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A Salute to the Hunks of TV's Cheesy Christmas-Themed Movies

Christmas wish - aaron odonnell

Whenever I take a trip back home to Pittsburgh to visit my mom, we spend a good amount of time watching TV.  During this year's Thanksgiving visit (2017) there was, as there always is, a surfeit of cheesy, formulaic Christmas-themed movies on The Hallmark Channel, Lifetime and Icon, all with heterosexual romance as their main themes.  But despite their mind-dulling plots and cliched twists and turns, the hunky male leads held my attention - and not once did I implore Mom to change the channel.  While watching I amused myself by fantasizing that the big reveal at the end of each movie would involve the hunk coming out to his lady friend rather than proposing to her. 

 

Hallmark-christmas-movies-all i want or christma

 

Here are some of the best "knights in shining armor" I feasted my eyes upon. (Please note that, with one exception, bare chested photos of them are not from their Christmas movies.)

 

AARON O'DONNELL (32 y.o., 6'1"/born in Ohio)

O'Donnell, a former Ford model, has four holiday movies to his credit: With Love, Christmas (2017); My Christmas Love (2016); 12 Gifts of Christmas (2015); and A Prince for Christmas (2015).  However, he may be most famous for his role as a plumber in TV ads for Liquid Plumr

 

With-love-christmas-2017-dvd-hallmark-movies-c988

 

Aaron o'connell - liquid plumbr ad
Liquid Plumr ad

 

Model aaron odonnell
A photo from O'Donnell's modeling days, not from the movie

 

STERLING SULIEMAN (34 y.o., 5'11"/born in Hawaii)

Perhaps best known for his roles in The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, in 2015's The Christmas Wish (on Lifetime) Sulieman portrayed Wesley, director of an agency that places foster children, which is across town from his father's architectural firm, notorious for razing neighborhoods to make way for glitzy Trump-like towers. 

 

Sterling sulieman - the christmas gift

 

Sterling sulieman

 Sterling-sulieman-open shirt

 

 

RICK FOX (49 y.o., 6'7"/ born in Canada)

A former member of the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers over thirteen seasons, Fox appeared in a supporting role to Sterling Suleilman in The Christmas Wish as the publisher of an alternative newspaper.

 

Rick fox

 

 

ROB MAYES (34 y.o. /born in Ohio)

A child model, Mayes starred in Love for Christmas (2012, on Ion), where he played a naval officer returning home to California, where he bumps into his former high school crush (in real life he briefly attended the US Naval Academy).  The flame is rekindled but she takes a job in New York as a Broadway director, something she avoided telling him until the last minute (at the party following the big Christmas pageant she oversaw).  After she moves he decides to find her (at the urging of his precious 10-year-old niece) and finds her on top of the Empire State Building where he proposes. 

 

RobMayes

 

Rob mayes

 

Rob mayes

 

DAVID ALPAY (38 y.o., 5'10"/Canadian)

He's starred in three holiday movies.  In The Mistletoe Inn (2017) he plays Zeke, a romance novelist; in Sleigh Bells Ring (2016) he plays Alex, and old flame of the organizer of their town's Christmas parade; and in Ice Sculpture Christmas (2015) he plays David, who enters his friend, a chef, into an ice sculpting contest that pits her against her boss.  Her friendship with David blossoms into romance.

 

David alpay - sleigh bells ring

  David alpay ice sculpting
 

David alpay - younger days
In younger days

 

 

CARLOS PENAVEGA (29 y.o., 5'6"/born in Missouri)

PenaVega's last name was simply Pena until his marriage to Alexa Vega.  After graduating from the Boston Conservatory, he rose to fame on Nickelodeon, then in November 2015 he competed on Dancing With the Stars and in 2016 he played Kenickie in Fox's production of Grease Live!  And this holiday season he starred in An Enchanted Christmas on The Hallmark Channel where he played the role of Ricardo, a salsa instructor. 

 

Carlos-penavega-enchanted christmas

 Carlos-penavega-bio-photo

 

Carlos penavega - dancing with the stars
Dancing With the Stars

 

LEA COCO (41 y.o., 6'2"/born in Louisiana)

Not to be confused with Lea Delaria or Lee Iacocca, Coco is a journeyman actor with no real TV franchise under his belt.  In The Sweetest Christmas (2017, Hallmark Channel), he plays the role of Nick, old boyfriend of Kylie, who owns a pizzeria.  Kylie asks to use his oven when hers malfunctions the day before the American Gingerbread competition.

