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Why Toupees are Tops!

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Originally posted at An Open Book.

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave! Having ordered several episodes of Bonanza via Netflix to placate my growing infatuation with Michael Landon in his prime (I've got a thing for werewolves in sheepskin), I couldn't help but notice the preponderance of toupees in that long-lived series. Lorne Greene looks as if he's got a muskrat clinging to his scalp. And poor Pernell Roberts cuts a rug each time he appears, looking peaked and sweaty under his. I liked him better in Trapper John, M.D. when he could let his hair down. The result is that I spent more time scrutinizing the ingenuity of the Ponderosa stylists than the insipid scripts.

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Toupees had their apogee in the Golden Age of Television. Watch any old episode of Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burke's Law or Surfside 6 (all of which I've been devouring on DVD or Hulu) and one is astounded by the parade of bad rugs, plugs, divots and weave jobs on the heads of guest stars, character actors and extras. The glare and heat of the intense lights of early TV did not shine kindly on these poseurs. In time, advances were made in filming and the wigwork became less obvious.

How else can one explain the legendary legerdemain of the toupees worn by such TV stalwarts as Jack Klugman, Marv Albert and, of course, Howard Cosell? No one would ever have guessed at their stylists' handiwork. Remember when Muhammed Ali so unkindly poked fun at Cosell's? Granted, Cosell lacked the self-effacing (and scalp-slapping) humor of Charles Nelson Reilly who made light of his predicament often on Hollywood Squares. Speaking of squares, can you imagine Sam Donaldson without his shellacked helmet hair? In the words of a classic ad line, "Does he or doesn't he?" Only his hairdresser knows for sure.

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Of course, "hair replacements"--which is how various companies that sell toupees market them--are nothing new. They've been around since Roman times, and no doubt earlier. Narcissus probably owned one. But it is their presence in entertainment that I find most amusing. The other day I was watching a John Wayne flick, one of his later horse operas, during which he threw himself into a fistfight. Thanks to the marvels of the pause button, one can see his head get knocked back by a fake punch. The lid he was wearing flips back like a waffle iron above his skull, then lands back down perfectly in the exact same spot.

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I remember as a wide-eyed teen, obsessed with That's Entertainment!, being mesmerized by the wigs worn by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly when they appeared to introduce their earlier star turns. Both of these terpsichorean talents must have made fortunes in their careers, but they could not afford a good hair stylist. Perhaps they should have hired Dick Smith to do their makeup. He might have come up with something more realistic than the plastic Halloween plugs they sported.

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It makes you wonder why people bother to wear them at all? Clearly no one is going to fire Fred Astaire merely because he lost his hair. And Gene Kelly could dance with a bag over his head and people still would only notice his legs. So why the naive vanity? The descent into deceit, the fool's feint? Was it peer pressure? Could be. In time, even Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Burt Reynolds succumbed.

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Sean Connery, I guess, had good reason to wear a toupee. He was bald from the get-go, or at least had thinning hair. One can't really see James Bond with a comb-over. But Connery was also one of the first superstars to doff his top. And today he vacillates between total bald pates and stylish perruques. Likewise Ray Milland, that dashing leading man of yore who later became the king of a number of outlandish and quite campy horror films. When he was asked to make a comeback in Love Story, he opted to do it sans wig, and the result was universal acclaim. He got some of the best reviews of his career.

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That's one of the reasons I love Joseph Biden. Sure his hair looks a bit funny at times, and he's obviously had some help, but it's real. He has not kowtowed to the media groomers who might have coaxed him into going all the way with the Hair Club for Men. Which reminds me. I was startled to discover that there are actually clubs devoted to the Hair Club for Men, and even special-interest porn films for like-minded souls who share a fetish for fake hair.

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Elton John's career seems, very subtly, to have improved after he donned his new locks. (In his case, the word toupee seems inadequate, since he is sporting much more than just a piece.) But look at Ron Howard (another symbol of 60s youth) who proudly has never resorted to covering up his Bozoesque bean.

If an award could be given out for the best show topper of all time, it would have to go to Andy Warhol. To his credit, he never attempted to hide the fact that his hair was unnatural. He flaunted it. Perhaps toupee is not the operative word when discussing his silvery adornment. It was more like an objet d'art -- the ultimate trophy of "fop art" and belongs in a museum -- which I believe is where it sits today.

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Today the art of hiding one's age under a male merkin is in no danger of disappearing. One could even argue that this is the dawn of a new era of scientific enhancement. How else can one explain the uncanny hair styles worn by the likes of Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, Brendan Fraser, Nicolas Cage, and John Travolta?

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No doubt it's because I wake up each morning with a few of my own hairs loosely clinging to my pillow that I care enough about this subject to broach it here. I suppose I could weave my own periwig out of the thousands of strands I've recovered over the last few years. But so long as I still have one of my own hairs left, I'm not going to give in to temptation. Toupees are tops when you're paid $20 million to wear one. No amount of humility can overcome that steep a bribe. Until someone does offer me that kind of incentive, I'm going to continue to show off my "distinguished" receding hairline and saintly burgeoning tonsure.