By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
The other day I rang up George Hamilton.
He was out in L.A., catching some rays poolside. And my first thought was: Well, where else would he be?
“Couldn’t be a better day,” the actor/producer said. “I love to be in the sun, sitting around the pool.”
Hamilton, thought of less as an accomplished actor than a charming personality, is on the road with the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical that opens next week at Starlight Theatre. Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a nightclub where his partner, Albin (played by Christopher Sieber), performs in drag as the club singer Zaza.
When Georges’ son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents to visit, Georges and Albin have to conceal the nature of their relationship. Laughter ensues.
Hamilton, 73, plays the “straight man,” as it were, but says his real job is to charm the audience.
Hamilton has been performing steadily since the late 1950s, when he was a contract player at MGM. In that era he appeared in a number of high-profile films — “Light in the Piazza” with Olivia de Havilland, “Home From the Hill” with Robert Mitchum, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood — and he has maintained an active career since.
He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and eventually began developing and producing his own films, including a biopic about daredevil Evel Knievel and the comedies “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”
He was part of the cast of the prime-time soap “Dynasty” and even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”
In 2008 he published a memoir in which he described his unconventional upbringing — his father was a bandleader, his mother an actress — and his relationships with a cavalcade of actresses and other famous women, including Lynda Bird Johnson when her father was president.
The book also revealed that he and his stepmother had an affair when he was 12, although he hardly considered himself a victim.
But in our conversation, Hamilton revealed a businesslike attitude when it comes to his chosen art form. He’s not a man who tries to impress you. But he does have some great stories to tell.
Q. Tell us about life on the road.
A. I’ve grown to like the show. It’s a very difficult thing to do for me. It’s a steep learning curve. I love to do things that are a little out of my reach, sometimes out of my grasp. But I always like the challenge. And so it’s gotten easier for me. If the audience doesn’t feel you’re pleased to be there, why should they?
I like the people I’m working with. I like the part. I like the atmosphere. The challenge is always still there because there’s so many … things that go on in a live performance that you have to develop a whole new set of techniques than you would in film. And I like that a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen that have given me a chance to dig down and try things I hadn’t tried before.
Q. How long had it been since you performed on stage?
A. Four or five years. I was on Broadway with “Chicago.” But then I was hurt and had to have an operation on my knee, and then I came back and did it again.
Broadway is a different animal than touring, and touring is a different animal than dinner theaters and plays. There’s a circuit of summer things that a lot of actors do, and I used to do without telling anybody because it’s the only way to learn timing. So I made it my business from the time I was under contract to the studio to make them think I was in the south of France living the life of a playboy, but the truth was I was often billed above the roast beef out in the sticks. So it’s been fun for me to do it. Touring for me is pretty hard. It’s much harder than Broadway. You have eight shows a week, five of which are Friday through Sunday. And you then have to go to the next city and get ready for your next performance. And you have press and travel all in the same time. So there’s no time off. You learn a whole different set of survival techniques.
It’s not very glamourous, the life on the road.
Q. A couple of years ago a local theater company produced the musical “Light in the Piazza.” Coincidentally, Turner Classics showed the (1962) film about the same time, so my wife and I watched it. We agreed you were convincing as a young Italian guy and there you were playing Rossano Brazzi’s son. What was that like?
A. You can be in the business for a lifetime and still not have captured what you’re about on film or have a performance you can point at and say, “This is really good or great.” Because this business is about their vision of you and not what yours is. It’s very hard to break molds and stereotypes, especially when you’re under contract to a big studio as I was.
That movie came at a time when contract players were thought of as chattel. So being under contract to a studio was not a really a help. It was more of a hindrance. New actors were coming on the lot and they were independent. … (The studio) knew they had you in a pinch, but they didn’t respect that very much.
So I knew that I had to do things that were not expected.
They used to have what they called the script cage, where they mimeographed all these scripts at night that would go out to producers. So I spent a lot of time after hours … and I’d read every script the studio had. And I found “Light in the Piazza.” I loved the idea of it. I thought it was a very sensitive movie and one that would be hard to pull off.
So I started working on the accent, and I went to Rossano Brazzi and said to him, “I want to play your son.” Rossano was a very nice man, typically Italian, and was henpecked by his wife quite a lot. But I spent time with him, and I would watch every mannerism he had and how he would speak.
I went to the head of the studio, who didn’t want to know about it at all, and he said they had a fellow by the name of Tomas Milian, who was a young actor, and he was going to play the role. And I said, “He’s not Italian.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s got an accent.” I said, “It does matter. Don’t you understand the difference between an Italian accent and a South American accent?”
So I said, “Why don’t you let me do the (screen) test?” They were surprised that they had the guy right under their nose who could play the role.
I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. But even if you did that they didn’t believe you could play another character. And characters were what I wanted to play.
There was a character named Hank Williams. He was a very sensitive country and western musician … and he was really a wonderful writer. So I went down to Nashville. It was a small picture. It wasn’t thought of as anything except the exploitation (of the songs).
And I actually worked on it and could do the songs to the point where they almost let me do the album. But I had to convince them. And that was the hard thing. They really wanted to put me in the playboy roles and leave it that. So I had to buy my way out of my contract with MGM.
