| Throughout history, fiction has brought us notable manly men, from Achilles and Ulysses to Beowulf, Robin Hood, and Sherlock Holmes. In the 20th century we started getting our fictional heroes from the screen rather than the page, first from the movies and then from television. In the past few years I’ve spent more than a little time (and not a little money) studying the concept of manhood and the warrior. Every now and then a character comes along that is intriguing, and sometimes in ways one might not expect. In these postings I will occasionally talk about heroes, real-life and fictional, from Westerns and sports movies and gladiator flicks and spy movies, even comic books. The contemporary TV drama has produced many memorable characters, and here are four of mine. Guys, see if you can identify with these men in ways that I have–or, perhaps, in ways that are different.
Don Draper, Mad Men (AMC, 2007-15)
Set at a New York City advertising agency in the 1960s, Mad Men grabbed immediate attention and critical acclaim when it premiered in 2007. About to present the second half of its 7th and final season, the series has produced one of television’s most manly of men, creative director Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm.
Stylishly dressed, carefully groomed, Draper presents an air of confidence and masculinity that draws the respect and admiration of his colleagues and, most notably, the attention of women. He is confident but not arrogant, wielding the authority of his position firmly but deftly. Yes, he smokes like a chimney and drinks a little too much by today’s standards, but these are vices we don’t hold against him. After all, he was a product of his times. He is, by all we can see, a successful man—attractive, well-paid, at one time married to a gorgeous ex-model with three small children in a large suburban house. Yet Draper is not without his demons, and this is what makes him all the more interesting. He is a man of mystery, concealing a secret from his boss, his colleagues, and even his wife: the illegitimate son of a hardscrabble Midwestern farmer, he escaped his upbringing by serving in the Korean War, where he impulsively stole the identity of an officer who was killed in the same attack that gave the man who would be Draper his Purple Heart. Don recognizes that this act of “stolen valor” was wrong, but he has chosen to live with it because his carefully-crafted life as Don Draper is worth it. He is also a philanderer, often preferring the company of sultry brunettes to that of his blonde wife.
We certainly can’t excuse Draper’s infidelity, although his attitude toward women is decidedly more gentlemanly that that displayed by many of his colleagues; some of the things they say to the women in their office would result in a lawsuit today, provided they hadn’t already been thrown out the window. The series is about to enter its final seven-episode run, and we already know Draper will receive his comeuppance. He’s been through two divorces, numerous affairs and professional upheavals. But I still like Don; hey, what man wouldn’t want to look that good in a suit?
Jack Bauer, 24 (FOX, 2001-14 )
When all else fails and it looks like the terrorists are finally going to bring our nation to its knees, the call goes out for Jack Bauer, agent of the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit. Against great odds, and not without bending just about every rule along the way, Bauer comes through, keeping America safe—at least until the next attack. When FOX introduced the series in late 2001, we knew this would not be your average spy drama. The story would be told in real time over 24 episodes, one hour each. The critics thought it would bomb, but instead it was a big hit, thanks in large part to Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland.
Jack is a man of action. A former Army Special Forces combat veteran, he focuses like a laser on his mission and lets nothing stand in his way, whether they be murderous terrorists, fussy bureaucrats or two-faced politicians. Along the way he’s been shot, beaten, tortured, even kidnaped and thrown into a Chinese prison. He won back his wife after he cheated on her with a sexy colleague, only to see his wife murdered by his ex-lover, who turned out to be a double-agent. He’s been estranged from his grown daughter, although at the end of one season they reconciled and Jack found out he’s a grandfather. (A nice touch, that makes Jack more likable; can you imagine James Bond as a grandpa?) He’s a patriot, loyal to his country and to his friends, almost to a fault. After a particularly trying adventure in which his new lover was tortured in an attempt to make Jack break, he tried to escape his life, and liberal congressmen who wanted to see him jailed for torturing suspects, by fleeing overseas; he turned himself in, though, because that was the only way he could keep innocent children from falling into the clutches of a brutal African dictator.
Like all such action dramas, 24 strains the bounds of credulity once in awhile. Would it really be that easy, for instance, for a terrorist commando team to infiltrate the White House, as one did during a typical Jack day? (Come to think of it, yeah, they could, especially if they did it during a state dinner.) During his 24-hour pedal-to-the-metal adventure, Jack doesn’t stop to eat or sleep, and he must have the best bladder control on the planet. But we like Jack because he’s a man’s man, a man of action, yet he has feelings, too. He still feels the loss of his wife and blames himself for her death and the later loss of his new love to torture and drugs. Last year the series concluded with the special titled 24: Live Another Day, in which Jack comes out of hiding to save England from hijacked American drones. Live Another Day got solid ratings and was praised by the critics, prompting FOX to explore the idea of continuing the franchise, even though Sutherland says he’s done. Whoever takes over as the leading man will have a tough act to follow.
Arnold Becker, LA Law (NBC, 1986-93)
There was once a time, not long ago, when California was the place to be. That’s where the men were all good-looking and the women were stunning, where the sun was always shining and everybody had money. Those of us stuck in the often-frozen Upper Midwest could only watch shows like LA Law and dream. This ensemble legal drama was set in the offices of McKenzie, Brackman, and the guy I liked best was marital law specialist Arnie Becker, played winningly by Corbin Bernsen.
