but it’s real,” he added, in that inimitable Wayne fashion.
One of the screen’s most distinctive “tough guys,” Humphrey Bogart, was also a toupee devotee. Not traditionally handsome, Bogart nevertheless exuded unique sexuality – based on an outer roughness that disguised both an inner neediness and a sense of melancholy – that appealed to women of the time. Bogart’s appeal comes so much from within the actor that it’s intriguing to think that his intense scenes with Lauren Bacall in “The Big Sleep” or with Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” might have lit just as many fireworks if he’d played them free of any scalp covering.
The man who played Ben-Hur and who discovered that soylent green was people frequently wore a hairpiece. Charlton Heston, arguably the prototype of the modern action movie star, started disguising his receding hairline in the late 1950s, a fact that was especially obvious in his last years. Indeed, Heston’s unconvincing later hairpieces once promoted Gore Vidal to remark that he saw Charlton Heston wearing a toupee that “looked like it could eat a child.”
If Sean Connery’s James Bond can thwart a whole phalanx of henchman without mussing his hair, that may be because that hair isn’t real. The debonair Scot disguised his baldness while playing 007, but off-screen Connery was much more relaxed about the matter. Eventually, Connery was able to skip the hairpiece when onscreen as well – and proved to millions of swooning women that sensuality is in the man, not the follicle.
Musical movie stars also suffered hair loss
Musical films also have had their share of actors with hair loss issues. The world’s two leading crooners, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, also enjoyed significant film careers. Crosby, like Connery, was not fond of his hairpiece and only grudgingly wore it on screen. Sinatra’s “toupee period” didn’t really start in earnest until the 1960s, but he went into with gusto: one report states that Ol’ Blue Eyes possessed more than 60 hairpieces and required a full-time staff member to handle them. Excessive? Maybe, but it also meant that Frankie always had a hairpiece on hand that was just what the occasion demanded.
Hollywood’s most celebrated male dancers, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, also were toupee wearers. Given the incredible amount of movement that their dancing entailed – especially for Kelly, with his athletically-based style – it seems rather amazing that their hairpieces stayed with them.
As with Bogart, Hollywood may have played it unnecessarily safe with Astaire. His attraction was not really based on his head anyway; it was based on everything that happened from the neck down, from the way his body moved and the way it wore his clothes, from the words he said and how he said them. The man defined sophistication, and a bald head wouldn’t have made him any less suave.
The list goes on, of course. Jimmy Stewart. Van Heflin. Burt Reynolds. Fred MacMurray. Right on up to John Travolta, Nicholas Cage and beyond.
They’re all a part of our celluloid landscape. They’re masterful film presences that have created scores of unforgettable movie moments. We doff our hats – and our hairpieces – with respect to them.