Antonio Sabato Jr. is best known as a soap opera star and Calvin Klein underwear model. But parts of his acting career are raising eyebrows among some conservatives as the Republican and early supporter of President Trump runs for Congress in California.
Some Republicans in his district, which includes most of Ventura County and has been represented by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) since 2013, are saying movie roles in which Sabato simulated sex with a man and appeared nude disqualify him from representing the GOP.
Ret. Air Force Maj. Jeffrey Burum, another Republican in the race, deemed the movies "pornography" and called on Sabato to end his campaign.
"His behavior is inconsistent with anything I would want from a congressional leader. It's also inconsistent with a party which has always favored traditional family values, which do not include porn," Burum said.
Sabato and his campaign disputed the description of his work as pornographic.
Charles Moran, a Sabato advisor and the former president of California Log Cabin Republicans, said that while Ventura County may be more conservative than neighboring Los Angeles County, many people in the entertainment industry live there and are unlikely to care about Sabato's previous roles.
"They know what it takes to be a successful actor in the industry, and anybody trying to make Antonio Sabato Jr.'s career and job choices salacious does so without really knowing the value of the craft," he said, predicting the controversy would have no impact on the race. "For a long time, gays have played straight, straights have played gay. A good actor can do this, and many do. Antonio Sabato Jr. is no different."
Sabato noted the movies "Testosterone" and "Deadly Skies," which were both filmed more than 10 years ago, are part of a three-decade-long acting career.
"I've done many movies. I've done things I'm proud of and things I'm not so proud of, that's just the way any actor works," he said. "They don't know what kind of congressman I'll be, the work ethic I have."
Sabato, 45, is best known for roles on "General Hospital" and "Melrose Place" in the 1990s, and "The Bold and the Beautiful" from 2005 to 2006. He has appeared in many other scripted television shows and movies, music videos and reality programs.
As first reported on the Ventura County website Citizens Journal, Sabato's critics are protesting his roles in two films where he plays a gay man.
In 2003's "Testosterone," Sabato plays an Argentine man who mysteriously deserts his writer boyfriend. He appears fully nude in the film.
Three years later, Sabato played an Air Force officer who was dismissed under the military policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in "Deadly Skies." The film, about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, contains a scene where Sabato appears partly nude and simulates having sex with another man.
Unlike films that would traditionally be considered pornography, the movies starred mainstream Hollywood actors, including Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Moriarty, David Sutcliffe, Rae Dawn Chong and Sonia Braga, and don't comprise solely sexual content. "Testosterone" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was reviewed by the New York Times, which described it as "a shaky comic noir larded with soft-core sex."
Sabato is running for Congress in the 26th District. Brownley narrowly won reelection in 2014, but then overwhelmingly won in 2016. A Brownley spokesman declined comment on the matter. The area used to be closely split between Republicans and Democrats, but has grown more liberal in recent years, with Hillary Clinton winning 58% of the district's votes in 2016 to Trump's 36%.
Sabato is a vocal supporter of Trump and spoke on his behalf at the Republican National Convention in 2016, efforts that he said have hampered his acting career.
"I was blacklisted from Hollywood," Sabato said, adding he had no regret for supporting Trump and has been to the White House since the election.
"I'm proud of our president. Look at everything he has been able to do in such a short amount of time," he said.
Critics also note that Sabato posed for Playgirl magazine. He appeared on the cover and inside a 1993 issue devoted to "Soap Studs." He did not appear nude and was covered with strategically placed bubbles.
Sabato isn't the first political candidate who has posed nude or acted out sex scenes.
Republican Scott Brown was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature and the U.S. Senate many years after he posed nude, shielding himself with his arm for Cosmopolitan magazine's "America's Sexiest Man" contest in 1982.
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acted in many love scenes and appeared partly nude during his long acting career. He briefly appeared fully nude onscreen — blurry and shot from a distance — in the first installment of the "Terminator" franchise. He was regularly seen wearing little clothing during his bodybuilding career. And during the 2003 campaign, a two-decade-old Playboy video emerged that included footage of Schwarzenegger dancing provocatively with scantily clad women at Carnival in Brazil.
Rob Stutzman, a former top adviser to Schwarzenegger, said none of these appearances mattered to voters, who were familiar with the candidate as an actor and a bodybuilder. But, he said, the same cannot be said about Sabato.
"With Antonio Sabato Jr., very few people know who he is, you're still in the first-impression stage with what voters know about you. Whereas with Arnold, no one was surprised he once danced with Carnival girls wearing dental floss in Rio," he said. "The type of nudity ... in a movie like 'Terminator' isn't all that far removed from him standing in bikini bottoms in the Metropolitan Museum of New York as a piece of living art."
But some Republican voters noted that the movies took place many years ago.
"There are some people that are concerned about it, but my thinking is go back to biblical times: May the first person who has never sinned cast the first stone," said Kerry Nelson, a small-business owner and the immediate past president of the Conejo Valley Republican Women Federated. "It was so many years ago, and it was his movie career, not his lifestyle."
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