I married a working actor, but Santa Fe was not an easy place to develop a career in entertainment. Felix, widely known by a single name (like Cher and Fabian), had been seduced by nightly standing ovations for his olio act during a long-ago Fiesta Melodrama. He studied and auditioned for several years, having more success with poorly paying stage work than career-level film roles. Adventurous and committed, he managed to stay on the periphery of the entertainment industry for decades.
One evening Felix found himself schmoozing with some film buffs at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. When he called home that evening, he sounded distressed. “Hey,” he began with slightly tipsy contempt, “have you ever heard of an actor named Val De Vargas?”
I was suddenly 16. “Valentine De Vargas?!” I hadn’t heard the name, well, ever. He was a secret entity in my personal fandom that only I knew. No one else had ever said the sacred name aloud to me. “Ha ... Ha ... Hatari Valentine De Vargas?” I stammered. “Touch of Evil Valentine De Vargas?”
There was grave disappointment in Felix’s voice. “You’ve heard of him?”
“Yes! He’s a wonderful actor!” I continued breathlessly. “He made movies with John Wayne and Eli Wallach.”
“Really?” Felix replied through his teeth. “I thought he was just a big-mouth, making up stories about his great acting career. I never heard of him. You want to meet him?”
I was shaking.
I think it took me three minutes to drive three miles into town. By the time I got to Cowgirl, Felix had made nice with Val, a tall, still-handsome devil with a booming voice and a stunning, confident presence. How could this man not be a major star? Val loved the awe in my eyes. Felix, not so much.
We talked about Val’s humble beginnings in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He had gone to California to study law, but his uncle, a talent agent out there, got him a small part in Blackboard Jungle. It was his own kind of olio act success, so he changed his name from Albert Schubert to Valentine De Vargas to get bad-guy roles in TV Westerns. Orson Welles allowed him to use all his talents in A Touch of Evil (in which he carried the title role opposite Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston), but his lines had been cut from The Magnificent Seven and many other films because his commanding voice tended to upstage the stars. He returned to Santa Fe and only worked occasionally as an actor after the ’60s. He was a local real estate agent.
My husband did not hesitate to accept an invitation to come to Val’s home for dinner during the winter holidays. It was a modest house, actually owned by Val’s charming girlfriend at the time, in the same westside neighborhood where Felix had grown up. We brought a friend of ours who also remembered Val, an elderly, former casting director who said he tried and tried to persuade Jerome Robbins to let Val play Bernardo in West Side Story, but Robbins was determined to find a ballet dancer for the part. Over supper, we all agreed that Val would have been great in the role, though he would have seemed a foot taller than anyone else in the cast.
As we all drank and became more sociable, Felix began to tell his funny stories about growing up in Santa Fe. Val could not help but interrupt. He, too, was accustomed to dominating the room. The casting director and I began whipping our heads back and forth like we were watching a tennis match.
Val had a loud voice. Felix had a loud voice, too. And, as they became more competitive, they both used their trained stage voices to “carry to
the back of the room.” Sensitive to loud noises, I went there. They obliviously entertained one another until they were both hoarse. I gave Val the edge, though it was close.
We didn’t see Val very often after that, as it happened, though we always thought of him as a friend and greeted him warmly when we found him around town. He never forgot that I was a longtime fan. Not one to blend in in public places, he was in line at Subway the last time I saw him. He was still striking and friendly. I gave him a hug and tried to say he was looking good, but he
wasn’t. His new mate whispered that he was terminally ill.
He passed away at an out-of-state hospital later that year. There was no obituary in The New Mexican and no memorial at the Academy Awards. As big as he was, in stature, personality, and my heart, he was too small or, really, too loud to be famous. ◀