Turner Classic Movies
Hamilton, George
Written by Diana Saenger   



George Hamilton, the tannest man in Hollywood and a recent celebrity on Dancing with The Stars, is set to play the role of Billy Flynn in Broadway San Diego's national tour of Chicago. Hamilton is reprising his role in the Broadway production which won six Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival. Dressed to the nines and very gracious, open and exceptionally funny, Hamilton was generous enough to sit down with me for an interview about the show, his career and Hollywood.

The story of two real-life murderesses and a lawyer who turns them into media celebrities is a page right out of today's celebrities-go-to-jail headlines. Starring with Hamilton are Terra C. Macleod as Velma Kelly, Michelle Dejean as Roxie Hart and Roz Ryan as Matron Mama Morton. Hamilton has a rich Hollywood history. His film credits include All The Fine Young Cannibals, By Love Possessed, Your Cheatin' Heart, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Love At First Bite, Zorro,  The Gay Blade and Hollywood Ending. He's appeared on stage and television and he hosted the nationally syndicated daily talk show The George & Alana Show along with his wife, Alana.

Woody Allen & Hamilton in Hollywood Ending © DreamWorks/John Clifford

Taking on a role as prominent as Billy Flynn -- the 2002 film version won six Oscars - is not easy work. Hamilton performed the Broadway show with a bad leg.

"The first time around I only had two weeks rehearsal time and that's not enough," said Hamilton. "On Broadway you're judged by totally different standards, and to sing and dance and face those critics, it's scary."

George Hamilton & the cast of Chicago © Andrew Eccles

Hamilton said the show has no changes. "That's what I like about it. Walter Bobbie, the director, has that Fosse approach and kept tight reins on it. The show has such a wide appeal, thanks to composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. They're amazing and they've truncated this version. It's so fast paced, the band's on stage, and there's no change of costumes or sets being changed. It's what vaudeville was about. There's a very universal story, flashy characters, two murderesses, this enormous engagement with fame and fortune and then finding out how fickle it is."

The key to a role like this said Hamilton, is making it your own. "Almost anyone can play this role, but I'd like to think that I'm as good at this as anyone else. We each just do it differently. I don't have a training bone in my body, but I'm going to razzle dazzle it."

Hamilton had plenty of opportunity to razzle dazzle TV audiences in the 2005 and first Dancing with The Stars show. He and Edyta Sliwinska were the winners of the show and Hamilton danced with four broken ribs.

George & Edyta on Dancing With the Stars © ABC

 "Doing Dancing with the Stars was like the Bataan Death March," he said with his warm laugh. "It's eight hours a day, and I found myself thinking, is there any way to get out of this -- shoot myself in the foot, anything! I did have the broken ribs and a bad knee, but I worked through it and it was a unique experience. I'm able to do more dance steps and hopefully will hit the right notes, too."

While working on Dancing With the Stars Hamilton knew something key was missing from the dance routines. "Fred Astaire always said, 'when I dance, don't cut away.' I didn't like some of the movements. They were prissy and not the way I wanted to look so I asked, 'have you seen Fred Astaire? The Russian dancers hadn't so I took the Fred Astaire video Top Hat, made them look at it, and they thought aliens had landed. They were thrilled but didn't know what it was. Then I said can you tap dance; they said we don't tap dance. I said you learn it, and we did Irving Berlin's number "Top Hat, White Tie & Tails," on the show. I brought the idea to that show to use the whole set as the dance routine; they weren't doing that. We did the Carmen Miranda routine with a fruit basket on Edyta's  head, and thought how are they going to beat a story line."

I was anxious to get to Hamilton's early life in Hollywood. When I showed him a photo of Home From The Hill, his first credited movie, he was instantly melancholy.

Hamilton in Home From The Hill © Warner Bros. Pictures


"Wow; look at that picture! Walter Plunkett was the costume designer - and won an Oscar for An American in Paris (1951), this was a little later. I was 19."

