George Hamilton, Explained

Having grown up in the ’70s, I have often had occasion on this blog to refer to the mysteries of that decade’s then-new phenomenon of what might be called “celebrity unmoored“. I am amused this morning to observe that the phrase “famous for being famous” (with slightly different wording) was coined by Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America in 1961 — the very moment in time when the fame of George Hamilton (b. 1939) was most justified. Hamilton had starred in around 15 movies during the 5 or 6 years prior to my 1965 birth. But none were the sort to live on (much) in public memory beyond their initial releases, so I’d never seen them, or knew about them. By the time I was old enough to pay attention, Hamilton was, I’m pretty confident in saying, already a bit of a punchline, mocked in the comic strip Doonesbury in a story thread in which suntanning was treated as an athletic sporting event. He was known for his tan, for some kind of vague reputation for being “seen” at Hollywood social events, and for occasional television appearances. He seemed to be coasting on some sort of fame that, as far as I knew, he did not possess.

But like I say, I hadn’t been around for his big moment. There were echoes of it in a lot of his later work. He’s worked in all genres, but the one that dominates his credits is surely melodrama, initially on the big screen, later on night time soaps and the like. And that’s of course why I knew nothing about most of his screen work. Nothing is more boring to a little boy than what used to be called “women’s pictures”. Hamilton often played (and plays) seemingly self-referential roles as wealthy layabouts, gigolos, fallen European aristocrats, and like that. The role Warren Beatty played in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) would have been perfect for him — in fact he played something rather similar in The Light in the Piazza (1962) opposite Olivia de Havilland instead of Vivien Leigh. Tennessee Williams wrote Mrs. Stone; Hamilton would have been even better in any number of the playwright’s other scripts, ones with Southern settings, with boozing and sex and money and adultery. In fact the early years of his background sound like they were WRITTEN by Williams.

Hamilton was born in Memphis, raised just across the river in nearby Blytheville, Arkansas (and hither and yon), and educated at a posh New York prep school. His mother Ann Stevens is often described as a “socialite”, and she’s the one who raised Hamilton and clearly left a mark on his character. Stevens went through many husbands, one of whom was big bandleader George “Spike” Hamilton (1901-1957). Spike was from Kentucky, the son of a dentist who sent him through Dartmouth, where he formed his first band. The “collegiate” craze was in full tilt then, and Hamilton rode it to relative fame with his orchestra and even backed Rudy Vallee. His band had successful Jazz Age residencies in Chicago, Atlantic City, and the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The marriage to Stevens lasted from 1937 to 1943. Spike’s next wife was a woman named June Howard, to whom (according to his memoirs and later interviews), young George lost his virginity at the age of 12. This would have been around the same time that Spike appeared on Broadway in Mike Todd’s Peep Show, an attempt to bring burlesque to the Great White Way. Naughty, naughty times. Anyway, this kind of sordid, latchkey, wealthy yet somehow itinerant and chaotic, and SOUTHERN upbringing all in one package is what reminds me of Tennessee Williams. Between lolling around the Deep South and lazing around Europe, it’s like LIVING a Williams play. It’s kind of strange Hamilton didn’t act in any, none that I’ve uncovered anyway. But a fictionalized movie was made about Hamilton’s early years on the road with his mother and brother. It’s called My One and Only (2009) and stars Renee Zellweger as Hamilton’s mom.

Hamilton’s first TV credit was in 1958, one year after finishing high school. He appears to have been pushed into by his mother, a partial explanation for his apparently desultory, “I-can-take-it-or-leave-it” attitude to his acting career. In 1959, he was cast as the lead in a low-budget beatnik Dostoyevsky exercise called Crime and Punishment, USA, partially financed by Roger Corman. He’d reportedly been hired due to a perceived resemblance to Anthony Perkins, who was hot at the time, and about to star in Psycho (1960). On the strength of Hamilton’s performance, Vincent Minnelli then cast him in the more mainstream films Home from the Hill (1960) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) and that put him on the map. Then came the spate of studio films he appeared in at his peak including All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960) with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood; the college comedy Where the Boys Are (1960) with Connie Stevens; and about a dozen others like that. Interestingly, toward the end of the period he starred in a couple of bio-pics: Act One (1963), in which he played Moss Hart, and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), in which he portrayed Hank Williams (seemingly inexplicable until you learn about his Southern origins). In 1967 he actually appeared in a western opposite Glenn Ford, A Time for Killing, which is most famous today for being Roger Corman’s single attempt to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio. (He hated the experience; the film was eventually completed by one Phil Karlson). During this period, Hamilton was dating Lynda Bird Johnson, daughter of the President.

