Character Studies 15: Why Does Huggy Do What He Does?

One of the best aspects of the series are the glimpses of the varied street-life populating Bay City and its few desultory blocks of bars, corner stores, gas stations and empty lots. While these streets are populated by an always entertaining and sometimes grimly realistic parade of street characters, no one embodies the down-and-out, the wily or the eccentric like the various informants used by the two detectives. These guys are different from the mostly hostile witnesses squeezed hard for voluntary, urgently needed information, like Carla in “Survival”, Sid in “Ninety Pounds of Trouble”, the engaging John-John The Apple in “The Collector”, or Fat Rolly. Instead, these guys are professionals, however reluctant, guys so down on their luck they’re selling information to the cops at grave personal risk. They all appear to have no personal grudge against cops themselves, despite routinely being hassled and shaken down; mostly it’s a whining “not you guys again!” when confronted (there’s a lovely scene in the pilot movie in which hard-luck sometime-informant Coley is subjected to the friendly menace of the two detectives). Interestingly, three – Micky in “The Fix”, Lou Scobie in “Survival”, and Freddie in “Starsky’s Lady” – are actually blackmailed by Bad Guys in order to lure Starsky and Hutch into harm’s way through the promise of false information, highlighting the dangers of relying on someone only too willing to sell you out for a couple of bucks. But we always have the feeling these treacherous double agents are doing so only because they have hit rock bottom, and wouldn’t ordinarily want to hurt the two detectives. One gets the feeling Starsky and Hutch are among the few cops who treat their informants and other street-level acquaintances with something approaching respect, if not downright affection. One of the most realistic aspects of the series (keeping in mind realism is not really what “Starsky & Hutch” is all about) is the fact that the detectives are heavily invested in, and reliant on, their informants. Best guest-snitch? With a bad case the DTs, bags under his eyes black as tar, my vote goes to Micky in “The Fix”, wonderfully played by Gene Conforti.

But of course the ultimate snitch is Huggy Bear himself, who for unknown reasons opens heart and home to the two detectives. Beautifully and unforgettably played by charismatic Antonio Fargas, he’s the rickety third stick propping up the show, a classic narrative device and plot convenience, purveyor of coincidentally invaluable information helping the story along while providing a glimpse into the street culture of Bay City. Huggy’s spirited fashion sense, snappy dialogue and poetic turn of phrase provide some of the most entertaining moments in the series. I do understand the problematic aspects of this character, and I acknowledge the subtle and not-so-subtle underlay of racism here and in every single instance of American popular culture produced by powerful institutional forces (such as television networks), but things quickly become complicated when we look at historical antecedents, other “helpers” from Steppin Fetchit to Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, overtly submissive but covertly subversive characters who exaggerate or invent helpfulness while secretly being in control. That in itself becomes a troubling stereotype and a subject worthy of close discussion, but let’s narrow our focus to Huggy Bear himself and see the man himself rather than the issues he represents.

“Antihero” is a word describing someone who is heroic despite lacking the traditional heroic qualities such as courage or morality, and I wish there was such as word as “antifriend”, because Huggy so perfectly embodies it. He is a friend despite having few traditional “friendly” traits, a guy who is as much embarrassed and frustrated by his relationship with Starsky and Hutch as he is warm to them, a guy who is acutely aware of the social and economic gulf between them, who often has competing interests in whatever is happening, and whose interactions are about 80% combative or at the very least light-hearted to the point of belittling. I cannot recall a single instance of Starsky, Hutch and Huggy being on completely equal ground in any social setting. Huggy is always the helper: providing information, doing favors, behind the counter or bringing the food (even in the tag to “The Avenger”, whether or not he provided the picnic cooler Huggy is the one fussing with the blanket and handing out the drinks while his friends mock-argue about biorhythms). This is a major issue, but Huggy is not just a helper. He’s a perceptive and complicated guy making the best of things, his on-and-off-again bar The Pits as well as various street-level businesses marking him as a legitimate entrepreneur as well as a hustler. And a hard worker too: you always see him pushing a broom, working tables, organizing staff and a thousand other mundane tasks, and his myriad sidelines can’t be too easy either. Even though he’s always able to make a buck, willing to do anything and anywhere, he continues to be the main informant to Starsky and Hutch. Why he does this is never revealed. Huggy can’t possibly get paid enough to make it worth his while; at most it’s fifty bucks here and there, and cohabiting with two detectives can’t be good for business. Sometimes you get the feeling he’s doing it for moral reasons – he’s quick to tell Starsky about Slater in “Survival”, a slimeball so bad other slimeballs want him off the street – and sometimes for friendship reasons (most remarkably, helping to dry out Hutch in “The Fix”), and yes, he obviously finds the detective business exciting, which explains his naïve foray into the trade with The Turkey. But most times you get the feeling he feels his role is an inconvenience, an embarrassment, a yoke he is forced to wear. He can be grumpy, obstreperous, stubborn and unhelpful, but he always comes through in the end. It’s interesting to speculate what Starsky and Hutch did to deserve this kind of allegiance, because frankly they’d be lost without his help.