Not only did Hamilton began his career early - he was under contract at MGM at age 17 -- he was fortunate to have dashing good lucks, great stature, and be a ladies man. He was soon splashed across the tabloids with one top starlet after another.

"Part of the obligation was to do what they wanted you to do. Every night there was a premiere or something so they would say to take so and so. Most of these girls were going with heads of studios or producers so after about a year of taking them out, I realized this was dangerous. You could end you career by doing the wrong move. My body should have been in the Harvard Medical Journal for the amount of times they said I took girls out. The truth is I'd take them home and then go out. I always had a girlfriend on the side."

Working under contract also meant you never knew what you might be working on. I asked George if that system then was better than today's procedure?

"Now it's all based on pre-sell and how much money you get based on and the components you have -- hopefully a major movie star. In my first 12 or 15 films I did a few weeks here or there. They controlled it all. If you were on a picture that wasn't going well, they'd take the director off and bring in another one. I did All the Fine Young Cannibals with Vincente Minnelli and it was not working. So at the end of the movie to save it,  they brought in Michael Anderson and he did it. I think the old studio contract way was good for the sense of collaboration, but not financially. Not many actors made money. Only smart people like Cary Grant who negotiated to get the negative after the initial run. His films ran on television all the time, and them."

What was the premise of All the Fine Young Cannibals?

"Robert Wagner played a great horn player. I was a socialite and his (character's) girlfriend marries me, but I was the jilted one throughout the movie. Warren Beatty was going to do it, but didn't. Susan Kohner, who had done Imitation of Life, was good in it. and Red Fox and Pearl Bailey were great. But it was controversial at the time. I think that was the problem with those kinds of movies; they wouldn't go the distance. There was a movie, Patch of Blue, a wonderful film that Guy Green directed, and I think it did go the distance. Sidney Poitier was in it, and he was wonderful. It was considered an art movie at the time."

What about the way celebrities today put their spin on politics?

"The studios didn't want any problems at that time. If you wore any kind of a religious metal it had to go. You might have been a Catholic or whatever, but you couldn't fractalize your audience, and in business I can understand that point of view. Now an actor feels socially or morally obligated to stand up for something and uses his celebrity to further it. I don't know that that's right. I think movies should be about entertainment, and if there's a message, let people know there's a message and make a decision based on that. There are a lot of hidden agendas in movies and a lot of people who support actors in movies because of their slight cult ramifications."

Were people surprised when you took on the role of Hank Williams in Your Cheatin' Heart?

"I was surprised when they assigned it to Gene Nelson because Gene had never directed anything. He was a sweetheart of a guy, and I said Gene, this is a formula picture. It's a cheap picture produced by Sam Katzman whose known if you're behind you just rip out eight pages and get on with it. We have to save our lives here. Gene said, 'you're right.' I had 11 songs to sing. Hank Williams was complicated and interesting and the first to cross over from Broadway to country. Elvis was going to do it and didn'

"I called Colonel Parker, Elvis' manager, who was also my best friend and my best man at my wedding, and the Colonel said go down to Nashville, meet Audrey Williams, and they'll help you. I spent two months watching these guys and that whole country mentality. I'd go to the Grand ole Opry, and I learned so much about Hank Williams.

"I also learned that what makes an actor so interesting is when you become the character, not do a version of them. That had been one of my problems; make the dash, take the fast cash and then realize it's not that good. That picture was an inspiration for me because I knew him (Hank) better than a lot of people who were around him. I met his family and stayed with Audrey Williams on weekends.

"When I went back, Gene Nelson said I'm just going to turn the camera on you and we'll make this picture. Sam Katzman said, 'you have 13 days. At the end of 13 days I'm pulling the plug at 6 o'clock in the evening and it doesn't matter where you are.' I said well at least we understand each other. I lip-synched 11 songs, learned every inch of dialogue, and slept an hour a night. I was playing an alcoholic, and I drank during the whole movie. I didn't even know I made certain scenes. On day 13, I'm in the middle of my death scene and Katzman is about to pull the plug. Then he handed me a Martin D-28 guitar, and said, 'You pulled it off kid.' I went home and slept for four days.

