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The ABC reality show The Bachelor was not around in 1959, but it’s an idea at least that old to put a good-looking, multi-talented, ideal-seeming man on TV. While this season’s bachelor Ben Higgins studied business, enjoys line-dancing and once volunteered in Peru, that year’s Renaissance man was 27-year-old “actor-artist-athlete” Gardner McKay, who was also a sailor and schooner captain, a basketball star, equestrian and diver, a fisherman, model, sculptor and photographer. “This is the face that will—well, let’s say, probably will—launch a million sighs and burn its romantic image into the hearts of hordes of American females,” LIFE declared about that year’s “new Apollo for the ladies.”
McKay, who was preparing for a starring role on the TV show that would make him famous, Adventures in Paradise, was by LIFE’s account the paragon of American good looks:
Later in life, after Adventures in Paradise went off the air, McKay would bask in a return to relative anonymity and turn his attention to writing plays, assisting an agronomist in the Amazon and traveling the Egyptian desert on camelback.
But, though he was a reluctant star, McKay did end up launching at least one sigh—the one that truly counted. Though he admitted to having been afraid to settle down in his younger years, he later wrote in an essay that when he met an Irish artist named Madeleine Madigan in his late 40s, “I pulled over to the side of the road and got out.” They were married for two decades, until his death at 69 in 2001.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.