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.
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.
Liquid Plumr ad
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
"Let It Snow!"
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.
"A Christmas Wedding Date"
"All About Christmas Eve"
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)
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.
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.
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.
Husbands kiss in "Twinkle All the Way"