Is it simply because providing information enables Huggy to keep the cops off his back? He makes no secret of his nefarious activities, like providing a hot watch in “The Trap”, and having various ladies of the evening lounging at his bar (most likely at his behest, although he is referred to as a pimp once by Hutch, in “Iron Mike Ferguson”, a comment more satiric than factual, as Hutch probably knows full well Huggy is more of an enabler than an enforcer). He is also seen hawking what looks like stolen merchandise and involving himself in various underground gambling operations (involving mice, hilariously). There are many hints the relationship between Huggy and the two detectives is primarily one of mutual back-scratching. This, at least, is how Captain Dobey sees it; he is suspicious of Huggy and loathe to accept his help (most vividly in “Bloodbath” but also in “Iron Mike Ferguson” and “The Fix”, among others) and seems embarrassed by Huggy’s colorful patois, perhaps because it represents the ethnic identity Dobey feels is an anathema to dignity, ambition, and acceptance in the wider (and whiter) world (an irony, since Huggy is dignified and ambitious, and his social power, while limited, is well established and genuine).

Despite being introduced in the series as a loner and an outsider, Huggy is often depicted as a family man, constantly surrounded by various cousins and other relatives, and is (improbably) invited along for the ride at Playboy Island because his grandmother and large extended family live there. However, these family connections always seem more like entanglements than loving bonds, fraught with obligation and danger (“Kill Huggy Bear”, “Murder at Sea”, “The Vampire”, for example). Family, in Huggy’s world, can be a rather loose affiliation: in “Huggy Can’t Go Home” we see this vividly, as father-figure JT exerts tremendous control over guilt-ridden Huggy, who seems helpless to escape the quicksand-like hold his old neighborhood has over him. Perhaps this is another clue in our mystery, because it appears Huggy has a natural disinclination to cut his ties no matter how they cut into the flesh. This shows how his loyalty with a capital L is an Achilles heel and why he is unable to part ways with the two troublesome detectives, whom he may view as family too (more “family” than “friend”, perhaps, if we understand that some relationships persist in a kind of preordained and non-voluntary way, independent of choice, both burdensome and tenacious to the point of inviolability).

The series ends with an homage to the informant and his uneasy, troubled relationship to the law: the unfortunate Lionel Rigger, played by Ted Neely, in the first part of “Targets Without a Badge”. Huggy trusts Starsky and Hutch to help Lionel, who has information about a crooked judge. They attempt to protect him, but fail. Following Lionel’s murder, Huggy explodes in a rage that seems to have been simmering for years, yelling “Lionel was a nobody as far as you’re concerned”, “just a snitch”, that “you let him down”, “you used him”. Explosive grief aside, this is a great scene precisely because it illustrates how complicated Huggy’s rationale for what he does is. He isn’t a one-dimensional sidekick, he isn’t an endearing oddball or the Groovy Black Guy brought in for ethnic legitimacy. He’s contradictory and conflicted, and by that yardstick becomes the embodiment of The Informer: a real-world Charon, the ferryman who navigates the rivers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Charon didn’t volunteer for this job and a snitch doesn’t either. It’s a grueling necessity, a cosmic pay-back for earthly transgressions. Just what Huggy’s transgressions are remains a mystery.

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4 Responses to “Character Studies 15: Why Does Huggy Do What He Does?”

  1. Dianna Says:

    I feel like the script writers didn’t respect Huggy’s character much, too often using him as a tool rather than exploring him as a person. In The Fix, Bloodbath, and Survival, he is clearly motivated by loyalty and friendship, and is appropriately valued by S&H as a person — yet the writers of other scripts want to portray him as venal and petty (as in Little Girl Lost and The Psychic), and have the guys treat him like a piece of dirt (as in Murder at Sea).

    I think Antonio Fargas wanted to give his character as much roundness and depth as Glaser and Soul gave theirs, and had the ability to do so if the the writers hadn’t kept pushing him around and robbing him. I appreciate your attempt to give Huggy back what he is owed, and I will try to view him through your lens from now on.

  2. Anna Says:

    This is a wonderful analysis Merl. I always felt that Huggy had a lot more going on under the surface than he was usually allowed to show. That scene in Targets Without A Badge is absolutely amazing, one of my favorites in the series, not just for the poignancy and sublimity of Huggy’s rage and grief, but also for the fact that Starsky and Hutch so obviously take him and his words 100% seriously and respect and take his recriminations to heart so deeply.

    I love your comparison to Charon the Ferryman of mythology. Have you ever considered analyzing the characters of Starsky and Hutch (or Bay City or the police force or the Torino or whatever) from a mythological or fairy tale standpoint? We take myths oh so very seriously these days, as if they’re too high-and-mighty to be related to pop culture, but really, the archetypes really do filter into and influence pop culture very strongly — in some ways, myths and fairy tales WERE the ancient equivalent of pop culture. There’s got to be some parallels between them and all those pairs of divine twins littering various cultures’ legends. And of course, there’s the unnervingly strong parallels between the series-ending arc and the second half of the Epic of Gilgamesh…

    • merltheearl Says:

      Anna, I share your idea about “Starsky and Hutch” having strong mythological parallels. I suppose all really good artistic endeavors strive to emulate the great myths – or maybe all great stories are archetypal, especially heroic narratives. Notice how many classic stories feature the gnat-like sidekick, impervious to discouragement, popping up in unlikely places, who provides both the voice of conscience and a certain comedic lightness, which entertains and informs the hero? I suspect this is what is happening here with Huggy.

  3. Louie Says:

    Very interesting! One example that springs to mind are the Greek mythology twins Castor and Pollux, one mortal, one divine, but hatched from the same egg…when Castor is killed, Pollux shares his own immortality with him to keep them from being separated, and they are later turned into the single constellation Gemini.

    Starsky and Hutch certainly parallel this in a way, for when one of them is in mortal danger, his partner exhausts all his resources and pours all his strength into the task of preventing them from being parted, sacrificing and risking everything to save him because existing alone is unfathomable.

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