Q&A: The Iconic Antonio Fargas

Call him Huggy Bear, Fly Guy, Doodlebug Simkins or any other of his memorable roles. New York City native Antonio Fargas has been an iconic film, TV and stage actor for over 50 years. He has virtually played all kinds of roles, earning the title of “Cameo King of Black 70s Cinema.” In addition to acting, Fargas is also a musician and a trailblazer in the entertainment industry, currently working with young people to teach them how to thrive and survive in the precarious entertainment industry. This versatile show business veteran shows no signs of slowing down.

Soultrain.com: What gave you the inspiration to be an actor?

Antonio: My mom said when I was an infant and I cried I sounded like I was singing. So she always had this dream of me being in show business. When I found acting, I felt really at home. When I was a kid, I saw myself up on the big screen like Cary Grant and John Wayne. Being a character actor, I was able to get into all kinds of characters. It enabled me to express myself.

Soultrain.com: When you were a teen, you found out that auditions were being held for the indie film Cool World and you got the part. What was that experience like when you landed your first film role?

Antonio: There was an ad in the newspaper about a casting for a film about gangs, sort of like West Side Story. So my mom suggested that I go and try out for it. I was reluctant, but I went down and auditioned and got a small role and the rest is history.

Soultrain.com: You’ve done a lot of stage work. For instance, you were in the original production of The Great White Hope. What was that like for you?

Antonio: When I was a young actor in my early 20s, I knew the manager of an actor in New York  named Robert Hooks.  He recommended me to Edwin Sherin, the director of The Great White Hope, when it was being formed in Washington, D.C. Robert suggested to him that I play the role of a 90 year old witch doctor named Scipio. Edwin was reluctant at first because I was 23 but he gave me an opportunity to read for the part and I won the role and I guess some magic happened. I was in the full production in Washington, D.C., then it moved to Broadway. Working with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander and the rest of the cast was a great experience.

Soultrain.com: You were also in a stage production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, correct?

Antonio: Right. I did a small role in the play as part of New York’s Shakespeare Festival in Central Park helmed by Joseph Papp, who directed the play. Martin Sheen played Romeo.

Soultrain.com: I think you should be called the “Cameo King” of 70s black cinema because you played many memorable roles in many movies during that decade. For example, one of your roles was as Bunky in the movie Shaft.

Antonio: It was a small cameo role that had a little bit of impact. Gordon Parks was directing the film and he was a great director. I was also known as what I call a “Cameo Specialist” because I would come in and do small little memorable kind of roles playing street characters. Those roles were the foundation for playing the role of Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch.

Soultrain.com: You also did a memorable role as Henry J. Jackson in Across 110th Street. I felt so bad for you during that scene when you were tortured. (laughs)

Antonio: (Laughs) Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto starred in that film. A number of my buddies played members of a gang who stole from the mafia in Harlem. The director was Barry Shear. He later was the one who helped me get the role in the pilot for Starsky & Hutch.

Soultrain.com: You were also Doodlebug Simkins in Cleopatra Jones, as well as the brother of Foxy Brown, two movies that are now iconic.

Antonio: It was just the right time for me in getting all of these roles.

Soultrain.com: Working with Pam Grier, the “Queen of 70s Black Cinema”, must have been a wonderful experience.

Antonio: It was a pleasure working with Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. We also worked together years later in an episode of Martin. We’ve been friends over the years and she continues to grow.  She is an excellent example of what it takes to survive in the hostile film world before black women had an opportunity to make their marks. She deserves a lot of credit using what she had to be able to be the queen of those films.

Soultrain.com: You did a lot of TV as well before Starsky & Hutch, such as roles on Kojak and Police Woman.  I loved your role as Sonny Cochran in Sanford & Son in an episode titled “Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle.” You were just so cool! What was that experience like working with Redd Foxx?

Antonio: Redd Foxx was a very powerful guy and he gave me as well as others who he thought deserved recognition an opportunity to be on his show. He definitely paved the way. He was very generous and a constant professional. I grew up watching him on stage at the Apollo Theater. Just doing that small cameo role as Sonny Cochran was great. Whether I found these roles or these roles found me, I was able to give these small roles life.

Soultrain.com: You played One-Eye in the film Cornbread, Earl & Me. You then played a transvestite, Lindy, in Car Wash. You are a very versatile actor who can play any role.

Antonio: Thank you! There were no roles that I felt were out of bounds. I think I took chances in my career that others might not have taken and now actors are trying to take those kind of chances. To be on the top floor of doing characters and giving them life and dignity was the thing to do. I always liked the characters who were underdogs and I gave them sensitivity, dignity and heart.

Soultrain.com: You told me earlier about the background of how you got the iconic role as police informant Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch. Could you tell me more about that?

Antonio: In 1974, I got a call from my agent that Barry Shear, who directed Across 110th Street, wanted me for the role of Huggy Bear in the Starsky & Hutch pilot. I didn’t have to audition. There weren’t many people that did those street characters like I did. I didn’t know I was getting a reputation for playing those types of characters. Just like when I played in Kojak, I carved out a niche for myself. Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg gave me the opportunity and the character of Huggy Bear became part of the matrix of the success of Starsky & Hutch. Sometimes I think I need to change the name on my birth certificate because Huggy Bear seems to follow me wherever I go!

