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Son of Hollywood stars reaches for the earth with his plant shop

Mickey Hargitay Jr. is the son of onetime Mr. Universe and actor Mickey Hargitay and actress Jayne Mansfield. His sister Mariska Hargitay followed her parents' footsteps and has a long-running role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In the late 1970s, Mickey Hargitay Jr. strolled Beverly Hills and Brentwood with macrame plant hangers draped over his shoulder.

The teenage Hargitay and his group of long-haired hippie friends would stop at beauty shops, office buildings, anywhere, to sell the then-trendy items made of jute, a strong fiber that can be decoratively knotted to hold potted plants. In his 20s, Hargitay and his friends opened a shop about the size of a living room on Echo Park Avenue called Max Macs, which stood for maximum macrames.

Thirty-five years later, standing in the office of his own Hollywood plant shop, Hargitay has come full circle with his affinity for macrame. He walks over to a pile of jute and tries to remember how he made those macrame plant hangers so long ago. “They’re having a total resurgence right now,” he says, running the rough material through his hands.

It’s easy to miss Mickey Hargitay Plants, fronted by a splash of green stretching to the sidewalk, a clue to the oasis hidden among the urban sprawl. But over the decades, he has remained a fixture in one of L.A.’s iconic communities that has seen its tide rise in recent years through development and revitalization of Hollywood landmarks. Hargitay inhabits a unique position as part of that renaissance who also maintains a link to Tinseltown’s glamorous past.

Hargitay is the son of one-time Mr. Universe and actor Mickey Hargitay and the actress Jayne Mansfield. Google Hargitay Jr.’s name and hundreds of images pop up, even an IMDB page listing his appearance as a child  on “The Merv Griffin Show” with Mansfield. His sister Mariska Hargitay followed her parent’s footsteps and has a long-running role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Mickey Hargitay Plants has remained a fixture in one of L.A.’s iconic communities.
Mickey Hargitay Plants has remained a fixture in one of L.A.’s iconic communities. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

But Hargitay is content with his plant shop and the community he's built around it. His clients include George Clooney and Jim Carrey. It's unusual for the tall and soft-spoken Hargitay to open up about his famous family.

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"[My family] made decisions to reach for the stars and I've wanted to keep my feet on the ground," Hargitay, 57, said. "I've wanted to do something that seems more grounded and is more real."

After Hargitay's mother died in a car accident, the 8-year-old moved to West Hollywood and then to Doheny Estates, a luxury neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills. He describes his childhood as chaotic.

"It just seems like living in Hollywood you see a lot of phony stuff," Hargitay said. "But I choose not to look at all that. I choose to keep my memories and cherish those."

Plants, however, have always been steadying presence in his life.

"It was my chore when I was a kid growing up to water the plants. I didn't know that was what I was going to end up doing," Hargitay said. "I probably hated it at the time, but you end up loving what you sometimes don't" as a child.

Hargitay remembers collecting cactuses and succulents, but he can't recall what led him to macrame plant hangers. After leaving Echo Park, he opened a new business in an early 1900s bungalow on Fountain and North Sycamore avenues. He was 23. Back then, the plant shop doubled as his home, where he and his friends would hang out and party.

"It was fun. It was great," Hargitay said of the shop's early days. "We made a living but not a lot of goal setting and not a lot of looking towards the future. We lived in the house, opened up when we wanted, closed when we wanted. It wasn't the real deal."

But Hargitay got more serious about the business, bringing in exotic plants and educating customers on their care.

As the neighborhood turned from rundown to highly developed, his shop evolved in a similar fashion. What was once a house with plants for sale in the outside yard became a haven for rare species, indoor and outdoor flora, gardening materials and a landscaping service. The layout is a lush maze, a narrow concrete path leading to cactuses from South America or succulents in small pots or a green room. Each room in the house contains colorful pottery and other accessories.

Nestled between a few large plants is a wide tree stump — a relic of the neighborhood's rapid development. When a six-story building was erected next to his business, it blocked sunlight, shading his tropical and sub-tropical plants. To keep them alive, he had to cut down a tree, planted 30 years before.

Mickey Hargitay shakes hands with Virgilio Guzman as he makes his way with a poinsettia. Guzman is a maintenance worker at the nursery.
Mickey Hargitay shakes hands with Virgilio Guzman as he makes his way with a poinsettia. Guzman is a maintenance worker at the nursery. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Many say that it's his attention to detail that sets Hargitay's business apart. Hargitay and his staff spend time with customers explaining how to nurture their plants, so that they don't need to immediately come back for another.

"He's got me into plants — having them and being able to take care of them," said Eddie Jones, who's lived across the street from Hargitay's shop for more than 30 years.

"It's great for the community," Jones added. "He's the type of guy where you'd want a business owner in your neighborhood. Just to see people in and out and buying plants."

Julie Richardson has shopped at the store for 20 years. She recalls the early days when the shop was bare bones, and she's seen it flourish into what it is today.

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"In this day of gigantic retailers like Amazon, be it online or brick-and-mortar corporations, it's so nice to lend your loyalty to a mom-and-pop shop," Richardson said. She drives from Beverly Hills to shop at Hargitay's, even though there are nurseries closer to her home.

"You always felt like you succeeded and what you bought lived," she said.

Even with the development boom in Hollywood, Hargitay doesn't see much change in his future. He's content with his little shop on the corner.

"I'm probably foolish sitting on a valuable property," Hargitay said. "I'd probably make more money if I built a four-story apartment building and sat around collecting rent. But that's just not me. I see myself as moving along just as I have."

Follow me on Twitter @makedaeaster

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