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Obituaries

Mickey Hargitay, 80; Bodybuilder Popularized the Sport

September 19, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mickey Hargitay, the Hungarian-born bodybuilder who parlayed his 1955 Mr. Universe title into a career as a movie actor and had a high-profile marriage to Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, has died. He was 80.

Hargitay, the father of Emmy Award-winning actress Mariska Hargitay, died of multiple myeloma Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Ellen, his wife of 38 years.

The handsome Hargitay, who began bodybuilding after moving to the United States in the late 1940s, was relatively unknown internationally when he won the Mr. Universe title in 1955. That quickly changed.

"Walter Winchell once said that what [President] Eisenhower did for golf, Mickey Hargitay did for bodybuilding, because he brought it to the forefront," Gene Mozee, a bodybuilding historian and writer for Iron Man magazine, told The Times on Monday.

"Back in those days, bodybuilding was thought of as a freakish, unusual activity that wasn't popular with the general public," Mozee said. "At that time, athletic coaches discouraged lifting weights, thinking you'd become muscle bound. And along came Mickey Hargitay, a great all-around athlete."

Hargitay's Mr. Universe win, Mozee said, "was just an eye-opener. It lent a lot of credence that lifting weights, rather than harming your athletic career, could enhance it."

For a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, the fact that Hargitay had won the Mr. Universe contest was an "inspirational force."

"Bodybuilding was dominated by American bodybuilding champions; there was no hope for anyone else," the California governor told The Times on Monday.

That someone from central Europe became Mr. Universe, he said, gave "hope for someone like myself and others to dream about that."

"When I came to this country in 1968, he was one of the first people I wanted to meet," said Schwarzenegger, recalling Hargitay's advice to not "come over here for a handout, contribute, and with hard work you can achieve things."

Schwarzenegger, who played Hargitay opposite Loni Anderson's Mansfield in the 1980 TV-movie "The Jayne Mansfield Story," said Hargitay's marriage to Mansfield and his life amid the glamour of Hollywood only added to his stature as a successful role model in the bodybuilding world.

Hargitay's segue from bodybuilding to show business came after he was discovered by aging Hollywood sex symbol Mae West on the cover of Strength and Health Magazine.

He was part of the cast of musclemen in West's nightclub act, the Mae West Revue, when he caught the eye of Mansfield on stage in New York in 1956.

When Mansfield was asked what she would like that evening, she reportedly responded: "I'll have a steak and the man on the left!"

They were married in 1958.

Hargitay, whose film credits included "Bloody Pit of Horror," appeared with Mansfield in "The Loves of Hercules," "Promises! Promises!" and "Primitive Love." They also appeared together in a nightclub act. They were divorced in 1964; she died in a car crash in 1967.

"I enjoyed my career," Hargitay once said. "I never wanted to be any more than what I was, and I had fun doing it."

Hargitay, who became a successful contractor and real estate investor, "was the epitome of the word 'gentleman,' " said John Balik, publisher of Iron Man magazine.

"The kind of feeling you got from him was just a really genuine guy," Balik told The Times on Monday. "He had a lot of accolades and success in his life, but you never felt that."

Schwarzenegger also recalled Hargitay the successful businessman: "He was always very good in making one dollar into two. So that was another thing he had going for himself that was inspirational, and he loved his family and children. So he was really a great idol to have."

Hargitay was born Jan. 6, 1926, in Budapest, Hungary. Hargitay's father, Mozee said, was athletic and brought up his sons as athletes. They had an acrobatic act that they performed in the largest opera house in Budapest and throughout Hungary.

"Mickey later became an outstanding soccer player, and his brother got him into speed skating," Mozee said. "He became the middle European speed-skating champion."

An underground fighter during World War II, Hargitay fled Hungary after the war and moved to the United States. He began bodybuilding in 1947 after moving to Indianapolis.

"He walked into a gym one day out of curiosity, never having lifted a weight before," Mozee said. "He lifted 215 pounds over his head, which astounded the gym owner, because Mickey weighed about 180 pounds."

Hargitay started competing about four years later, winning local events such as Mr. Indianapolis and Mr. Eastern America.

During his early years in Indianapolis, Hargitay worked as a builder and did an adagio act with his first wife, Mary, in nightclubs. Their marriage ended in divorce.

For two years, beginning in 1959, Hargitay hosted a television exercise show.

Last May, he received the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame Award from the Muscle Beach Historical Committee.

In addition to his wife and daughter Mariska, Hargitay is survived by another daughter, Tina West; stepdaughter Jayne Fenley; sons Mickey Jr. and Zoltan; brother Eddie; sister Eva Nemeth; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A private service was held Sunday for Hargitay's family.

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dennis.mcclellan@latimes.com

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