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Actor George Hamilton Reprises his Role in 'Chicago'

MGM
George Hamilton in his early days at MGM in "Where the Boys Are."

Beth Accomando speaks with actor George Hamilton about his role as Billy Flynn

George Hamilton Profile
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando profiles George Hamilton.

I’m waiting in the lobby of the Civic Theater for an interview with George Hamilton. He’s starring as Billy Flynn in the national touring company for Chicago. The first full dress rehearsal will start in a few hours. I’m not sure what to expect from a man who’s probably as famous for his tan as his talent. But he’s also someone who’s not only survived but succeeded in the movie biz for fifty years. The lobby is also filling up with a few dozen fans. They are part of the Broadway San Diego rewards program which allows playgoers to see a rehearsal in advance of a show’s opening. Kristen Pascal is here for one reason: KRISTEN PASCAL: I’m a huge George Hamilton fan. I’ve loved him for my whole life he’s fabulous and he’s totally perfect for this part. Publicist Susan Chicoine leads me around backstage in search of George Hamilton. WOMAN He’s downstairs finishing up rehearsals. Chicoine spent a day with Hamilton last week doing press for the show and based on that experience she says I’m in for a good time. SUSAN CHICOINE: I’ve been in biz for 30 years and this has been the most delightful day it started George started at 7am and he did 23 interviews in one day… he’s the consummate gentleman when it comes to be the old style movie star. SUSAN CHICOINE: Oh and there he is, George, It’s Susan. GEORGE HAMILTON: I’ve never seen anything like today it’s like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, we only have another twelve hours to go. SUSAN CHICOINE: This is Beth. GEORGE HAMILTON: Hi. SUSAN CHICOINE: You want to get this done now? GEORGE HAMILTON: Yes We set up in his dressing room for the interview. At 68, Hamilton still looks good but he says when you reach his age you try to do less and make it more effective. GEORGE HAMILTON: Today, this is an all time back breaker day never had a show put together in three hours… then we have to do a show and then another show… but at my age to pace myself to get through it and then they told me there was a party and whether it’s a wake or a party I hope I’m awake for it. I don’t know if you could hear but that was his stomach growling. Co-star Michelle DeJean says it’s been a grueling day for everyone. MICHELLE DeJEAN: We started at 8am and we haven’t stopped and had a tiny break and had to eat and get ready for the show. CLIP Hit it. DeJean says Hamilton brings a lot of himself to the role of slick lawyer Billy Flynn. MICHELLE DeJEAN: He just steps onstage and the first thing he does is this big George Hamilton smile. And you’re like oh! It’s a role that suits him. It’s about performance, about putting on a show. But Hamilton sees something below the surface as well. GEORGE HAMILTON: My thinking my way of looking at it is more like Clarence Darrow who was a lawyer in the twenties who was a feisty lawyer and melodramatic and he could take either side of an argument and win it and yes he’s in it for the money but I also think he wants the pub and… particular era of hobnobbing This isn’t the first time he’s played Flynn. He’s tackled the role on Broadway in the past. Nor is it the first time he’s played a lawyer. He was legal counsel to Michael Coreleone in The Godfather III. CLIP Godfather III GEORGE HAMILTON: He was a different kind of lawyer affable wasp but with distance from mafia, not old kind of lawyer. I made very little humor on the guy tried to be charming but he was all business. But Hamilton when got the call to play the part, he thought it was a joke producer Robert Evans was playing on him. GEORGE HAMILTON: People said oh you’re in The Godfather and going to Rome? Yeah Bobby Evans did this to me he’s going to play this big joke on me I’ll be Troy Donahue in the film… and that was a challenge I didn’t know what I was going to play but I was there from the first to last day Another challenge was replacing Alain Delon in the French film Viva Maria, starring Jeanne Moreau and Brigit Bardot. Hamilton played a Mexican martyr named Flores, who’s made to look like a Christ figure as he’s chained to a beam and made to march across the country. CLIP Viva Maria GEORGE HAMILTON: They asked me to do it in French which was very difficult thing to do I practiced and said my line but they explained that I had to do the line with Mexican accent. CLIP Viva Maria GEORGE HAMILTON: I had this manacling board on my back it was very hard BETH ACCOMANDO: But you got to be seduced by Jeanne Moreau in prison GEORGE HAMILTON: Yes and there was always the hope of Brigit Bardot at night. [laughs] Gorgeous women have frequently been associated with Hamilton. And Hamilton confesses that he has sought fame and celebrity. GEORGE HAMILTON: Yeah I think I did I think you always do GEORGE HAMILTON: it thrills me when people stop me on the streets and remember me I mean I’ve been at this fifty years from the very first of the films right up to didn’t I see you in a commercial the other day or weren’t you in dancing with the stars... For me it was the stars I had seen when I went to Hollywood at the end of the fifties that were the stars of the forties and I admired them and I didn’t know what the future be didn’t even know what the present was but I knew what the past was and I aspired to be those kind of guys. Hamilton was one of the last MGM contract players. In the 1960s, he made films like the