Antonio Vargas plays an angel-like character who changes the life of a type-A father in Silver Bells. He talked to me about how he broke into show business and singing in the airport with his co-star and fellow 70’s television icon Bruce Boxleitner. He’s best known for playing the street-smart Huggy Bear in “Starsky and Hutch.” The movie premieres tomorrow, December 1 on UP TV, at 7pm, 9pm and 11pm ET.
Tell me about your character in the film.
I play Major Melvin Lowell of the Salvation Army and he’s a little bit like the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol” or the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life” because he takes this other character, Bruce Dalt, on a journey, and he comes out on the other side with an appreciation of giving through humility and giving the new eyes to see the benefits and the spirit of Christmas. He’s very much the connector, like Huggy Bear was that connected between Starsky and Hutch. Major Lowell is connector between Bruce’s old life like Scrooge and the spiritual sense of purpose. It was a fun role to play.
Bruce said the two of you really bonded and had a great time on the set.
Yes, we did between having dinner or traveling together to and from the set. It all started when we arrived together in an airport together in the blizzard. And we sang and spent the time, I think it was almost two hours, to get to our location and that was the beginning. And then every day, it’s sharing the same dressing room and just about the work, being a seasoned veteran that he is, and for me after 40 years to be working with him and leading these young actors, and accepting responsibility.
It’s a very important message for families, isn’t it? Why is it people lose sight of what’s important in the holidays and get caught up in the external craziness?
It’s a lot of social peer pressure and, again, losing sight of what the essence of Christmas is about. And for somebody like Bruce Dalt to be one of those — I’ve been around football dads and soccer dads with so much vested that they lose sight of what it’s about. It’s about the young person having an opportunity.
Bruce is so driven in his own self that he fails to see how he’s missing the point. And that’s what happened at Christmas. The commercializing of it and the pressures that puts on people to have instead of knowing that it’s about what we give. People have a tough time getting through that and it just reminds you that the meek shall inherit the Earth so I really get it when people go down and go to a soup kitchen and try to get some of the commercialism out of Christmas.
How did your family celebrate Christmas when you were growing up?
Well I come from meager means in New York but there was still a sense of innocence. If we got one thing, it was great. My dad was at the Department of Sanitation. He was a garbage man. He picked up trash around New York. It was dignity. And I was one of eleven children so we knew about hand-me-downs. And government milk, and I always said, “When I grow up, I’m going to have butter because we always had this margarine.” I grew up in the projects in New York where there was a sense of family, where people looked out for each other and someone could admonish someone else’s kids if they were wrong and we had to respect your elders.
What was the first acting job that you got paid for?
The first thing I ever did was a movie called “A Cool World” with my mother’s urging at 14, I tried out in this film about gangs sort of like West Side Story but this was set in Harlem. And I remember I made $20 a day and first check number was 127. I think I made $60. Three days and I loved it. Here I was going to the movies, RKO in New York, and I would see Cary Grant, John Wayne, and all these people up on the screen. And to think that I was going to be up on that screen like that, it created such a hunger in me that I could get out of self and I found a family of artists that felt different like I felt. These feelings and an opportunity to express them, it was such a liberating experience and because the times, coming out of the hippie generation, Vietnam War, and all these things that were happening to music and all. I mean it was just a very, very rich time. Then from 14, I got into a play called “The Amen Corner” which went to Europe, and ended up working for The Beatles, Manager, Brian Epstein. My parents had to go to high school to get my diploma on graduation because I had to be in Vienna for the opening of the play. I bathed in the River Jordan on my 18th birthday in Israel.
It’s just been a phenomenal ride and then to culminate as of 2013, with a Christmas themed story for television. It’s wonderful, feels wonderful and right where I’m supposed to be and I so pleased to get an opportunity to share the gifts that I got, and to put those into motion and something that resembles a spiritual story for the people and to give hope to people because you don’t always get to choose.