Arnie was single, he was wealthy, he wore Armani suits and drove a Porsche and dated beautiful women. In one memorable episode, the show opened by showing Arnie waking one morning in his impressive Malibu home next to his latest blonde. It’s mid-winter but still warm enough for him to take a dip in his pool, then as he’s making fresh orange juice the TV shows a blizzard in the Midwest. Putting the final touches on his Italian tie while his girlfriend is in the shower, he prepares to leave for another day at the office and she reminds him not to ding her Jaguar with his Porsche as he departs. Then it’s off to the firm where he will spend his day helping yet another wealthy woman split from her husband (but not his money). But of course, Arnie’s world wasn’t as perfect as it appeared to be on the surface. He was supremely self-centered, the poster boy for “unable to commit”; when he became engaged to a former client, his secretary caught him on the couch in his office with a new client even as his fiancee waited outside. He was charming but could be immature. His roguish manners and good looks entranced many a lady who would ultimately be dumped when he felt they were getting too close. His male colleagues kept him more or less at arm’s length, and the women in the office barely tolerated him. The senior partners put up with his peccadilloes because he brought a lot of revenue into the firm. But he could be a stand-up guy and a good friend when he wanted to be; his closest friend in the office was Benny, the developmentally-disabled mail clerk.
Arnie was the perfect example of a guy who seemingly had much that was admirable, but once you got to know him, you might not want to trade places with him. He would have the money and the clothes, the sports car and the women, but he would never know the warmth and love of a family. Where would he be in his fifties, his sixties? In a “reunion” movie about ten years after the series went off the air, we saw Arnie trying to settle down; with a few more wrinkles and pounds and less hair, he was married to a beautiful young blonde, naturally. But now the shoe was on the other foot: the wife was cheating on him (and with another woman, no less). We felt a bit sorry for Arnie then, but not too much; he had his chances, after all. Still, I recall Arnie with fondness. He would’ve been a great guy to hang out with.
James T. Kirk, Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69)
In the mid-sixties came a show that would have a profound influence not only on television but on the movies and indeed on our entire culture. Star Trek was a science-fiction show unlike any other in history, with memorable characters and well-written plots that really made you think. It was set in the late 23rd century aboard the USS Enterprise, a starship exploring the galaxy, and its captain was the dashing James T. Kirk, memorably played by Canadian actor William Shatner.
When the first Star Trek pilot episode was filmed in 1964, Kirk wasn’t there at all; the skipper was Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. But when NBC ordered an unprecedented second pilot in 1965, Hunter was unavailable, so the role was rewritten for a new captain and the athletic, Shakespearean-trained 34-year-old Shatner was hired. It would be the role of a lifetime. Kirk was a dynamic personality. Completely loyal to his ship and his crew, Kirk had given up any hope of domestic bliss by choosing to explore the stars and confront humankind’s new enemies. He was not above bending the rules in order to accomplish his mission and save the ship, which must have driven his superiors at Starfleet a bit mad, yet he was its most famous and decorated officer, often called upon to undertake the riskiest and most difficult missions. He had a way with the ladies, even alien ladies, and formed close friendships with two of his senior officers, the half-Vulcan science officer Spock and ship’s medical officer Leonard McCoy. After the three-year run of the original series, Shatner played Kirk in seven feature films, ending with Star Trek: Generations (1994), in which Kirk met his end as we all knew he would: in combat against a deadly threat to galactic peace, sacrificing himself in order to save a planet-ful of innocent lives.
Kirk was truly one of TV’s most memorable, manliest men. He was courageous, yet sometimes placed himself and his ship in harm’s way unnecessarily. He could be overly emotional and that sometimes interfered with his decisions, yet he almost always had the coldly logical Spock to rein him in. Kirk’s devotion to his crew was much-admired, yet we sometimes wondered if he was really happy; in the later movies, when he’s promoted and given a desk job, we can see he is miserable without a ship to command. In Generations we get a glimpse of what he really hoped he would be able to do with his life, which was to settle down in peace with a woman. Even then, with lives at stake, he willingly gives up his last shot at happiness and literally rides into battle to meet his fate.
There have been other manly men of TV that I’ve liked, such as police detective Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue; Horatio Hornblower of the eponymous BBC miniseries about an English naval officer in the early 19th century; Cordell Walker of Walker, Texas Ranger, played by Chuck Norris; and my all-time favorite, Spartacus, who will be the subject of a future post all by himself. But the four men I’ve talked about are right below Spartacus at the top of my list. One of the enduring treats of fiction, from the time of the ancient storytellers to authors to characters on the screen, is that we can see ourselves in them, giving us a glimpse of what we might like to be, given the chance. We can’t all be high-powered business executives or suave attorneys, dashing secret agents or swashbuckling astronauts, but we can dream, can’t we? And maybe we can take the best of who and what they are—and the worst—and learn a little bit about manhood.