"The movie became a studio project made for about $700,000. It was the first death scene I had in Hollywood, and I think it was one of the best movies I made."

I know you are close friends with Elizabeth Taylor. How's she doing?

"I talk to her. She's an amazing woman. There's a secret to Elizabeth. She was under contract and she always had these people, and never saw any of the money. To this day she works for the gift and the gift to her is anything. We did this TV movie, Poker Alice (1987). Renée Valente, the producer, told me she was worried about the movie and her neck was on the line. I said just give Elizabeth a little gift everyday. She said we don't have a budget. I said it doesn't have to be a  major award. So every day this pony express rider would ride into town and say, 'a gift for Ms Taylor.' And she opened a little box, maybe it was a little set of earrings, and she'd say, 'Oh My God!' And she'd wait all day for that gift and was never late on set. Every day there'd be another little gift and that's what she cared about.

"She's so simple, and so sweet, and yet she's got both sides of her. She always wanted some guy to take charge of her, like Mike Todd did. Yet on the other hand, she can take a 20-mule team and drive them through Death Valley. I'm always amazed how guys don't get it when women are far stronger than men. Like when Elizabeth would put on her make-up, learn her lines and do one take after another because she wanted to get out and do something. Where I'd be there sweating and trying to figure it out, she did it.

"And the picture she got an Academy Award for, Butterfield Eight, she didn't feel she was any good in. There were other pictures she felt she was better at. She doesn't go out much. But she'll call, "George" (he says in a cute Taylor twang) - or she calls me Sunshine and likes me to carry a pillow for her dog, Sugar."

Could you talk about working with Lana Turner?

"Lana came out of a system that was the best system for her. She knew exactly where her life was. She knew how to hit it, square her shoulders and say her lines. When you saw that it was formidable. In By Love Possessed (1961) I was to take her coat off a rack, and she said, 'if you want to be in movies you have to learn how to do this.' I practiced that with her   twenty times.

"Lana was incredible in that way. I worked with her in The Survivor's TV series (1969), which was difficult for her because she'd had all this time in movies to do anything she wanted, and she had the power. Then we're working for Harold Robbins. She told me, 'I can't always learn these lines quickly because they make them up during the night. So when the director comes in in the morning, you say, 'darling, wasn't there supposed to be chinchilla on the bottom of your dress.' And I'll say yes. Then they'll all scamper out and it'll take another hour or two to get it done, and I can learn the lines.

"So I did, and Nolan Miller (costume designer) says, 'chinchilla?' They're gone for two hours. She (Lana) would do this every two days, and after a while Robbins got wise of her. We were in France shooting when Nolan told Lana he had a hat for. She asked if it was the same one the extra over there wore, and said we never wear the same hat. They got into an argument and Nolan got into a limousine, saying I'm a bigger star than all of you. Bill Fry, the producer, told Lana he had too much money tied up here. She said, 'you can't talk to me like that,' and she slapped him. He slapped her back, and I went whoa, that's the end of the studio system! Another director came in.

"They let her go. The night they fired her they tried to blame me, but they couldn't let me go because I had two play or pay deals. Lew Wasserman, called, the most powerful man in Hollywood, called and wanted to dismiss my deals. He said, 'George, you've got to live to do another day. Edie and I miss you and want you to come for dinner sometime. About this deal; if we could just send you a check for one of those movies and not the other, I could make it easy.' And I said Mr. Wasserman, he corrected me, 'it's Lew, and I just want it to be fair. We just love you and Edie talks about you all the time'. He said he'd send over a check within an hour so I said okay, I really appreciate it Lew. He said, 'call me Mr. Wasserman,' and hung up. That was a definitive moment."



Hamilton has many defining moments his fans will always remember and hopefully more to come. This fan will always remember his hilarious sense of humor and immense kindness to answer any question.




Photo credit of George top photo: Broadway San Diego, Andrew Eccles

Bottom photo: James Colt Harrison  




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