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By Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 16, 2008.

Permanently suntanned with a perfect smile and possessing the uncanny charm and urbane sophistication of a second generation Cary Grant, most people think they’ve got actor George Hamilton figured out. But there’s more than meets the eye to the 69-year-old thespian. Carving out over 50 years as an actor, he’s appeared in such acclaimed films as Your Cheatin’ Heart (a Hank Williams biopic), and Love at First Bite, Zorro: The Gay Blade, and – dispelling those critics who questioned his acting skills – delivered a strong performance in The Godfather III

His new book, Don’t Mind If I Do, is an engrossing read that charts Hamilton’s career path, from early days in Arkansas to a picture perfect Hollywood life, working with noted directors Louis Malle, Francis Ford Coppola and Vicente Minnelli, forging friendships with Hollywood royalty like Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., and Elvis Presley to more recent high profile appearances on Dancing With The Stars

Reading the acting scouting report on the back of your new book, which cites "his ability to act is marginal," I'd say you did pretty well in your career. 

That’s not the real scouting report. There was an original report and I saw it. But that was years ago and I’d have to spend the rest of my life in storage looking for it. So I reconstructed the report with my brother for the back cover but it’s the gist of what was said. I remember reading a similar acting report for Fred Astaire, which said “funny looking guy with a little bit of an ability to dance.” (laughs) I thought that was funny and I love to make a joke out of myself. That’s my sense of humor. 

The truth of the matter is back then, at the start of my career, I probably couldn’t act. I’d never taken an acting lesson and it was not an era where if you went under a contract with a studio that you had to be an actor. They basically bought cattle that were somehow chattel for them and they trained you. Your whole success was based on tenacity and how you photographed and then they would teach you some of the tricks of the trade. I started to develop my own technique. I picked up a lot by working with some of the greatest actors ever. There were some brilliant actors I worked with… where by the very nature of being around them you’d learn something. You’d learn their tricks. You’d learn the way they moved. Then you’d work with a method actor who really got into a role and then you’d work with a British actor who came from the stage whose theory was to just get on with it and that you didn’t have to act. Then there were actors who had to feel. I think those of us who went into acting in that era learned by our own devices. You’d get a great director and you’d feel impotent after you’d worked with him simply because he brought something out of you but you’d take his expertise with you. You had to develop your technique. Then you’d work with a really bad director and say, “I have to save myself form this guy.” Just by trial and error you’d learn. I’ve been an actor for 50 years and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the very best actors and I’ve worked with some really terrible ones. You learn to play tennis with whomever you worked with in the center ring with the big cats. 

Was there a moment you realized you’ve truly arrived as an actor in Hollywood? 

We all feel that you’re only as a good as your last job for at least the first 10, 15, 20 years. Then it becomes 30 years, 35, 40, 45, 50 years in the business, you think there’s no way to erase your fame. Cary Grant told me, “If you don’t make a picture every three years you’re no longer in the business.” I don’t know that I made a picture every three years but I know that I made an enormous amount of movies. Then came a whole new era of television with commercials and reality shows and things like Dancing with the Stars. You think you’re dead and then the following day 22 million people see you in one evening and that’s more than ever saw you in your whole career. 

Isn’t that ironic? 

It’s ironic and it’s also like being thrown a life preserver. I mean, you get known for other things altogether. I mean, most of these kids don’t even know who John Kennedy was. To be remembered for things that might have not been your best triumphs doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a commercial for a chip or Dancing with the Stars or whether you were in Godfather III. They just know you. Then comes that moment where you’re famous for being famous and people stop on the street and point at you and go, “Oh my God!” 

A lot of my friends first remember you from your 1971 film, Evel Knievel. 

The thing about it is at that time Evel was not famous. When we made that movie he took a jump over the fountains and splattered. He had not become a Mattel toy at that time. I put a writer on it named John Milius – who [later] wrote Apocalypse Now. He was the best of the writers of that era. I got him to write the script for me. Then Milius made me read the script to Evel. I realized he was kind of a sociopath and was totally messed. Then all of sudden Evel started to adopt lines out of the movie for himself. So his persona in the movie became more of his persona in real life. He would have been every kid’s hero on one hand, but then he went and took that baseball bat and broke that guy’s legs and that finished his career in the toy business. Evel was very, very difficult and he was jealous of anybody that was gonna play him. He wanted to portray himself and he did go and make his own movie later on. He had a great perception of this warrior that he thought he was and that was good. Then he had this other side of himself where he’d turn on you in a minute. Success is something that you have earn. You have to have a humility for it, because it can leave you in a second. It may remember you but it can sure leave you. I think if you don’t get that and you don’t have gratitude for what you are and where you are it doesn’t come back and it goes away forever. 

You starred in the 1964 film, Your Cheatin' Heart, about country legend Hank Williams. Wasn’t Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker instrumental in getting you the role? 

Yes, The Colonel was absolutely instrumental in helping me get that role. He told me about the movie and said that his boy, Elvis, was offered the film. But he had to turn them down because he felt it wouldn’t be good for Elvis to do a film about another singer. But The Colonel thought Hank Williams was a very interesting guy. He thought this was a picture I could do really well. He hadn’t seen the script, Colonel didn’t care about the script but he did know that the record library was incredible and that MGM owned it. For a moment, if it was in the hands of a really fine filmmaker it would have been an Academy Award performance. But it went to Sam Katzman who, God rest his soul, was the “King of Schlock.” He told me that we had thirteen days to shoot the movie with eleven songs. No matter where we were they were pulling the plug on the thirteenth day. Not many pictures have ever been made in that time. But what happened that preceded it is Colonel told me to “go down to Nashville and fight for it.” He talked to Audrey Williams, Hank’s window. So I went down there and hung out with Audrey (Williams) and listened to all the stories. I went to honky tonks and met his father. When I came back they offered me more for that picture than they had for two years of being under contract. They had to have me because Audrey Williams said, “There’s nobody else that can play him.” As an actor I got a bead on him. I understood the guy before I walked on that stage. So I said to the director, “I’ve got this one in hand. Just get the camera close in on me and change these songs around because these songs are in the wrong order. Let’s have these eleven songs mean something about him.” And that’s what Gene Nelson did. He was very good about that. On the thirteenth day, I finished my death scene and I felt I’d given one of my best performances. I slept an hour a night and I still love that film. It was Hank Williams as far as I was concerned. 

Among your work, Love at First Bite remains a favorite. 

My career had died and I was looking for something I could do. I was sitting with a crazy comedian and writer named Bob Kaufman I’d worked with on a terrible movie, The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. I was out by the pool and we were having a few drinks and we started pitching around ideas for a movie.  The ideas he was pitching were just awful. One was “How the West Was Shrunk,” which was about the first Freudian trained analyst out West. I said, “I don’t think so.” Another was “Debbie Dybbuk,” Mel Brooks’ voice in a little girl. It was just one thing after the other. And then he said, “Dracula Sucks.” I said, “Dracula Sucks? That’s a funny idea but I don’t like the title.” At that time you couldn’t use titles like that. Then I said, “What if Dracula was somewhere like New York and he was the victim?” Then I started doing lines that Lenny Bruce would do and we started laughing. He said “Dracula living in New York and being a victim is a funny idea.” So we started writing the script and changed the title to Love at First Bite. 

I didn’t have any backers so I sold “How the West Was Shrunk” to Mel Simon, a guy who owned shopping centers out in Detroit and then at the last minute said, “You know something, you’re missing something even better.” I told him about “Dracula Sucks” and the guy put up the money for the movie. I paid Bob Kaufman to write it, produced the movie, and acted in it. People said it would be the picture that would put the nail in my coffin and it wasn’t. It was a big success and was the one that freed me up. 

Before Godfather III came along, did you think it was unlikely you’d ever get a meaty role that would show off your acting chops? 

To be honest, I don’t think about having talent or the need to show it off. I was having a drink in the Polo Lounge and I got a call that said Francis Coppola wanted me to come to Rome immediately to Italy for The Godfather and I thought (laughs) “That’s Bob Evans again.” I said, “Tell him I know it’s a prank and to stop it.” Four days later I get a call from the producer on The Godfather, a guy that I did know named Gray Frederickson. He said, “Why won’t you take Francis’s call?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Francis Coppola has been trying to reach you and you won’t take his call.” And I said, “Because it’s not true, it’s an elaborate prank, don’t you see?” Finally I got a call from a very important guy that I knew who told me, “George, you’ve got to do something because this is a real deal!” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I got on a plane went to Rome, met with Francis and the first thing he said to me was, “What kind of luggage should I get?” And I said, “I beg your pardon?” He said, “I’m gonna go back to Sicily and I have to try and figure out what kind of luggage to get.” I said to myself, now this is a joke. This is a big joke and they’ve pulled it off on me. Then he said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you but I want you in this movie.” He sent me to wardrobe and to makeup and they messed with my hair and they bleached it totally white. Then the next thing I had to do was do a screen test testing another actor, not me and I was playing Al Pacino. I said, “What is this? This is the sickest joke I’ve ever heard.” Finally, Francis said, “You’re gonna play the equivalent of the consigliore in a modern day lawyer field. You’re the lawyer that goes between the Vatican bank and the Corleone family and Wall Street. It had a lot of Freemason stuff going on. I started to realize it was very dark and hidden away. It was a forerunner of all the Freemason stuff that came out later. On my first day I worked in front of 500 extras. I was the first one to work. I was explaining a deal to stock holders. I worked on the very first day to the very last day on that movie. I just stood behind Al (Pacino) and counted his hair. (laughs) I just looked interested all the time and wherever he went I was to shadow him. Al and I became the best of friends and still are. I was all over the movie and people were saying I might get a nomination. Then I went to see the premiere of the film and I started disappearing and I was very disappointed. I found out that they put back in all the Diane Keaton stuff because they were worried about all the Vatican Freemasonry stuff. They’d been warned that it was pretty heavy duty stuff. It was like The Da Vinci Code way before its time. Then when I saw the trilogy and they started putting back all that stuff. 

Had it not been attached to the Godfather name, the film would have been better received. 

I was there the day Winona Ryder came in and she was supposed to do it after Madonna fell out. I think Francis really did want his daughter Sofia in it. I think she’s very talented and very smart, a good producer and director.  But I didn’t think she should do that role. When they put her in it, it changed the whole context of the film. Winona was very tired. Johnny Depp was with her and I was in the makeup room and she put her head down for a few minutes and that was Francis’ chance to say adios and he brought in his daughter. 

Looking back at your life, if you could whisper one piece of advice in the ear of a young George Hamilton, what would you say and why? 

I think that what I said earlier is really the real thing because I’ve got a young George Hamilton, who’s my son, Ashley. We just finished doing The View together. He did a comedy segment on the show that was great. We were walking down the street afterwards and there were agents calling him on the phone. I said, “It’s amazing. Here we are an hour after The View and look at all the people stopping on the street and pointing at you. All of sudden you’re on the map but don’t ever forget what was preceding that moment. Be grateful for what it is. It’ll always come to you as long as you’re grateful. But if you start to get a big head about this it goes away. I should know. I’ve been doing this for 50 years.” And he said, “Yeah, you know you’re right dad.” We walked arm in arm down Madison Avenue and it was like I’d gone back 50 years. It was the best. It was like me being with me all of a sudden. (laughs)

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2008 Touchstone Books. Courtesy of George Hamilton.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2008 Touchstone Books. Courtesy of George Hamilton.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 1964 Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Courtesy of George Hamilton.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 1979 American International Pictures. Courtesy of George Hamilton.  All rights reserved.
#5 © 1990 Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of George Hamilton.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 16, 2008.

Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 16, 2008.