May 24, 2012

Man of bronze and his philosophy

Read George Hamilton’s autobiography, and you begin to think the title represents his attitude toward life. When fate proffered a succession of luscious actresses, handsome estates, movies witty or worthy or woeful, he smilingly replied, “Don’t Mind If I Do.”

But talk to him for an hour, and you discover that the famously bronzed exterior conceals a working brain on the interior. The chap we’d written off as a carelessly happy philanderer is also a philosopher.

He does have exquisite manners. He puts you on hold to gently postpone the next interviewer, telling her he wants to give each of you the attention you merit. He apologizes every time a rasped phrase turns into a discreet cough; at 72, playing a lead in “La Cage Aux Folles,” a long national tour of the musical has taxed his vocal stamina. (It reaches Belk Theater Tuesday.)

His behavior shouldn’t surprise: Without poise, he could hardly have squired the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Jeanne Moreau or Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of a hard-nosed president. Charm may be in his DNA: He’s a Southerner, born to a Blytheville, Ark., family on the eve of World War II. Dad led a successful big band; mom, an enchantress who snared four husbands, led her children to Hollywood between marriages.

Hamilton has always had a sense of humor about his image. He is secure enough in his autobiography to share an early scouting report about him: “His ability to act is marginal There is something there, but I don’t know what. I would advise that we not offer him a contract at this time.”

Who should shine?

Yet after 54 years in show business, his staying power can’t be set down to chance and his polished demeanor.

“I have a tenacity that’s pretty heavy duty, once I get the bone in my mouth,” he says. “I have always believed things (come to you) more by attraction than by trying to make them happen. I don’t push hard to get things. But once I know it’s there, and it’s rightfully something I should do, I’ll do whatever it takes.”

For “La Cage,” that began with casting. Hamilton was hired as Georges, who passes for straight so his son can marry a politician’s daughter. Asked who should play Albin, the singer Georges loves, Hamilton suggested Christopher Sieber, because “I felt he would always add surprises.

“The first act leads up to ‘I Am What I Am’ (Albin’s outpouring of self-identity), and the accolade has got to go to him. Georges has to lay a lot of track to get to the point where (the audience) can applaud one of the great showstopping tunes ever written for Broadway.

“Initially, my instinct was to try to rise up and compete with him, but I can’t do that. Albin’s the star; he’s the one who has to shine.”

Knowing his way around

Hamilton has had his share of stardom. He was one of the last hopefuls signed in the 1950s to an old-fashioned studio contract, after which M-G-M sent him into parts both angsty (“Crime & Punishment, USA.”) and dreamy (“Where the Boys Are”).

He shared a Golden Globe in 1960 for most promising newcomer with Barry Coe, James Shigeta and Troy Donahue. But it wasn’t until Globe-nominated parts in “Love at First Bite” (1979) and “Zorro, the Gay Blade” (1981) that he perfected a laid-back style.

“You can’t compete with a bombastic quality in an actor,” he says. “In ‘Blade,’ I could never get above Ron Leibman (who played Zorro’s military enemy). So I decided to go below him.”

A modified version of that approach also worked, he found, with producers.

“I needed to convince them I didn’t need them,” he says. “They don’t know how to deal with ‘no,’ because they have the philosophy of a pawnshop. They say, ‘How much do you want for this?’ and negotiate. Set a price on yourself, and don’t go below that, and they’ll step up near to it. Even if it’s out of line, if they think they need you.”

Changing luck

Strangely, the things that always gave him trouble were musicals. He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1964), which the Johnsons liked so well LBJ invited him to the White House – but Hank’s widow wouldn’t release the music rights unless Hank Jr.’s vocals filled the soundtrack.

Hamilton went to a 5 a.m. audition for lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and lost 17 pounds in five weeks, preparing for a role in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” – only to watch it (and a Tony nomination) go to John Cullum.

He finally reached Broadway in 2001 as Billy Flynn, another dapper smoothie, in “Chicago.” But that experience didn’t prepare him for this long national tour.

“You do eight shows a week, two hours and 45 minutes onstage. You travel to the next city, generally on your day off, and you don’t have time to do the personal things you have to do.” Meanwhile, he promotes the show tirelessly. “And I enjoy these conversations, but (publicists) think you can do them in 10 minutes!

“When my little boy was about 12, I told him, ‘You’re going to find out you can do things in life the slow way or the fast way. You can have a meal, or you can grab a bite. You can take a supersonic flight or a long voyage on a train or a boat. You can make love either way.

“My biggest regret in life would have been not to smell the roses along the way. So I live with a certain style. I dress for dinner, because it’s an event for me. I like a linen handkerchief that’s clean and pressed.

“(Directors) always want you to stay in the moment as an actor. But that’s what you should try to do in your whole life – and people don’t know that.”

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