romantic comedy Where the Boys Are. He played an Ivy Leaguer trying to hook up with a freshman. CLIP Where the Boys Are Hmmm. That sounds like a description of George Hamilton. There’s a look about Hamilton as well. Maybe that’s because he wanted to imitate the stars of the past. GEORGE HAMILTON: I didn’t know what the future would be didn’t know the present but knew the past and I wanted to be one of those guys. The studio system ended but not before ingraining Hamilton with a level of professionalism that he still maintains today. GEORGE HAMILTON: they made us dead on professionals so many stories of things that taught me that in 50 years I’ve been late twice and something I’m most embarrassed about both were with kirk Douglas [laughs] And during those fifty years he’s had to reinvent himself a few times. GEORGE HAMILTON: I’ve been dead about ten times on arrival you just have to look at it differently if you change the way you look at things, things change and if you look at a problem and look at it not as a problem but as an opportunity it sounds trite but it really works. I’ve said okay that’s the end of that guy as we know him now we got to bring back that guy as something or do something else to make like guy work i.e. like produce a movie a movie like I did with Love and Zorro and before that with Evel I just found the money produced the movie and that was easier to do that than to get an agent to get you a job CLIP Love at First Bite Hamilton says the idea came from on old Lenny Bruce routine. It cost less than 5 million to shoot and it grossed about $75 million. Now he’s producing the sequel, Love at First Bite 2. But would he ever take a part that went against type? Would he play serial killer or degenerate homeless person? GEORGE HAMILTON: Sure I did that initially and they gave me a lot of roles like hank Williams and alcoholic and I loved that and first pic was a killer and in Columbos interesting roles in Colombos and things totally off type but the problem with movies really is that they want you to be something that they can relate to and are comfortable with you playing then when you go to television, whatever character you are playing he’s invited into their home every week and they want you to be that character. In theater you have the chance to be something else if you want to be. But off- stage and off-camera, Hamilton is rarely caught out of his sophisticated character. GEORGE HAMILTON: I came through an era where if you were going to have a car accident look good. That’s what they told you at the studio and I never let that go and I thought to myself as I got older why let it go it was the way I grew up and I’m comfortable in a tuxedo as I am in a pair of blue jeans… there are people the hip hop crowd if you can believe this pay me more attention than a lot of my fellow compatriots because I think a lot of people who came out of ghetto who have seen that don’t really want to be there they want to dress well and look well and I have a lot of friends who came up the hard way and they like style they don’t wanna see guys like Puppy Combs and Puppy has his own clothing company and we have a lot in common in that. Hamilton treats that style as a brand. It’s something the star has always been known for. And he makes that style seem effortless. CLIP Zorro the Gay Blade In roles like Zorro and Dracula, Hamilton effortlessly pokes fun at himself. And he it seem so easy that you might not realize the craft involved. GEORGE HAMILTON: I watched Fred Astaire, great dance and I thought what lack of effort but I’ve never seen a man stand in front of a mirror for so long going over same step he was a total perfectionist and the only way to make something look effortless is to do that Hamilton does that too say co-stars Michelle DeJean and Terra MacLeod.
MICHELLE DeJEAN: He works exceptionally hard TARA MacLEOD: He’s working on his lines backstage MICHELLE DeJEAN: He works really hard, he’s been rehearsing he has people running lines with him all the time, he really wants to do a good job and he’s proud of the show and he insisted on a lot of rehearsal because he wants to feel comfortable when I go on and that’s so refreshing to have an actor of his stature come in and really want to put in the effort TARA MacLEOD: He’s willing to do the work. He also makes the work enjoyable says Michelle DeJean. MICHELLE DeJEAN: Oh he is a joy I worked with him several years ago, he’s true Hollywood glamour he talks about driving on the set and the names he drops and he can’t wait to tell them to you, did I tell you the story about when I dated princess so and so… he has such an aura he’s like royalty… SUSAN CHICOINE: The stories he told kept people fascinated and I wasn’t going to walk out Hamilton is now gathering those stories for a book. GEORGE HAMILTON: Also excited about writing a book it’s like we’re having dinner and I’m a witness to things not the star not a tell all but anecdotes…get to know an era through the eyes of someone there … tell a story and Darn my time’s up and I haven’t had time to milk him for any stories… but I gotta ask about the tan. I saw an add at a tanning salon that offered it’s deluxe most expensive package as the Hamil-Tan. GEORGE HAMILTON: I don’t know who’s doing that but it ain’t mine. I actually yesterday sat out in the sun for about an hour it was beautiful awfully hot no one else was out there but I do that since I was 15 I think it gives me energy you have to be safe and my skin isn’t beef jerky yet and I hardly wear make up. CLIP My exit music please. As I exit the theater, I leave with a renewed respect for both the tan and the talent of George Hamilton.