One of the more interesting (if also boring) George Hamilton vehicles from this dry spell is the George Pal-produced The Power (1968), made during the waning “Lion Power” days of MGM. It’s interesting because of its sci-fi ESP premise and its all star cast; boring to actually watch due to stodgy, static shooting and a very plodding pace.

The TV mini-series Harold Robbins’ The Survivors (1969) restored him to his niche. Later stuff along these lines included Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough (1975), John Jakes’ The Seekers (1979), Malibu (1983), Dynasty (1985-86), Monte Carlo (1986, also opposite Joan Collins), The Bold and the Beautiful (1994) etc.

Like I said, I avoided that kind of stuff like the plague as a kid (and for the most part still do). The kind of fare I would have known Hamilton from during the ’70s would have been the Evel Knievel bio-pic (1971) which he self-produced, Burt Reynolds’ The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), episodes of Columbo (1975) and McCloud (1977), Roots (1977) and Supertrain (1979). He was in a couple of cool tv horror movies around that time Robert Bloch’s The Dead Don’t Die (1975) and Richard Matheson’s The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977). And campy stuff like The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) and Mae West’s Sextette (1978). I am also very much intrigued by the all-star TV movie Death Car on the Freeway (1979), an apparent mash-up of Duel and Death Race 2000, which I note is available on Youtube, and which you can rest assured I will be screening with all possible dispatch.

At this stage, after 20 years in front the of the cameras, Hamilton gathered the wherewithal to star in what may well be his most successful and best known movie, the Dracula parody Love at First Bite (1979). At this stage I can imagine many people going, “Why didn’t you put this up top? Why isn’t this your lede?” But to quote Ring Lardner: You Know Me, Al. When Hamilton dies, and the idiotic headlines are all “Star of Love at First Bite Perishes in Fiery Tanning bed Explosion” or whatever it is, I will be the first to criticize such an attribution. Context is everything. It helps to know why that movie exists in the first place, to know what came before. At the time Love at First Bite came out, my context for Hamilton went back no further than Evel Knievel and I was bewildered. The universe makes a lot more sense now that I know about the decade plus of his earlier work. At any rate, for two minutes Hamilton was a comedy star, and he was quite good in this movie. It’s certainly much better than the redundant Dracula: Dead and Loving It starring Leslie Nielsen, who also should not have been a comedy star. Hamilton followed up First Bite with the homophobic Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981), which did no one, gay or straight, any favors. End of comedy career.

Speaking of not doing anyone any favors, in 1990 Francis Ford Coppola inexplicably cast Hamilton in what theoretically might have been one of his career tent poles…had the movie not been Godfather Part III. Sequels intrinsically lack credibility, I think. Most people with any brains watch them with arms folded, daring the filmmaker to justify the return trip to the well. In Coppola’s case, Part III followed a decade of debacles so it seemed a desperation move, and proved to be worse than that. The fact that the cast included Coppola’s non-acting daughter (who later proved to be a brilliant filmmaker) and Hamilton, with his cheesy associations, did not burnish its reputation any more than the movie did Hamilton’s.

That same year, Hamilton was an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos for their looting crimes against the Philippines! (Imelda loaned Hamilton $5 million of her people’s money to float his mother’s lifestyle. Nice!)

Hamilton has continued to work plenty over the last three decades, though it’s mostly been stuff on the order cameos as himself, self-referential stunt parts, and reality television.

Hamilton was briefly married to Rod Stewart’s ex-wife Alana Collins in the 1970s. They actually hosted a talk show together in the mid ’90s! Their son Ashley Hamilton also became a movie actor. Ashley was married twice: to actresses Shannon Doherty and Angie Everhart, in each case for about a year. By all accounts, the apple did not fall very far from the tree.

I think you will agree that all of this would make an excellent TV mini-series at some point. I have consulted the ghost of Criswell, and he predicts that it will come to pass.