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Hintnaus’ fame was never fleeting, but it was brief

Times Staff Writer

Tom Hintnaus was once an elite-level athlete, known throughout the world. A two-time Olympian, the former University of Oregon pole vaulter placed first in his specialty at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1980. And with the face of a matinee idol and the sculpted body of an Adonis, he could stop traffic.

But he didn’t really get noticed until he took off his pants.

Hintnaus, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, was the first Calvin Klein underwear model and photographer Bruce Weber’s iconic image of the tanned and anonymous Southern Californian leaning back against a whitewashed wall, clad only in his skivvies, caused a culture-rippling sensation 25 years ago when it was plastered on billboards and magazine pages.

“It was the height, the epitome of a sexual revolution, primarily for men,” photography curator Diana Edkins told American Photographer in 1989, when the magazine included the image in an article titled, “10 Pictures That Changed America.” Wrote the magazine of the photo’s impact: “In this one shot ... Weber made men the focal point of sexual attention; for the first time, they were sold as sexual objects, not breadwinners or authority figures.”

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Says Hintnaus: “I worked so hard to be the best pole vaulter in the world and I ended up being more well known for putting on a pair of briefs.”

Not that he’s complaining.

Professionally, Hintnaus notes, the notoriety “opened a lot of doors,” helping to perhaps ease the sting -- if only slightly -- of not being able to compete in the 1980 Olympics because of the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games.

Married and the father of two daughters, the older a 15-year-old high school freshman and varsity pole vaulter in Houston, he lives with his second wife and their 8-year-old daughter in Honolulu, where Hintnaus still dabbles in modeling and commercial acting but makes his living as a contractor.

Hintnaus, 49, owns and operates Hawaii Kai Docks, a construction company that remodels homes and builds floating docks for private residences.

“I wanted to own a niche business,” he says, “and I got into the perfect niche because I’m on the water all day and at lunch I go surfing.”

At 6 feet and 198 pounds, about 10 pounds heavier than when he modeled in his unmentionables, he is an avid surfer, kite surfer, beach volleyball player and -- when visiting the mainland -- snowboarder. Two years ago, after a 15-year break from pole vaulting, he won an age-group national championship.

“I kind of keep chasing that image,” Hintnaus says of the famous photograph that appealed not only to women but to men too -- gay and straight alike. “I can’t let myself get out of shape. That’s not the reason I stay in shape, but I can’t let myself go because when people think of me, they think of that image.”

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Klein, when the ad first hit, spun a tall tale for the media of how he had discovered Hintnaus while the athlete was running near UCLA. Klein said that he was tooling along Sunset Boulevard with a producer friend when he spotted Hintnaus.

“I yelled, ‘That’s him. Stop the car,’ ” Klein told reporters.

In truth, Hintnaus says, they met near USC -- at the Olympic pool outside the Coliseum. Hintnaus had been modeling for a few years, he says, and landed a role in a commercial for Calvin Klein active wear. The part required springboard diving, Hintnaus says, and at the shoot Klein introduced himself and said he might be interested in using the model in an upcoming ad campaign to be shot in Greece.

“It went in one ear and out the other,” Hintnaus says.

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But to Hintnaus’ surprise, Klein followed up with a call to his agent. Hintnaus decamped to the Greek isle of Santorini and Weber snapped the photo that changed his life. “There was a whole different spin on it back in the day,” Hintnaus says, laughing, “but that’s the true story. Of course, if you believe all the stories floating around out there, I’m dead and I was killed by my gay lover, which is also a false story. Obviously, I’m still alive, and I’m not gay.”

Hintnaus, though, is bitter. If not for President Carter’s boycott of the ’80 Games in Moscow, he says, he would have had a “great shot” at winning a gold medal.

“The carpet was pulled out from underneath us,” says Hintnaus, who was born in Brazil, spent the first two years of his life there and represented the nation of his birth in the ’84 Games in Los Angeles. “Nothing was the same for me after that, as far as sports went. They used us as pawns and it left a bad taste in my mouth. He took away our careers and tried to make a statement with us.”

Hintnaus, whose Czech parents fled their homeland in 1948, placed fifth at the 1983 world championships, representing Brazil, and 12th at the ’84 Olympics.

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By then, of course, he was better known as a model.

Even today, a quarter-century later, he says he is still sometimes recognized as the chiseled hunk from the underwear ad, which is OK by him.

“It’s all positive,” he says. “I’m not embarrassed by it.”

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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