- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Yes, he still has that silky smile and that famous — or infamous — tan. And at 77, George Hamilton, the legendary character actor and veteran of over 100 films and TV shows, is still going strong.

And he’s got stories. Oh, does the man have a lifetime of tales to tell. From starting out in the 1950s under the studio system to fielding what he thought was a crank call from Francis Ford Coppola to be in “The Godfather Part III” (it turned out to be anything but), Mr. Hamilton turned what was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation with The Washington Times about his new film, “The Congressman,” into a nearly hourlong chat about his extraordinary life and career. All of it with a chuckle and a smile (yes, you could even “see” it through the phone).

Taking many sidelines away from the new political comedy, which stars Treat Williams as a Maine politico hiding out after an unfortunate video clip of him goes viral, Mr. Hamilton talked about flying with Mr. Williams on his personal plane, revisiting his comedic take on Dracula in the new millennium and how Cary Grant inspired his own ubiquitous tan.

(Never mind that he told me I was interrupting his lunch. Clearly, he would rather chat than nosh for a few moments, especially with a fan of “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”)

Question: Why did you choose to act in “The Congressman”?

Answer: Well you know, one works in this business — if one works. You do different types of movies. You do a movie [where] you like the script [and] it has something to say that you care about. And there are certain people in this industry that you kind of stick with. Guys like [“The Congressman” producer] Fred Roos. They call you, and if you’re not working, that’s what you do.

I went in to play the most corrupt politician I could possibly think of and to do it with a certain kind of charm.

Q: You acted with Treat Williams before. What was it like to work with him again?

A: I did a movie with Woody Allen [“Hollywood Ending” in 2002]. I only had a few days with Treat on that film. I immediately liked Treat. Treat and I had a sense of humor about the whole thing. Woody is a fascinating character to be around. You don’t really know what he’s going to want. You’re on your toes, but you’re on your heels too, if you know what I mean.

When you hear Treat’s doing a movie, or you’d like to work with Treat again, you hope the script is good. [laughs] And then you find out the script is good. You go and you do it for the fun of it. And you feel like you can be proud of something.

Treat and I have remained sort of like war buddies. [laughs] He’s a good guy. It doesn’t matter who is the wingman, you just know that you work good together.

I had a good time doing [“The Congressman”], and I hope that Treat and I plan to go flying in his [private] jet!

Q: When you were first starting out, how did you choose your projects?

A: You used to weigh a script. They’d say “This is a big one, maybe we should give this to George Peppard.” And I’d say, “That sounds pretty good for me.”

I look at scripts as good or bad. If it’s bad, it better pay a lot of money. I remember a meeting I had at MGM. It was at the end of their reign. They say we have you under contract, and because you’re under contract, we’d like to you to work. I said, well, that seems fair. But if it’s a really good movie, they were going to give it to a particular actor that was not under contract.

The bottom line was they were going to pay you more if it was a bad one and pay you less if it was a good one. And I kind of sat there and thought “maybe the best thing for me would be to give you an even break: I won’t read it.” And that was the end of the dance.

It was the only way to make sense out of Hollywood. It was the only way to survive it.

Q: How was the industry different at that time?

A: I was a hangover of that era where they’d say “Take off that medal! Is that a St. Christopher medal? You’re going to lose your audience with that.”

Why would I lose my audience?

“Well, are you Catholic or are you Jewish? You’re going to lose half your audience. Cover it up!” [laughs]

Entertainment was transportation. You were supposed to take somebody out of their seat and bring them back in. You’re not supposed to impose your values or your supposed knowledge to manipulate or control people. That was not your job. You were not supposed to use the bully pulpit of Hollywood to pound people with ideas. You’re there to entertain.

Q: What do you recall about the late ‘70s when you started producing your own films?

A: At MGM there was a script cage in the basement where they’d show rushes. And I thought to myself, “How do I get into the script cage and find out what my future is?”

