Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Original Schwarzenegger, RIP

Arnold Schwarzenegger is not an original. Instead, nearly 30 years before the Black Mountain (Schwarzenegger) of Austria cam to America to achieve fame and fortune, another weightlifter traveled from Hungary to the US and became Mr. Universe and one of the most famous Hollywood husbands of his era.

Miklos Hargitay fled the Red flood that swept over post-war Hungary, leaving his home country in 1947 to avoid the Soviet-imposed compulsory draft. Hargitay traveled to Cleveland and settled there as a carpenter and married his first wife. But a magazine supposedly changed his life: he saw Steve "Hercules" Reeves and aspired to be a bodybuilder. From that fateful decision sprang the story of the first real Schwarzenegger: Hargitay became "Mickey" Hargitay a successful muscleman, landed a job in Mae West's revue in New York City, won the Mr. Universe contest in 1955, and piqued the interest of his second wife. When asked by her dinner companion what she would like, Jayne Mansfield allegedly said "I'll have a steak and the man on the left."

And so she did.

The man on the left and Hollywood's other blonde bombshell became a huge "it" couple. Together they had three children, Miklos, Jr., Zoltan and Mariska Hargitay, made a movie (Adventures of Hercules) and starred in a Las Vegas show together. Hargitay reconstructed their mansion in Los Angeles, The Pink Palace, including installing the famous heart-shaped pool. Hargitay and Mansfield divorced in 1964. Three years later, as Mansfield, her paramour, their driver and the three Hargitay children drove on a Louisiana highway, their car crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer. Mansfield and the adults died instantly, the Hargitay children survived.

Mickey took care of the kids (including suing the Mansfield estate for child support) and remained active in business, although not in the spotlight. In 1999, he won the Joe Weider Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the founder of the Mr. Olympia contests. But his daughter is now a star -- most famous as Olivia Benson on Law & Order SVU, and she dedicated her Emmy win to him.

His legacy has been overshadowed by the more famous bodybuilder who walked in Hargitay's footsteps, became Mr. Universe, a movie superstar, and played Hargitay in The Jayne Mansfield Story. Hargitay may not have minded: after all, his third wife, Ellen Siano, was not a Hollywood star, and he began a landscaping business in 1980. He said that "I enjoyed my career. I never wanted to be any more than what I was, and I had fun doing it." A nice reaction to have when reflecting on life.

Mickey Hargitay, the first Schwarzenegger, 1926-2006. RIP.

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