BWW Interviews: Actor George Hamilton Talks Wittily About LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and More!
Legendary actor George Hamilton, a major film star since the late 50s, is currently treading the boards in the national tour of La Cage Aux Folles, opening July 11 at the Pantages Theatre. Known for such film hits as Love at First Bite, Zorro the Gay Blade, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Light in the Piazza, Where the Boys Are, Your Cheatin' Heart, and Crime and Punishment USA, Hamilton has been referred to as more "famous for his debonair style and his perfect and perpetual suntan". He admits to it himself and in our chat, with his self-deprecating sense of humor, jokes and tells very amusing anecdotes.
Good morning. How are you?
(talking from his car) It's amazing. I think I'm in Los Angeles. I'm right near my star on Hollywood Boulevard. I sit there sometimes and sell star maps to homes. You could make a good living just sitting there on that star. The people that move on don't know what they're missing. (he laughs)
Let's talk about La Cage Aux Folles. How long have you been on tour?
For nine months, I think. I've had stretch marks for nine months. Let me think about it. In October we started, and I started rehearsals in August.
Are you having a good time playing Georges?
I try to make it fun. Work is always work, but I've never worked with a group of people I like as much. The cast and chorus, the understudies knock me out, I mean their ability, the swings, to go on...it's just like me going to school is what it is. Every one of them has been incredibly nice to me. It's a really interesting adventure. I never thought about doing it, and then I did it, and it was so physically demanding, I pulled my achilles (tendon) the very first show...but...256 shows later... it's your attitude about a lot of the stuff. I like the challenge. Doing Dancing with the Stars, I had to have a knee replacement after that. This is just an achilles. I don't know what other organs I can give up. (laughs)
Are you enjoying working with Chris Sieber?
He's an incredible professional. I only have to look at Chris to say, "Well, you do the next line". He knows both parts and all the music; I some times feel like a ventriloquist.
You also did Chicago, right?
Yes. When I came into Chicago, I thought the trick was, it's nice to have a good director. I went to Walter Bobbie and asked him who the character (Billy Flynn) was. He said, "He just never bends over for anybody". That was all the direction I got from Walter. I went back and got the real word from my dresser. "You have to pop up over here. You have to pop up there. You have to say this line, and do it this way." I thought, this is perfect. The dresser knows more than anybody. I mean Bobbie's advice was as good as Jessica Lange's line here about Hollywood, "Take Fountain!" You know that's the street that very ingenue, every star gives to get to their apartment or so as not to miss their callback audition or whatever, "Take Fountain". (he laughs)
What other stage work have you done?
Chicago was my first Broadway show. I've done maybe 26 plays...dinner theatre and summer stock. I used to make people think I was in the south of France while I was actually trying to learn to act. I went on the road. I did Funny Girl with Barbara Cook. We had such a great time together. (he laughs) I'll never forget...we were in Westbury, theatre-in-the-round. (He sings) "I want to be seen, be seen with you, with you on my arm..." All of a sudden I remember seeing a vertically challenged fellow, nowadays, we'd say a dwarf or little person...he was walking across the stage as we were singing this. I realized he must have had to go to the bathroom on the other side of the stage. Barbara's in the middle of "People", and he's coming back across the stage. I went over to him and said, "Forgive me, but since you missed it, I want to do that number for you again." So I repeated "I want to be seen, be seen..." Fun! It was as much fun as what happened recently in Orlando during Cage when all the lights went out. The lights went out, the air conditioning went off , and out there was... me, singing a duet...I'm singing away and all of a sudden I realize it's completely pitch black, there's no sound, and all I hear is my voice. I turned around, and everybody had left the stage. I looked at the audience and said, "I always wanted to do a one-man show." It was the moment of my life. I never enjoyed anything as much. I had such fun and the audience saw that I had fun, and I got more applause for that than anything I had done. Finally, it came back to normal. It was about eight seconds, but in my mind it seemed like eight minutes. This is an experience of acting on the stage. But it's amazing, and the Cagelles (dancers) are spitfires, they're fun, and I really like them. I'm going to stick with it and see what happens. I have fun every time I do the show.
Your role is a difficult one. Your partner Albin (Chris Sieber) has all the comic stuff and you really have to react off him. You're a genuinely funny actor, so it has to be challenging for you to play straight. How do you make it interesting for yourself?
You put your finger on it. It's strange because you go in and you think you're doing a comedy. It's your job like a caddy to set up the ball so that they can hit it out of whatever. I looked at the lines written on the t-shirts and I thought mine should say, "It's hard to be the straight man". The line of direction for this one is "He's in control". For me initially this was a huge learning curve. I am the adhesive storyteller, listener, reactor, and my character is the bookend too. When fans come to see me, they expect me to be maybe what I was in Zorro the Gay Blade or Love at First Bite, but the trick in this is that Terry Johnson (director) really wanted it based on real emotions and not on camp lines. So what I had to do was connect. You have a moment of presentation, then you have a scene that's fairly fiery. Slowly you must realize that there is an organic relationship and there are moments that do not include the audience. And this show has so many footprints of the hands of others on it. You find an old Roman road that leads somewhere. At some point somebody turns out to the audience and reads the line to them. He makes a comment on it, breaking the fourth wall. An actor doesn't know whether he really wants to do it or not, because where does it go? It sort of disappears. Then at the beginning of the second act, the play turns slightly into a farce. There are organic moments and then it again becomes presentational in a cabaret. It's very deceptive and difficult.
Switching over to your movie career, what is your favorite film role to date?
There are five or six films that I produced that I like. People would never cast me in certain things; I'd have to produce it and do it myself, as I did in producing Love at First Bite and Zorro the Gay Blade. I'm a suit with perfect hair and a tan, and that's what I joke about. Sometimes they take my jokes seriously. Part of the problem for me as an actor is that I've always seen myself wanting to do the things Peter Sellars did. I had nothing in common with him, and that's why I wanted to do it. I've been somewhat of a mimic my whole life. I found a role that seemed just south of Cary Grant and I liked it. I held onto it for a while because I got good wardrobe and I'd get a good table (in a restaurant), so people thought that was me. You have to break that mold all the time. I liked that little movie that I made back in '63 about Hank Williams called Your Cheatin' Heart. I loved the film. I thought I really hit it on the head. I was playing an alcoholic, a 29 year-old country singer, nothing to do with me, yet it had everything to do with me. Little did they know I grew up in a little town in Arkansas and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music but that was not my character. You get type cast, and I like being type cast. It's like walking into a poker game where they don't know how to play.
I know you are going to be great in the show. Look forward to seeing you on Wednesday night.
Well, maybe ... it depends on the energy. We'll see. (he laughs)
George Hamilton is such an amusing man, I'm curious to see how he makes straight man Georges his very "own special creation". I'm sure there are lots of surprises in store.
La Cage Aux Folles previews on Tuesday July 10 and opens on the 11th at the Pantages and plays through July 22 only.