Actor George Hamilton is in San Diego to reprise his role of Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago. Hamilton is probably best known for films like Love at First Bite and Zorro the Gay Blade, as well as for appearing in TV shows like Dancing with the Stars. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando caught up with the famously tanned celebrity in downtown San Diego before a rehearsal for Chicago.

I’m waiting in the lobby of the Civic Theater for an interview with George Hamilton. He’s starring as Billy Flynn in the national touring company for Chicago. The first full dress rehearsal will start in a few hours. I’m not sure what to expect from a man who’s probably as famous for his tan as his talent. But he’s also someone who’s not only survived but succeeded in the movie biz for fifty years.

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The lobby is also filling up with a few dozen fans. They are part of the Broadway San Diego rewards program which allows playgoers to see a rehearsal in advance of a show’s opening. Kristen Pascal is here for one reason:

KRISTEN PASCAL: I’m a huge George Hamilton fan. I’ve loved him for my whole life he’s fabulous and he’s totally perfect for this part.

Publicist Susan Chicoine leads me around backstage in search of George Hamilton.

WOMAN He’s downstairs finishing up rehearsals.

Chicoine spent a day with Hamilton last week doing press for the show and based on that experience she says I’m in for a good time.

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SUSAN CHICOINE: I’ve been in biz for 30 years and this has been the most delightful day it started George started at 7am and he did 23 interviews in one day… he’s the consummate gentleman when it comes to be the old style movie star.

SUSAN CHICOINE: Oh and there he is, George, It’s Susan.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I’ve never seen anything like today it’s like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, we only have another twelve hours to go.

SUSAN CHICOINE: This is Beth.

GEORGE HAMILTON: Hi.

SUSAN CHICOINE: You want to get this done now?

GEORGE HAMILTON: Yes

We set up in his dressing room for the interview. At 68, Hamilton still looks good but he says when you reach his age you try to do less and make it more effective.

GEORGE HAMILTON: Today, this is an all time back breaker day never had a show put together in three hours… then we have to do a show and then another show… but at my age to pace myself to get through it and then they told me there was a party and whether it’s a wake or a party I hope I’m awake for it.

