As George Hamilton sat in a dressing room in Cleveland’s State Theatre last week, the top of his shirt was unbuttoned and his tie loosened a smidge — “like Sinatra after a bad night,” he said.
It was a bit of shock to see the 72-year-old actor in such a state. He is, after all, famous for being a tanned, dapper gent, for not allowing a hair out of place or a bit of etiquette to be ignored. As the counterculture rose in the ’60s, Hamilton was its elegant contrast, suitable to squire around a president’s daughter.
His official bio notes that for decades his roles have been “tux-prone:” it also says that on Dancing With the Stars in 2006 “his charm and usual impeccable tailoring scored higher than his limberness.” And with that style came more than a little hint of vanity which Hamilton did not hide. A couple of years ago Hamilton told the New York Times that talking about himself was “my favorite subject.”
But this oversimplifies. Hamilton is, in fact, a man now at ease with a loosened tie (at least until a photographer sets up). As for talking about himself, that’s a springboard to tales of other people and of self-exploration during a rich, star-laden life.
In the movies Hamilton started out as a contract player in the waning days of the studio system, and as a “very brooding, dark actor,” he said. He went on to play Evel Knievel, Hank Williams, Dracula, Zorro and William Randolph Hearst. He knew Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum and other Hollywood legends. He remembers thinking Grant was incoherent in one of their chats until Hamilton figured out “he was dropping acid and completely out of his mind.” Mitchum told Hamilton, “They say I don’t know my lines. Not true. I’m just too drunk to say them.”
He has done scripted and reality TV, including a Comedy Central roast of David Hasselhoff. “I’ve never blushed like that,” he said. “They made me say these things that were just god-awful.” He has also been a producer, including on his movies Love at First Bite and Zorro, the Gay Blade. He still keeps an eye on films, with likes (The Hangover, Bridesmaids) and dislikes (Horrible Bosses).
He speaks somberly of “my best friend,” Sean Flynn. The photojournalist son of Errol Flynn, Sean and another journalist, Dana Stone, were reportedly captured by Communist forces in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — and never seen again. Hamilton wants to make a movie about Sean — indeed, insists he will make the movie. “Fascinating story, and I think that it’s time,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s childhood adventures even inspired a movie, My One and Only, with Renee Zellweger playing Hamilton’s mother.
He was in Cleveland to promote his November appearance with a tour of the musical La Cage Aux Folles. But he spoke of so many things, La Cage will have to wait for another story. And those many things included memories of World War II Cleveland.
“I’m fascinated by Cleveland,” he said during an interview Monday. “Mainly because as a little boy, I was here. My father [George “Spike” Hamilton] was an orchestra leader. He was the orchestra leader at the old Statler. I remember very well initially coming down at night and sitting, watching my father conduct. … I walked out on that square, Public Square, today and I swear, it was like I was 7 years old. I couldn’t quite get over it. I remembered the shape of the building, I remembered the entrance to the hotel. I remember lots of pigeons there. I guess they’ve all gone. It was an extraordinary experience. … I’ve been back to Cleveland over the years for a show or movie or something. But in truth I never spent any time here.
“This time, for some reason, I was drawn back to that square — where my mother and my father decided to get a divorce. It was the night that he gave me a strange gift. I had always wanted a bomb,” Hamilton said. His father found an empty bomb casing and gave it to his son. “I just slept with this thing. It was the greatest thing I ever had — a kid with a bomb. … To this day, I haven’t forgotten. I haven’t forgotten Cleveland for that reason.”
Hamilton noted with a smile that a movie, The Avengers, was being shot in Cleveland. “I went to Hollywood. … If I had just stayed here long enough, I could have made a movie here!”
But even as he is asked to talk about his past, Hamilton said he does not feel he has to serve it. His 2009 autobiography, Don’t Mind If I Do, and the making of My One and Only took care of that, he said. “In some strange way, I’ve kind of liberated myself to do what I want to do.”
Part of what he wants to do is to “excavate before I imitate,” he said, to test himself, whether it’s taking on the tour of La Cage or, he hopes, following it with a one-man show where he looks back on his life, with clips from his films helping to illustrate the monologue.
“It’s hard to do Shakespeare,” he said. “But it’s even harder to do yourself, in some strange way, because you have to have the right spin on it. No one has done you. You’ve seen others do Shakespeare.”
Yet Hamilton has often come across as someone in control of his life and comfortable with himself. He disagrees with both notions.
Asked why he stopped making big-screen parodies after Love at First Bite (1979) and Zorro, the Gay Blade (1981), Hamilton archly said, “What I’ve loved about the press in general is that they will presume that you have the control over your life to make those decisions. And the truth of it is that you don’t have that control.” (In brief, his financial backer on the films moved on, and Hamilton could not raise the money for another film.)
As for being comfortable, Hamilton said, “I never knew who I was. I knew all the characters I had played. But strangely enough, when opting out [of roles], I would choose what people thought was my character. I had copped to this character, this sun-browned, suntanned, playboy-esque, dabbling [person]. That’s an easy role to manufacture. I just chose that at MGM because it was an easier character to play. It’s taken me all my lifetime to know who I am, and what I want to do. And I’m not sure I really know yet.”
He recalled Cary Grant explaining that he wanted out of movies because, as he aged, he feared comparisons to his younger self. But Grant still kept searching and stretching himself — putting aside his shyness in order to do occasional live “conversations” in theaters around the country. (In fact, Grant was in Davenport, Iowa, for such a show when he died.)
“Cary, the most introspective of people, was doing that,” Hamilton said. “And I thought, isn’t that interesting? I think that’s part of the process. Once you have a career, you’re kind of due trying to find out who you are beyond that. For me, that’s what I’m kind of like doing.” After pondering out loud a bit more, Hamilton hesitated, as if he had gone too deep.
“It sounds rather introspective,” he said. “It sounds like I’m 25 years old, searching.”
But when Hamilton actually was 25, he said, “I never really wanted to look inward.” He was content to imitate Grant — even if he was “just a road-show version of him.” And Grant himself acknowledged that his public image was also an artifice.
“Now I’m actually not afraid to admit faults,” Hamilton said. “And not afraid to delve into ’em and not afraid to explore and not afraid to take the chances, you know? I never prepare anything anymore, which is so strange. That’s why the only thing about this play thing that’s difficult for me is you’ve got to be prepared. I’d rather go on there and just spend 2 hours and 45 minutes saying anything that came to my mind and trying to make people laugh.
“And I think I could do very well for about 15 to 20 minutes,” he said. “At 2 hours and 45 minutes, you need the writer.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and on Twitter. He also does a weekly video chat for Ohio.com. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.