 

The-sweetest-christmas

 Lea coco actor

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RYAN PAEVEY (34 y.o., 6'/born in southern California)

Similar to Aaron O'Donnell, Paevey jumped from modeling to acting and is best known for various roles on General Hospital (starting in January 2014).  During the 2016 Christmas season he co-starred in the Hallmark Channel's Unleashing Mr. Darcy, in which he played an arrogant judge at a dog show.  (Yes, it's considered a holiday movie.)

 

Ryan paevey - unleashing mr. darcy

 Ryan-paevey-hot-guys

 

DANIEL LISSING (37 y.o., 5'11"/Australian)

Lissing appeared with Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman in the shortlived ABC drama Last Resort in 2012-13.  In 2016's A December Bride, he had the role of Seth, who was responsible for introducing Layla's ex-fiance to his bride-to-be, who is Layla's cousin.  Layla can't find a date to the wedding and Seth offers to go with her.

 

A-December-Bride-2016-movie-poster

 

Daniel lissing australian

 

Daniel lessing in tank top

 

JESSE HUTCH (37 y.o., 6'0"/Canadian)

Hutch is a Hallmark Channel favorite; he reminds me of a TV version of Channing Tatum.  Growing up in the Canadian Rockies he has a reputation for doing his own stunts (and his bio says that he always had an attraction to action and adrenaline).  He has three Hallmark holiday movies to his credit, where had the roles of Cole in Snowmance (2017); Connor in Becoming Santa (2015); and Brady in Let It Snow (2013).  As you'll see he's the only actor on this list who bared his chest in one of his movies.

 

Jesse hutch - let it snow movie
"Let It Snow!"

 

Jesse hutch in snowmance
"Snowmance"

 

Jesse hutch becoming santa
"Becoming Santa"

 

 

CHRIS CARMACK (38 y.o., 6'1"/born in Washington, DC)

Carmack may be best known for his role as closeted country singer Will Lexington on the ABC drama Nashville.  Before that role he starred in two 2012 Christmas-themed movies, All About Christmas Eve and A Christmas Wedding Date.

 

Chris-Carmack-620x373
"A Christmas Wedding Date"

 

Chris carmack - all about christmas eve
"All About Christmas Eve"
 
Chris-carmack-shirtless-03

 

TRAVIS MILNE (32 y.o., 6'2"/Canadian)

Shortly after his six-year stint on ABC's Rookie Blue came to an end, Milne starred as a workaholic single dad who falls for his personal shopper in A Gift-Wrapped Christmas (2015)

 

Travis milne - a gift wrapped christmas

 Travis-milne-4

 

BRENNAN ELLIOTT (43 y.o./Canadian)

Yet, one more Canadian!  His most high profile performances were on Lifetime's medical drama Strong Medicine for four seasons and the USA Movie Flight 93 before starring in A Christmas Melody (featuring Mariah Carey) in 2015 and Love You Like Christmas in 2016.

 

Brennan elliott - a christmas melody

 

Brennan elliott all of my heart

 

Brennan elliott driving
 

 

I had the makings of my very own Hallmark movie during my trip to Pittsburgh.  I took Amtrak there and my seatmate, who boarded in Philly was a young, friendly, talkative attorney who was also visiting his mom in Pittsburgh.  We chatted non-stop for three hours; from our conversation I surmised that he was single but I couldn't tell if we played on the same team.  However, once off the train we quickly parted, going our separate ways, he taking Uber, me Lyft.  If this story followed the arc of the holiday movies we would have a chance encounter a number of weeks, months or years later.  Alas, it was not to be.

 

Amtraktrain

 

Finally, fast forward a few years to Lifetime and its holiday movie, Twinkle all the Way, in which one of the two sons of Leslie Ann Warren's characters not only was gay, but married as well.  Yes!  And the final kiss of the movie is between husband and husband.  And during the summer of 2020 it was announced that Hallmark Channel was planning to air at least one Christmas move with a gay romance at its center.

 

Gay kiss_ twinkle all the way_lifetime movie
Husbands kiss in "Twinkle All the Way"

 

 


   


Few Watch "When We Rise", ABC's Mini-Series About the Gay Rights Movement

When we rise

 

In the winter of 1977 ABC aired the eight-part mini-series, Roots, which told of the black experience in America.  It drew a huge audience, reaching an estimated 60% of the population.  40 years later ABC aired a four-part mini-series about the rise of the gay rights movement, called When We Rise, but unlike Roots, few watched it.  The first episode had only 3 million viewers and the three episodes that followed barely drew 2 million.  This was despite the fact that it had quite a creative pedigree, with Dustin Lance Black the executive producer and Gus Van Sant the director (who also paired up for the 2008 movie Milk).  By comparison, 50-60 million viewers tuned in for each installment of Roots (when there were 100 million fewer people living in the US). 

 

Of course, today's viewing landscape is much different from what it was 40 years ago, but it doesn't fully explain the pitiful level of viewership.  Was it also because non-gay viewers weren't interested, so the audience potential was limited?  Was it because of a lack of promotion (although numerous tune-in ads aired during the Academy Awards)?  Was it because, with all of the media attention in the past ten years given to several major pieces of pro-gay legislation, we've already learned a great deal gay history?  Was it apathy among young people?  Or, perhaps, avoidance by older LGBT persons who lived through the AIDS crisis and didn't wish to relive it?  (As I watched I was tense knowing that some of the characters I grew to like would succumb.)

 

AIDS panic scene

 When we rise bed scene

 

A clear sign of how times have changed was the warning at the beginning of each episode, cautioning viewers about strong "adult" language, but there was no such warning about "adult" content, such as amorous scenes between men or lesbians.  25 years ago very few mainstream advertisers would have risked placing commercials in a program with this type of content, but this time a long list of mainstream advertisers aired commercials, including Oreo, Special-K, Lysol, Bounty, Chevrolet, Perdue chickens, McDonald's, JC Penney, Downy, Red Lobster, and Little Caesar's.  However, I spotted just one ad with a gay sensibility, for the Lexus RX.  Also, L'Oreal featured trans model, Hari Nef, in its ad.

 

Lexus gay ad
Lexus RX

 

Loreal transexual
L'Oreal

 

I was startled by a quick scene in Episode 3 when the fellow walking out of the offices of the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) in DC bore a striking resemblance to Vice President Mike Pence.

 

Mike pence

 

At the end of Episode 3 I found it curious when a comment by Cleve Jones about President George W. Bush's endorsement of a Constitutional amendment making marriage only between a man and a woman, was immediately followed by a voiceover during the credits telling viewers that Bush would be on Jimmy Kimmel's show later that night.   

 

When interviewed about the mini-series, Dustin Lance Black said that, "Young LGBT people deserve to know we have a rich history."  However, with such tepid viewer response his quote made me think of the well-worn phrase, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."  Hopefully, additional viewers will see this ambitious, and well-done, series via On Demand or delayed viewing from DVR recording.

 

You-can-lead-a-horse-to-water-clip-art

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fox's Limp Remake of "Rocky Horror." Sad.

Laverne cox rocky horror

 

On October 20 Fox aired a TV remake of the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  And while 1975's Rocky Horror was deliciously transgressive, 2016's version was sparkly and sanitized; it could have been a Disney Channel production.  Comparing the two versions is like comparing the sleazy Times Square of the 1970s to the glitzy and tourist-friendly reincarnation of the present.  Everything that made Tim Curry's transexual character (from Transylvania), Frank N. Furter, so iconic was missing from Laverne Cox's portrayal, which had more in common with the drag queen contestants on Ru Paul's Drag Race

 

Tim curry
Tim Curry's Frank N. Furter from the original "Rocky Horror" was the real, transgressive deal.

 

At first blush, the casting of Cox seemed a no-brainer.  However, after she appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2014 she became somewhat of a mainstream personality.  While this was a tremendous step forward for the transgender community, it sapped her performance of any shock value, unlike Curry's Frank N. Furter, who exuded danger and temptation topped off with an intoxicating mix of estrogen and testosterone.  Instead, Cox's portrayal radiated feminine glamour and wasn't subversive in the least (and, egads, those Dolly Parton boobs!).  Additionally, the character Riff Raff was too pretty and not very  menacing.  And what a wan rendition this production's version of The Time Warp was.  As for the amateurish lip-syncing - please don't get me started. The only character to get my attention was Brad, who was adorable as the straight-laced Clark Kent type who succumbed to temptations of the flesh.

 

Time.mag.lavernecox

 

Brad majors bare chested
Brad Majors (played by Ryan McCartan)

 

At least for Baby Boomers like me, this was a tepid, disappointing remake.  As Donald Trump might have tweeted - "Sad."

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Lesley Ann Warren Stars in "Cinderella" TV Special (February 22, 1965)

Cinderella_1965There have been three muscial productions of Cinderella that have aired in primetime.  The first was in 1957 and starred Julie Andrews (with Kay Ballard and Alice Ghostley as her stepsisters).  Forty years later singer Brandy played Cinderella with Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother (Bernadette Peters, Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber also had roles).  And in between those two telecasts a production in 1965 starred 18-year old Lesley Ann Warren.  Celeste Holm was her fairy godmother, Ginger Rogers was the Queen and Pat Carrol was one of the evil stepsisters.  Its 42.2 household rating made it the highest rated TV telecast of 1965.

 

Probably many boys between the ages of 4-14, who later blossomed into full-fledged homos, gave this telecast their undivided attention.  I know I did.  I was 7 at the time.   

 

Stuart_damon_lesleyann_warrenThere was so much about this production to captivate, e.g., Cinderella's bitchy stepmother and stepsisters; Cinderella's coach and gown; her fairy godmother; wonderful musical numbers (e.g., Possible; In My Own Little Corner) - and, of course, the prince!  He was played by 28-year-old Stuart Damon, who was a cross between Rock Hudson and Max Baer (Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies).  Damon later rose to fame for his 30-year role as Doctor Alan Quartermaine on General Hospital

 

 

 

And despite watching it in black and white (my household didn't get a color TV until 1968) it was still an enchanting experience.  And 48 years later this production of Cinderella came to Broadway, albeit with somewhat of a feminist slant.


"High School Musical" - Don't Ask, Don't Tell (January 20, 2006)

Ryan_sharpay_highschoolmusical Three years before Glee there was High School Musical, a wildly popular TV musical that aired on the Disney Channel on the evening of Jan. 20, 2006.  Instead of a glee club struggling with an inferiority complex, HSM revolved around a somewhat pretentious Musical Theater class.  And although the subject was never broached it's all but certain that the student named Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel, pictured with Ashley Tisdale) was gay since he had musical theater running through his veins.  This "don't ask, don't tell" approach held sway for the next two HSM movies as well.  Although a bit dim, Ryan was a good egg who had to put up with his diva twin sister Sharpay (pronounced like the breed of dog).

 

This being a candy coated Disney fantasy world filled with smiling and fresh-scrubbed faces, Ryan was never harassed.  In fact, every clique in school co-existed harmoniously.  In keeping with this dream world, the most sensitive boy in school was also the most popular, basketball star Troy Bolton, played by Zac Efron (and at 5'10", probably the shortest basketball superstar in history).   

 

Highschoolmusical_poster 

 

I didn't catch the movie when it first aired, but during the summer I rented it to see what the buzz was about - and I was captivated.  I especially liked the number Stick to the Status Quo, which charmingly depicted the turmoil created when kids like Troy don't follow their assigned social role.  Inspired by Troy's example, other kids reveal their secret passions, e.g. a jock interested in baking, the math whiz passionate for hip-hop.  Ryan, however, was not part of these "outings".  

 

Highschoolmusical_finalnumber

 

In the sequel we'd discover that Ryan once played baseball and taught the jocks a thing or two (oh, I bet he did - wink, wink).  The movie had lots of gay subtext ripe for exploitation (by Michael Lucas perhaps?).  Personally, I think Ryan was used as a distraction to divert attention from the bromance between Troy and his best bud Chad (pictured, left).  In fact, whenever they bickered their faces would get so close it seemed that a passionate kiss was imminent.  Sure, both had girlfriends, but ... 

 

Troy_bolton_and_chad

 

High School Musical was a smash hit as was its two sequels (the last one was a theatrical release).  Besides "tween" girls it also had much to offer gay viewers (of all ages), i.e. musical numbers, intricate choreography, a host of cute boys, a kinda hot basketball coach (played by Bart Johnson, pictured), a diva and, of course, Ryan.  HSM paved the way for Fox's introduction of Glee, a primetime series with musical numbers and a very out gay character.  However, I was never a fan of the show (although I've purchased some of its music on iTunes) - too much angst and gay Kurt gave me the willies (as did the female football coach). 

 

Highschoolmusical_basketballcoach

 

 


"Angels in America" Airs on HBO (December 7, 2003)

Angels_in_america_streep_pacinoTen years after its successful run on Broadway Tony Kushners' AIDS drama Angels in America conquered television when it aired on HBO in December 2003.  It was shown in two three-hour installments, with the first airing on December 7, followed one week later by Part 2.  It starred Meryl Streep (pictured here as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg), Emma Thompson and Al Pacino as the vile Roy Cohn (pictured with Streep).  Jeffrey Wright was the only actor from the Broadway run who also appeared in the TV production.  Streep, Thompson and Wright played multiple roles. 

 

 

Emmathompson_angelsinamericaHBO's production was critically acclaimed and won a slew of awards.  At the time its eleven Emmy Awards was the most ever awarded one show.  Angels joined other acclaimed TV movies such as And the Band Played On (also on HBO, ten years earlier), Andre's Mother (PBS) and An Early Frost (NBC) in bringing the tragedy of AIDS into America's living rooms.

 

 

 

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Lesbian Drama "A Question of Love" Airs (November 26, 1978)

Question_of_loveIn 1972 That Certain Summer aired, a landmark TV movie about a father revealing his homosexuality to his teenage son.  Six years later, on Nov. 26, 1978, ABC again aired another critically acclaimed movie about gay issues, A Question of Love.  It told the story of a lesbian couple drawn into a child custody battle by an ex-husband who disapproves of their lifestyle.  The lesbian couple was played by the illustrious Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander.  The next high profile movie about lesbians would be 16 years later when Glenn Close and Judy Davis starred in Serving in Silence.

 

  

 

Harvey_milk_sfThe day after this critically acclaimed movie aired would turn out to be a dark one in gay history as Harvey Milk, an openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco was shot dead (along with mayor George Moscone) by a disgruntled former co-worker.   


AIDS Claims "The Real World's" Pedro Zamora (November 11, 1994)

Pedro_zamora Pedro Zamora was an openly gay cast member of MTV's fledgling reality series The Real World.  He was cast for the 1994 season that took place in San Francisco.  During casting Zamora made the show's producers aware that he was HIV-positive and subsequently educated his housemates and, by extension, the viewers of the series about AIDS.  Sadly, his health quickly deteriorated after the show's taping ended and he died the day after the final episode aired on November 11, 1994.  He was only 22 at the time of his death. 

 

1985_an_early_frost_002 November 11 also happens to be the date in 1985 that the landmark TV movie about HIV/AIDS, An Early Frost, aired on NBC.  It starred Aidan Quinn who appeared earlier in the year with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  Co-starring Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazarra as his parents and Sylvia Sidney as his grandmother, the movie told the story of Quinn's character, Michael, coming home to tell his family that not only is he gay but he has contracted AIDS.  It aired a month after Rock Hudson's death from AIDS complications.    

 

AIDS_deaths_by_year In the mid-80s an AIDS diagnosis was truly frightening because so little was known about treating it and drug regimens proved highly toxic for many patients.  Zamora died during the peak years for AIDS deaths (1992-95).  However, at the time of his death a glimmer of hope arrived for persons struggling with HIV/AIDS as a category of drugs known as "protease inhibitors" was emerging from clinical trials with encouraging results.  Although not a cure, they would prove effective in extending and improving the quality of life for many.


Landmark TV Movie "That Certain Summer" Airs (November 1, 1972)

Scott_jacoby That Certain Summer, a made-for-TV movie that aired on Tuesday's ABC Movie of the Week, told the story of a divorced father who reveals his homosexuality to his teenage son.  Airing on Nov. 1, 1972, it starred Hal Holbrooke as the father, 32-year-old Martin Sheen as his partner and Scott Jacoby as the son (pictured).  It was the first primetime movie to explore such a subject.  Widely acclaimed, the film would win seven Emmy Awards.

 

That.certain.summer.gaytheme   

 

The next TV movie about homosexuality to air air on network TV was six years later when Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander starred in A Question of Love, which aired on Nov. 26, 1978.  

 

 

 

An extended discussion of this milestone movie can be found on Wikipedia .


HBO Presents "And the Band Played On" (September 11, 1993)

And-the-band-played-on-original Based on Randy Shilts' 1987 book by the same name, the TV movie And the Band Played On told the story of the unfolding AIDS crisis and the various obstacles presented by various parties as authorities attempted to determine a way to stop the spread of the deadly disease.  It aired on HBO on Saturday, September 11, 1993.  Its star studded cast included Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Ian McKellen, Swoozie Kurtz, Anjelica Huston, Richard Gere, BD Wong and Steve Martin among others.  Although it recieved critical acclaim, some critics wrote that this cast of well-known actors might distract viewers from the seriousness of the plot.    

 

Randy_shilts The movie won the Emmy for Best TV Movie.  After it aired it was released in theaters around the world - but not in the U.S.  And less than 6 months after the movie aired Randy Shilts (left) succumbed to AIDS at the age of 42.