I don’t know if you could hear but that was his stomach growling. Co-star Michelle DeJean says it’s been a grueling day for everyone.

MICHELLE DeJEAN: We started at 8am and we haven’t stopped and had a tiny break and had to eat and get ready for the show.

CLIP Hit it.

DeJean says Hamilton brings a lot of himself to the role of slick lawyer Billy Flynn.

MICHELLE DeJEAN: He just steps onstage and the first thing he does is this big George Hamilton smile. And you’re like oh!

It’s a role that suits him. It’s about performance, about putting on a show. But Hamilton sees something below the surface as well.

GEORGE HAMILTON: My thinking my way of looking at it is more like Clarence Darrow who was a lawyer in the twenties who was a feisty lawyer and melodramatic and he could take either side of an argument and win it and yes he’s in it for the money but I also think he wants the pub and… particular era of hobnobbing

This isn’t the first time he’s played Flynn. He’s tackled the role on Broadway in the past. Nor is it the first time he’s played a lawyer. He was legal counsel to Michael Coreleone in The Godfather III.

CLIP Godfather III

GEORGE HAMILTON: He was a different kind of lawyer affable wasp but with distance from mafia, not old kind of lawyer. I made very little humor on the guy tried to be charming but he was all business.

But Hamilton when got the call to play the part, he thought it was a joke producer Robert Evans was playing on him.

GEORGE HAMILTON: People said oh you’re in The Godfather and going to Rome? Yeah Bobby Evans did this to me he’s going to play this big joke on me I’ll be Troy Donahue in the film… and that was a challenge I didn’t know what I was going to play but I was there from the first to last day

Another challenge was replacing Alain Delon in the French film Viva Maria, starring Jeanne Moreau and Brigit Bardot. Hamilton played a Mexican martyr named Flores, who’s made to look like a Christ figure as he’s chained to a beam and made to march across the country.

CLIP Viva Maria

GEORGE HAMILTON: They asked me to do it in French which was very difficult thing to do I practiced and said my line but they explained that I had to do the line with Mexican accent.

CLIP Viva Maria

GEORGE HAMILTON: I had this manacling board on my back it was very hard

BETH ACCOMANDO: But you got to be seduced by Jeanne Moreau in prison

GEORGE HAMILTON: Yes and there was always the hope of Brigit Bardot at night. [laughs]

Gorgeous women have frequently been associated with Hamilton. And Hamilton confesses that he has sought fame and celebrity.

GEORGE HAMILTON: Yeah I think I did I think you always do

GEORGE HAMILTON: it thrills me when people stop me on the streets and remember me I mean I’ve been at this fifty years from the very first of the films right up to didn’t I see you in a commercial the other day or weren’t you in dancing with the stars... For me it was the stars I had seen when I went to Hollywood at the end of the fifties that were the stars of the forties and I admired them and I didn’t know what the future be didn’t even know what the present was but I knew what the past was and I aspired to be those kind of guys.

Hamilton was one of the last MGM contract players. In the 1960s, he made films like the romantic comedy Where the Boys Are. He played an Ivy Leaguer trying to hook up with a freshman.

CLIP Where the Boys Are

Hmmm. That sounds like a description of George Hamilton. There’s a look about Hamilton as well. Maybe that’s because he wanted to imitate the stars of the past.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I didn’t know what the future would be didn’t know the present but knew the past and I wanted to be one of those guys.

The studio system ended but not before ingraining Hamilton with a level of professionalism that he still maintains today.

GEORGE HAMILTON: they made us dead on professionals so many stories of things that taught me that in 50 years I’ve been late twice and something I’m most embarrassed about both were with kirk Douglas [laughs]

George Hamilton resurrected himself as Dracula in "Love at First Bite."