I climbed into the script cage one night and spent the whole night in there. I saw the bowels of MGM. I saw the studio scripts that the producers had seen; the writers had just handed them in. And I started thinking this is a chance to pick my own roles.

I found a movie called “Light in the Piazza.” I finally made the movie with Olivia de Havilland and myself, but initially there was no way I could make that movie, so I went to work on becoming that character. They told me they had an Italian [actor], and I said, “That’s a Cuban boy!” His name was Tomas Milan. I thought that’s the craziest thing I’d ever heard: They have a Cuban who’s going to play an Italian, and I can’t play it because I’m an American.

I said, why can’t I play it? If I can do the accent as good as the Cuban, I could play it.

I realized that the studios didn’t really understand their own system. And I started realizing that if I could get in that cage at night, I could decide what I wanted to do. There’s so many characters they’re not letting me play. And I thought, “Why don’t you just go produce it yourself?”

So after I got out of the studio system, I was completely [broke] for the 30th time; they said I’d never work again. So I’m going to go and produce those movies that they wouldn’t let me do. [laughs]

Q: So why “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade”?

A: There came [a script called] “Dracula Sucks.” Now, I liked “Dracula Sucks,” but we gotta change [the title]. They said, “If you like that, you’re going to like this: ‘Zorro the Gay Blade.’”

I decided I was going to go out and raise the money and develop my own projects. And that’s what I did. I made “Love at First Bite” and I made “Zorro the Gay Blade.” [Script rewriter Hal Dresner] and I put together “Zorro” in about eight weeks.

Which brings me to where I am now: I’m doing “Love at Second Bite.” I’ve got a wonderful script.

You asked me my favorite question: What happened and what did you learn from being under contract to MGM? And the answer is I know how to make movies. I understand how to do that. I’ve been doing that my whole life. It’s just easier to raise the money yourself and then hire yourself. It’s possible if you reduce your own budget a little. [laughs]

Q: You’ve made all those commercials with your famous tan where you toy with your own image and persona. Why did that come about?

A: [laughs] The first thing my agent told me in 1959 was he said you have to have something recognizable that people will remember. “What are you? Do you have cleft in your chin? You have a Jimmy Stewart kind of talk?” And I thought I don’t know what I can give them that will be different.

And then one day when I was working on a movie, I stayed at the beach a little too long, and they said, “You are going to ruin a whole day of shooting because you’re so dark. Two days ago you weren’t like this!”

So I started putting that in the character; I made him suntanned all the time.

Cary Grant was on the back lot one time doing a movie called “North by Northwest.” I would see Cary outside the stage, and he would sit on a set chair and had one of those reflectors. He wanted this tan so he didn’t have to use makeup.

I would say, “Hello, Mr. Grant.”

[in English accent] “Hello, how are you?”

I’d say, “Are you doing a movie?”

[in English accent] “Yes, I’m doing a movie.”

“What’s the movie?”

[in English accent] “‘North by Northwest.’ You see, I don’t like wearing makeup. It ruins my nice white shirt, and I don’t like it all over my face and hands.”

So I said, “Mr. Grant, it’s so nice to be able to sit out here with you. Can I?”

And he said, “No, you stay right where you are.” And he’d make me sit across the way, and I’d have to turn around with my back to him and get the sun and talk back to him over my shoulder.

Every day I’d sit out there [and tan]. And I’m sitting there with Cary Grant, the leading male box office [star]. He’s tan, so why can’t I get tanned?

Q: What did you learn from some of the filmmakers you’ve worked with?

A: John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone — those guys are consummate filmmakers. They believe that you don’t talk it, you show it. So when I find a role now, I try to find a visual way to tell what the character is about rather than trying to speak about it.

Q: You have such great stories and a positive attitude. How do you maintain that?

A: [huge laugh] Eric, this is a business that I have always had the last laugh in. It has nothing to do with acting, it has to do with good karma. I’ve always had good friends and people know that I’ve got no ax to grind. I’m there to “deliver the mail.”

“The Congressman” is now available on DVD and on demand from Amazon.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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