A new stage for Harry Hamlin in ‘One November Yankee’

Loretta Swit and Harry Hamlin star in the world premiere of the play "One November Yankee."
(Robert Arbogast / Los Angeles Times)

Since mid-November, two actors who were once stars of the TV hits “L.A. Law” and “MASH” have been taking the stage four nights a week at a 99-seat North Hollywood theater. The easy assumption to make is that they have settled for local theater after years on Emmy Award-winning television. But that’s not the way Harry Hamlin sees it.

Hamlin — who gained fame as hunky lawyer Michael Kuzak on “L.A. Law” in the mid-1980s — says his starring turn in the NoHo Arts Center’s production of “One November Yankee” opposite Loretta Swit, who played Maj. Margaret Houlihan on “MASH” for 11 years, is one of the most compelling roles he’s tackled since his last episode of “L.A. Law” in 1991.

The NBC legal drama made Hamlin a household name, but he says the show was “a double-edged sword.”

Best of 2012: Movies | TV | Pop music | Jazz | Video Games| Art | Theater | Dance | Classical music


“It was great because it gave me a much higher profile than ever before, but at the same time people stopped asking me to do these really interesting, offbeat roles that I had been doing before,” the 61-year-old performer said. “When they see you for so long playing one character, that becomes kind of the thing that you do.”

Before “L.A. Law,” the Pasadena-born actor had been in roles that ranged from a poor Hungarian boxer who dreams of being a lawyer in “Movie Movie” to a Jewish war veteran with one leg in “Awake and Sing!” on Broadway to Perseus in the original “Clash of the Titans.”

Now Hamlin, with a dust of gray hair but a jaw line strong as ever, is years away from his Sexiest Man Alive title (a People cover story that he says was a “horribly embarrassing” surprise to him when it was published in 1987) and his last love scene, but he relishes the change.

“It used to be everything I did had love scenes in it, but I’m so thankful I’ve moved on from that,” he said.

The closest thing he has to love scenes now involve young actor Cameron Monaghan, who plays the 16-year-old that Hamlin’s character picks up at a gay bar on “Shameless.” He has enjoyed the creative freedom offered by the edgy Showtime series and other cable projects he’s appeared in, such as HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but it’s an ABC reality show that he recalls most fondly: “Dancing With the Stars.”

PHOTOS: Arts and culture by The Times

Hamlin was a contestant on the program in its third season in 2006. ABC originally tried to sign him for the first season. At that time, Hamlin recalled, he wouldn’t “go near that show with a 10-foot pole.” But he changed his mind when he saw his wife, “Days of Our Lives” alum Lisa Rinna, dance on the show in Season 2.

“From the moment she started to do the show, I saw an evolution in her as a human being. I saw something happen that was truly magical and truly transformative,” Hamlin said.

Sitting in the second row of the empty NoHo Arts Center’s main theater on a recent afternoon, Hamlin spoke with more fervor about his and his wife’s time on “Dancing With the Stars” than about any of his other projects — even though he was eliminated in the third week after repeated comments from the judges that he was too stiff, that this wasn’t coming naturally to him.

“One of the biggest wins of my life was being able to go out on that dance floor and not barf,” he said.

Hamlin acknowledged that signing onto the show — which has developed a reputation of attracting has-beens looking for a career boost — was not the smartest move professionally. In 2006 he fired his agent, who said he would no longer represent Hamlin if he joined “Dancing With the Stars.” Hamlin contends that he did the show for himself, not his career, and he’s glad he did. But he admits that today one of his biggest challenges is “overcoming preconceived notions and perceptions” about himself.

But “One November Yankee” writer-director Joshua Ravetch had none of that on his mind when he reached out to Hamlin to star in his play. The suggestion to cast Hamlin came from Robert Forster (who costarred with Hamlin in the 2002 film “Roads to Riches”), when he performed the part in the original reading of the play.

VIDEO| ‘O Holy Night’: Eight unforgettable performances

“There’s a quality to Harry that’s not dissimilar to Robert Forster, the kind of bedrock stability, the kind of grounding and a kind of a voice of reason, and the male characters in this play really support the voice of reason,” Ravetch said.

In “One November Yankee,” Hamlin and Swit portray three pairs of brothers and sisters, all affected by the crash of a Piper Cub plane, which takes impressive center stage of the set design.

The play characterizes the brother-sister relationships as “connected but not really connected,” but Hamlin and Swit came to the project with strikingly contrasting experiences with their own siblings. Swit grew up with and continues to be close to her older brother; she showed her costar cards from him that he always signed “your loving brother.” Hamlin, meanwhile, grew up on the opposite coast from his sister and had a rocky relationship with his older brother, who died last year following complications stemming from alcohol abuse.

“We didn’t get along from the beginning,” Hamlin recalls of the brother with whom he says he “could never sit down at a restaurant and have dinner,” as he now does with his sister once a year.

“One November Yankee” struck close to home for Hamlin: One of his characters is struggling to deal with the death of his brother. Another is yearning for the approval and admiration of his sister. Both reflect experiences of his own: His parents and his late brother didn’t show support for his choice to go into acting until he began paying their bills.

“There’s something in him that understands something about that sense of loss and trying to grapple with it that’s profound,” said Ravetch, who only learned that the actor had such a personal connection to the play about halfway through the 31/2-week rehearsals.

The production has stirred sentiments Hamlin associates with his own troubled sibling relationships, but it also has produced a special relationship with Swit: Even offstage he calls his costar “Sis.”


INTERACTIVE: Christopher Hawthorne’s On the Boulevards

VOTE: What’s the best version of ‘O Holy Night’?

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures