Catching His Wave

updated 02/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/15/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

ANTONIO, ANTONIO! WHEREFORE ART thou, Antonio? OK, so this dimpled dude with a surfboard may not be exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. But to millions of soap opera fans, 20-year-old Italian-horn Antonio Sabato—hunk of the month-after-month on ABC's General Hospital—the definitive Romeo. Since Sabato joined the cast of GH seven months ago, playing lover-boy loner Jagger Cates, breathless viewers have bombarded him with 300 letters a week. He's a nominee in the Hottest Newcomer category of the Soap Opera Awards, to be telecast on NBC Feb. 26. And his presence has helped GH soar from seventh to third in the daytime series Nielsens.

"He is unique. He has charisma, presence, and an energy that takes you into him," exults General Hospital executive producer Wendy Riche. "He's more than a hunk," says one of Sabato's two onscreen love interests, Cari Shayne (Karen). Agrees the other, Vanessa Marcil (Brenda): "A bunk means beautiful but not so thrilling mentally. Antonio is beautiful, but he's really an intelligent, fun guy."

There is one notable dissenter, though—Sabato's former wife, Los Angeles-based model Tally Jensen, 29. After a three-year courtship, the two married last May. Jensen left three months later. "He turned into a jealous, possessive person who wouldn't allow me to have my own life," she says. Though she claims Sabato bad a bad temper and often ignored her, she doesn't blame him for their breakup. The real problem, she believes, is his parents, spaghetti-western actor Antonio Sabato Sr., 49, and real estate broker Yvonne, 45. "It's a very close family," she explains. "They don't approve of anyone around him."

Sabato, gulping down forkfuls of moo shu chicken in a restaurant a few blocks from his family's three-bedroom duplex in Marina del Rey, where he returned after the split, shakes his head. "To me, it doesn't matter what she thinks," he says. "I loved her to death, but the relationship was going nowhere." The divorce is final, but more important, he says, placing his hand over his heart, "it's over in here."

As for the rap against his parents, Sabato demurs. "They're my best friends, and I usually listen to them," he says, "[but] we don't agree on everything." In fact, like chaperons from the old country, the Sabatos, who emigrated from Rome just eight years ago, watch closely over Antonio's life—and not from afar. They moved to California in order to give Antonio and his sister, Simone, 25, a psychology major at UCLA, a shot at the American dream. Today, while Yvonne offers Antonio Jr. advice on how to invest his six-figure yearly salary, Antonio Sr. remains the tough-love guardian of his son's career. Says Dad: "I tell him, if you want to be an actor just because you are handsome and tall and you think you can make easy money, forget it. Acting is a tough job." Antonio Jr. is grateful for the advice and doesn't feel uncomfortable about living under the parental roof. "I could be 30, and if I'm not married, I would still live at home," he says. "It doesn't make you a man to live on your own. That's an American thing."

At first, American things—and words—were difficult for Sabato. It was only after two years of classes in English as a second language that, he says, "I finally started to understand what people were telling me." He received his GED in 1989 and, with his father's help, segued into a few small-budget movies (Karate Rock), then won the lead in Janet Jackson's music video Love Will Never Do and, finally, landed his General Hospital role.

When he's not working, Sabato works out: "Two or three times a week is enough. I like to surf and punch the bag because that loosens you up." He rides a Yamaha 650 motorcycle but craves a big Harley. Since the breakup with Jensen, he cruises solo. "I don't even want to go out," he says. "I just take my work real seriously now."

That entails pondering the future. "I think me and Tom Cruise have a lot in common," Sabato says. "Everybody's saying that, not just me. I don't mean the quality of acting—I'm not at that level yet—but just the way we feel about the business. He takes it seriously. I feel that in every cycle of this life there's one person who stands out, and my time will come. Today it's Tom Cruise, then it will be somebody else, and someday, hopefully, me."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL, in Los Angeles

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