Soultrain.com: What was it like working with David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser?

Antonio: They were two very professional actors. The show’s theme was about people who cared about one another and that theme carried onto the set. A lot of other buddy shows such as Miami Vice and Dukes of Hazzard used the same formula our show did to find success because we were groundbreakers in that area.

Soultrain.com: You are also a musician, right?

Antonio: Yes. I always loved music. It’s an important part of my life. I did a couple of tunes in Europe. A buddy of mine and I had started a company called Bumpit Records. We were creating projects and trying to support other young artists who had dreams. I’ve been around music so long it’s just a natural part of me.

Soultrain.com: You played the role of Les Baxter, the father of Angie Hubbard on the classic soap opera All My Children. Les was kind of a villainous character.

Antonio: He was a villain! (laughs) He started out as a lawyer and then the character started to build and it had all the good dynamics of good soap opera television because the character just made a complete turn. It was a very popular time on All My Children with the characters Jenny, Angie and Jesse. The black storyline was strong. I learned a lot about acting in soap operas because it took a while to develop that style but it was very rewarding time in my career to be on All My Children.

Soultrain.com: Do you keep in touch with Lee Chamberlain, who played your wife Pat Baxter on All My Children?

Antonio: Yes. She’s very happy and living in Europe. She has a wonderful place on the countryside of France where artists can go to develop their work. She’s a very talented director as well. It was a pleasure to work with Lee and have her as a friend.

Soultrain.com: Of all of your roles, one of your most memorable later roles was as Fly Guy in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka. The one scene that comes to mind was when he came out of prison with those platform shoes with fish tanks in them. (laughs)

Antonio: (Laughs) Keenan Ivory Wayans was the creator of that film as well as the TV show In Living Color. He’s a very talented guy who is actually from my neighborhood in Manhattan. He wanted to cast people who represented a genre so he called on me to play Fly Guy because the audience would have identification with those who made their niche playing those kinds of roles in the seventies.

Soultrain.com: Indeed! Fly Guy was, well, fly!

Antonio: Everything was exaggerated–the hats, the bell bottoms, everything! Keenan had a great comedic flair. The thing about Fly Guy was that he believed in himself so much that the character had pathos. You wanted to cry for the character as well as laugh at him and that’s the kind of world I like to live  in in terms of how I play characters and approach roles. So playing Fly Guy was a good turn for me.

Soultrain.com: After that, you were still very active in movies like Don’t Be A Menace While Drinking Juice in the Hood and TV shows like The Parent ‘Hood, Wayans Brothers and Living Single.

Antonio: I loved doing Living Single because I got a chance to play Gladys Knight’s husband. That was very special. Doing that role and being a part of a talented cast that included Queen Latifah was a great time for me.

Soultrain.com: More recently, you were a part of Everybody Hates Chris. To be in the business  for so long, you are still in very high demand for roles. How do you feel about that?

Antonio: The thing is that the young people who have been taking over such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, Will Smith and Snoop Dogg have a sense of history and they know whose shoulders they stand on. They honored me by giving me opportunities to play on Martin, Everybody Hates Chris, and all of the other shows. It also gave them an opportunity to say thank you to those people like myself who paved the way for them.

Soultrain.com: You’re in Las Vegas now and you’ve been giving back by working with young people. Tell me about that.

Antonio: I consider myself sort of semi-retired. I have been working with young people for six years at the West Las Vegas Arts Center as a mentor and director. It’s been very rewarding to me to teach life skills to young people and teach them the craft of acting and music. These kids give so much and they are so hungry to learn. It’s very important for kids to get opportunities like this. It’s a hostile world out here. When I was young, I didn’t know how tough it was. I don’t want these kids to quit so I try to support them and their dreams and teach them to carve a life out for themselves in this world.

Soultrain.com: Recently you were in a Black Rep production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom playing the character Cutler. What was it like to appear in that production?

Antonio: Doing August Wilson’s work is always a wonderful experience. I first did that play in Manchester, England at the World of Saints Theater and then I did the play this spring in St. Louis at the Black Rep, which is its third production. It’s classic black theater like Shakespeare. You have to be able to take on the challenge of what I call the music of the language of August Wilson’s plays.

Soultrain.com: What’s next for Antonio Fargas?

Antonio: I’ll leave that up to the gods as to where I’m supposed to be. I hope to do more theater as well as film. After 52 years, there is always something in store for me. I’m currently working with a music project in Los Angeles called the New Jump Blues. Check it out on YouTube.

Soultrain.com: Do you have a dream role you’d love to play?

Antonio: I like to play the little man. It doesn’t have to be the main character. I love to give life to characters that are like the everyday man.

Soultrain.com: What advice do you want to give to people who want to be in the entertainment industry?

Antonio: Never give up on your dream. It may take different twists and turns. The entertainment business will always be there. It’s about the journey, not about the destination. It’s about the acting classes and pounding the pavement. Put the work in and you will reap the results from the power above. You have to love show business. If you’re in it to be a star and make a lot of money you’re going to be disappointed. If you do it because you love it, you will be happy with the results.

- Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian.

 

 

 



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