And then finally when I got to produce my own movies, I would hire me. You know, I’d say, “OK, I’m going to play Dracula and do ‘Love at First Bite’ and put myself into it.” So I raised the money, had the script written and played the role — and made $78 million dollars for them. … Then I had the ability to go on and produce another movie, which was “Zorro the Gay Blade,” and I again hired myself for that role.
It’s much easier to produce a film than it is to convince the producer of another film to hire you. I found that out the hard way. And there were periods when I was basically dead in Hollywood.
Q. If we could go back to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for a moment, didn’t Hank Williams Jr. actually record the songs for the soundtrack?
A. The studio was very uncertain about the music track because Audrey Williams (Hank’s widow) wanted a lot of money and wanted certain controls. I went down to Nashville and spent about a month with her and convinced her that I was the right actor for the role.
The studio didn’t see that at all. They thought I was a sophisticated playboy. I had to explain to them I was born in Memphis, Tenn., and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music.
Finally I began rehearsing the songs. Because anyway you figured it I had to sing ’em to lip-sync them. And I got them nailed to the point where I could finger the guitar and sing the songs. … They were willing to let me do the recordings for the movie, but finally they made a deal with Audrey that Hank Jr. would do them. So I was lip-syncing to Hank Jr.’s interpretations of his father’s songs.
Q. You also produced and starred in a film on the life of Evel Knievel. How did that come about?
A. I was doing a TV series at Universal, and it required some stunts. And there was a young producer on the lot and I kept having lunch with him, saying, “God, I’ve got to get a stunt man who can do this stunt for me.” And he said, “Well, get Evel Knievel.”
And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Evel Knievel?” And he told me about this guy and my first thought about him was he was kind of outrageous, kind of ridiculous. But I had the studio hunt him down. I had a stunt that had to be done, and he said he could do it.
He didn’t show up when he said when he was going to show up … and then one day, we were a week away from shooting the stunt and they called me from the gate and said there was a man out there with a huge semi-truck and some backup cars named Evel Knievel wanting to meet with me. … And I said, well, have him come to the commissary and meet me for lunch. And they said, “He can’t walk.”
They carried him into the commissary and put him down in the booth with me. And I said, “Mr. Knievel, I think there’s been a big mistake here. I would love for you to do the stunt, but I can see you can’t do it, and it would be ridiculous to pursue this.”
And he said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. When is the stunt?” And I said it’s in a week. He said, “I’ll be ready.” I said, “You’ll be ready to do a stunt in a week?” He showed me this 11-pound piece of metal that was going into his … left leg.
He said, “I’m going in tomorrow morning, they’re gonna put that in there and they’ll snap this thing into the hip, and I’ll be out of there in three or four days and be ready to go.”
And I just sat there looking at him thinking, “This man is totally out of his mind.” And the more I started realizing that he was out of his mind, the more I found him interesting.
I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this stunt, but I’d like to talk to you about other things.” And he said, “Well, let’s get the stunt out of the way. I wanna know if your money’s good.”
So he called me on the day of the stunt. He called me from a hospital, and he said, “I’m ready to do the stunt for you. Which gate should I go to?” And he’s talking and suddenly I hear this kaplunk and … I thought the phone went dead. And then a nurse picks it up and said, “Mr. Knievel just passed out. He shouldn’t have been out of bed.” I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
So I went out there and he was lying in bed and he said, “Oh, I had a little problem there. They gave me too much medicine. I could have come and done it. I told them not to give me any pain medication but they gave it to me. It’s their fault.”
So I kept trying to talk to him and find out his psychology and what he was about. And I thought this is what America is about. It’s about making our mark on the north wall of the Grand Canyon. It’s a little bit crazy here, what we’re doing.
I found him very interesting. He was a sociopathic guy. And he was a very potentially dangerous human being. … Evel put a shotgun to my head one night when I brought the script to him.
And I said, “What is this about?” He said, “I want you to read the script to me.” I said, “I don’t need a gun stuck to my head to do it.” He said, “You do in my case because if this is gonna be a bad movie it’s gonna be ended right now.” I read that script probably better than anything I read in my life.
Q. What’s next for you after this tour?
A. It’s always a good question because you don’t know. I never plan my life, and I’m surrounded with people who do and they’re always a year or two years ahead. There’s been an offer for a TV series, weekly, based on “Love at First Bite.”
There’s a one-man show that I would take on the road. … I kind of don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think after this the first thing I’ll do is settle in for a long winter’s nap.
Q. Well, thank you for this time.
A. I didn’t talk too much about “La Cage” (laughs).
Q. I did read a quote from your co-star, Christopher Sieber, who said you don’t have a diva bone in your body.
A. (Laughs.) That’s nice. I like to believe that I am a very dedicated and totally professional actor, and I don’t have any room in my life for ego. You can’t expect to be as proficient as people who have been in this play for a long time, who are singers and dancers and dedicated to Broadway.
But what you can bring to it is a certain showmanship and a sense of providing the audience with a kind of permission to enjoy themselves because you’re enjoying yourself. That’s a hard thing to do. You can’t fake that one. You just have to enjoy it, and if you do it’s infectious. My gift, if there is such, is to be delighted to be there.
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