Neil Hamilton: from Griffith to Gordon

Good looks and good luck were to be the portion of actor Neil Hamilton (1899-1984), whose best known credit is likely known to you anyway so let’s just save it ’til the end as an aid to real perspective on who he was.

Hamilton hailed (as opposed to Hale Hamilton) from Lynn, Massachusetts, just south of Salem and Marblehead. As a youth he did some male modeling for ads and acted with stock companies, just enough experience to prepare him for his first film role at age 19, in Vitagraph’s The Beloved Imposter (1918). D.W. Griffith cast him in three films in quick succession: The White Rose (1923), America (1924) and Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924). A star throughout the silent era, his notable roles included Nick Carraway in the first screen version of The Great Gatsby (1926) and the title character in Beau Geste (1926), and parts in John Ford’s Mother Machree (1928), and Why Be Good? (1929) with Colleen Moore. Notable talkies included The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Cat Creeps (1930), The Wet Parade (1932, with Jimmy Durante), What Price Hollywood? (1932), and the 1945 version of Brewster’s Millions. But his appearances in 1929 The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man and many sequels of both franchises sealed the deal for the direction his career would take — B movies at Republic and other studios. The late ’40s through the early ’60s saw a return to the stage followed by lots of television work. And there were still roles in films, like Good Neighbor Sam (1964) with Jack Lemmon and Dorothy Provine, and Madame X (1966) with Lana Turner.

Get me Batman!

Hamilton’s reimagining, a self-referential playing with his screen past, began with none other than Jerry Lewis, who cast him in The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), and Which Way to the Front? (1970). When the TV series Batman came along in 1966, Hamilton was just the man for the role of Commissioner Gordon and he played it just right, as straight and as serious as if it were the real thing, proving a handy roadmap for the ZAZ casts several years later. Hamilton’s presence on the series added an element of hoax to the campy show, having played so many similar roles on the level in the ’30s and ’40s. Hamilton was 67 years old when he achieved this level of pop culture prominence. The role would eclipse all of his previous work.

After Batman wrapped Hamilton took on four post-Gordon roles. In addition to Which Way to the Front? he played the villain in a 1969 movie called Strategy of Terror, alongside Barbara Rush and Hugh O’Brian. He played a movie produced named Darryl F. Ziegfeld on an episode of The Debbie Reynolds Show. His last credit was in a 1971 TV movie called Vanished with an all-star cast.