And during those fifty years he’s had to reinvent himself a few times.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I’ve been dead about ten times on arrival you just have to look at it differently if you change the way you look at things, things change and if you look at a problem and look at it not as a problem but as an opportunity it sounds trite but it really works. I’ve said okay that’s the end of that guy as we know him now we got to bring back that guy as something or do something else to make like guy work i.e. like produce a movie a movie like I did with Love and Zorro and before that with Evel I just found the money produced the movie and that was easier to do that than to get an agent to get you a job

CLIP Love at First Bite

Hamilton says the idea came from on old Lenny Bruce routine. It cost less than 5 million to shoot and it grossed about $75 million. Now he’s producing the sequel, Love at First Bite 2. But would he ever take a part that went against type? Would he play serial killer or degenerate homeless person?

GEORGE HAMILTON: Sure I did that initially and they gave me a lot of roles like hank Williams and alcoholic and I loved that and first pic was a killer and in Columbos interesting roles in Colombos and things totally off type but the problem with movies really is that they want you to be something that they can relate to and are comfortable with you playing then when you go to television, whatever character you are playing he’s invited into their home every week and they want you to be that character. In theater you have the chance to be something else if you want to be.

But off- stage and off-camera, Hamilton is rarely caught out of his sophisticated character.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I came through an era where if you were going to have a car accident look good. That’s what they told you at the studio and I never let that go and I thought to myself as I got older why let it go it was the way I grew up and I’m comfortable in a tuxedo as I am in a pair of blue jeans… there are people the hip hop crowd if you can believe this pay me more attention than a lot of my fellow compatriots because I think a lot of people who came out of ghetto who have seen that don’t really want to be there they want to dress well and look well and I have a lot of friends who came up the hard way and they like style they don’t wanna see guys like Puppy Combs and Puppy has his own clothing company and we have a lot in common in that.

Hamilton treats that style as a brand. It’s something the star has always been known for. And he makes that style seem effortless.

CLIP Zorro the Gay Blade

In roles like Zorro and Dracula, Hamilton effortlessly pokes fun at himself. And he it seem so easy that you might not realize the craft involved.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I watched Fred Astaire, great dance and I thought what lack of effort but I’ve never seen a man stand in front of a mirror for so long going over same step he was a total perfectionist and the only way to make something look effortless is to do that

Hamilton does that too say co-stars Michelle DeJean and Terra MacLeod.

MICHELLE DeJEAN: He works exceptionally hard

TARA MacLEOD: He’s working on his lines backstage

MICHELLE DeJEAN: He works really hard, he’s been rehearsing he has people running lines with him all the time, he really wants to do a good job and he’s proud of the show and he insisted on a lot of rehearsal because he wants to feel comfortable when I go on and that’s so refreshing to have an actor of his stature come in and really want to put in the effort

TARA MacLEOD: He’s willing to do the work.

He also makes the work enjoyable says Michelle DeJean.

MICHELLE DeJEAN: Oh he is a joy I worked with him several years ago, he’s true Hollywood glamour he talks about driving on the set and the names he drops and he can’t wait to tell them to you, did I tell you the story about when I dated princess so and so… he has such an aura he’s like royalty…

SUSAN CHICOINE: The stories he told kept people fascinated and I wasn’t going to walk out

Hamilton is now gathering those stories for a book.

GEORGE HAMILTON: Also excited about writing a book it’s like we’re having dinner and I’m a witness to things not the star not a tell all but anecdotes…get to know an era through the eyes of someone there … tell a story and

Darn my time’s up and I haven’t had time to milk him for any stories… but I gotta ask about the tan. I saw an add at a tanning salon that offered it’s deluxe most expensive package as the Hamil-Tan.

GEORGE HAMILTON: I don’t know who’s doing that but it ain’t mine. I actually yesterday sat out in the sun for about an hour it was beautiful awfully hot no one else was out there but I do that since I was 15 I think it gives me energy you have to be safe and my skin isn’t beef jerky yet and I hardly wear make up.

CLIP My exit music please.

As I exit the theater, I leave with a renewed respect for both the tan and the talent of George Hamilton.