As career paths go for the progeny of Holocaust survivors, Antonio Sabato Jr.’s path is unique. Google “Calvin Klein underwear model,” “hot guy Janet Jackson video,” “sexy soap opera star,” “founder of children’s acting school” and the same name pops up: Antonio Sabato Jr.
And my path from doing the mom/wife/writer/entrepreneur thing to sitting at a table at the Italian restaurant Farfalla in Westlake Village having lunch with Antonio has also been fittingly circuitous. I first learned that the Italian-born Antonio was a family guy living in the Conejo Valley when Cheryl Moana Marie, his wife and mother of his third child, called about featuring their acting school on ConejoDeals.com, the hyper-local daily deal Web site that I co-own with my brother.
While researching the Antonio Sabato Jr. Acting Academy for Children & Young Adults, I learned all about Antonio’s career trajectory: a long TV career, including stints on “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “General Hospital”; a starring role in the reality series “My Antonio” in 2009; and, unforgettably, as a Calvin Klein underwear model in his early years. But I also stumbled across some information about Antonio and his family that I wasn’t expecting: Antonio’s maternal grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.
According to interviews with Antonio’s mother, Yvonne Sabato, conducted by Jewish news outlets like Tablet Magazine, The Jewish Exponent and The Jewish State, Yvonne, who was raised Catholic, did not learn about her Jewish heritage until she was an adult and was informed by the Red Cross that the reason she did not have any living relatives on her mother’s side was because they had all been murdered at Auschwitz.
Unfortunately, details about how Yvonne’s mother survived are unavailable, as her mother never discussed her past, and Yvonne did not learn the truth about her heritage until after her mother was presumably murdered by communist officials during a return trip to Czechoslovakia. (For an account of Yvonne’s family’s incredible journey, read the sidebar.)
Needless to say, once I learned that Antonio and I had not only a business connection, but were likely third cousins 17 times removed, I called to see if he would meet me for lunch. And, like the nice partially Jewish boy that he is (except for the whole Italian, church-going thing), he said, “Yes!”
Antonio had barely finished a conversation in Italian with our waiter, when he launched into an enthusiastic description of his popular Westlake Village children’s acting studio. He regaled me with stories of how certain children were transformed once they were given the opportunity to express themselves as actors, without judgment. “I want the school to be there for them. I want them to have a place to go where they won’t be judged. We are all here learning from each other … not to criticize. Every exercise is about how can you learn from this. I want them to learn and to really love this business.”
I found it refreshing that a man who was blessed with exceptional looks (really, God … the guy who has abs of steel also gets dimples?) and loads of charm has such a soft spot for kids faced with social challenges. He gushes about the children with whom he works at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ventura: “Kids who come from lower- and middle-class homes work the hardest. They really want it. Acting gives them another way to express how they feel about their home life. Scenes can take them to a joyful place. These kids don’t lie. I love it. It is absolutely fascinating.”
Given that his school is producing child actors, I asked him what his feelings were about what seems like a correlation between child actors and messed-up adulthoods. He said he felt strongly that the blame should not be placed on acting but on dysfunctional parenting. (Antonio began his own career at age 13 under the tutelage of the legendary Nina Foch.)
“The problem is that kids don’t sit at home with their parents and have dinner, and kids feel like they can’t talk to their parents. Now it is [all about] phones and computers. When is the last time you saw a kid playing ball in the street or looking for bugs and climbing trees? The problem is there is a new generation of kids going nowhere, and there is no structure at home. I’m coming from a place where I have learned my lesson; now, I have kids and have made some choices, and I have to be there for them.”
At this point, you might be thinking that I was eager to question Antonio about his low 6 rating on JewornotJew.com. But I was actually more curious about how a guy who was born in Rome, graduated from Beverly Hills High School, made it clear that there was nothing between him and his Calvins on a giant billboard in Times Square and visited the Terezin concentration camp with his mother, ended up living in suburban Westlake Village as opposed to, say, the Hollywood Hills.
Apparently, he discovered our neck of the woods when visiting Will Smith’s family, which has also opted to live away from Hollywood.
“I fell in love with how clean and open Westlake Village is. I love that the schools have big, grassy fields and we have great restaurants out here that most [city] people do not even know about. I drive in to the city [for work] and drive back and am happy to be home. I will never live in L.A. ever again.” Take that, city snobs.
As for the whole religion thing, Antonio has found his place there, too. “I respect every religion, and the relationship that we have with God at home makes us see life in a much better way. I am stronger spiritually than I have ever been. But I don’t walk in a room and say, ‘I am this or that.’
“I like that the Jewish community is strong and that Jews are close to one another. I think the Jewish people are amazing. Their work ethic is above any that I have ever seen, and their [creativity] is above anyone else’s.
Hopefully I have some of that in my genes.
“And now I’m on the cover of a Jewish magazine. That’s pretty cool.”
We’re happy to have you, Antonio.
Discovering Their Jewish Roots
Yvonne Sabato née Kabouchy has a story that is more astounding than anything ever conjured up on “General Hospital,” the soap opera that once starred her son, actor/model Antonio Sabato Jr. Raised as a Catholic in Czechoslovakia, she did not learn that her family was Jewish until she was in her 40s. Since learning of her background, she has been very open about sharing her story with the Jewish press. Here is a summary of what is known of her family’s history:
Yvonne Sabato, former wife of Italian actor Antonio Sabato Sr., was born in communist Prague in 1947. Her mother, a dancer, was the only one of her family to escape the Nazis. The mystery of how she survived died with her. What is known is that after the war, she married an aristocrat who refused to join the Communist Party. As punishment, the family was forced to join the circus, where Yvonne and her father performed in an acrobatic act.
Eventually, Yvonne became an actress and, while working in Italy, she and her parents sought asylum there. Her mother made the deadly mistake of returning to Czechoslovakia in 1971, and it is believed that she was murdered there. Yvonne was not permitted to attend the funeral, and the Czech government wouldn’t release her mother’s records.
Eventually, Yvonne married Antonio’s father, and the family moved to the United States in 1985. The question always lingered as to why her mother did not have a single living relative. With the help of the Red Cross, Yvonne eventually learned that the Nazis had murdered her entire extended family at Auschwitz.
In an interview with The Jewish Exponent, Yvonne explained the connection to her Jewish heritage this way: “I was in my 40s when I discovered [I was Jewish]. And while I don’t practice Judaism — I am not religious — I feel an attachment to it, an understanding now of who I am. I feel very good about it. And I do consider myself Jewish.”