George Hamilton back in the spotlight for ‘La Cage’ at Hippodrome
George Hamilton just wants a cup of coffee, that’s all. But a small obstacle confounds the handsome, supernaturally tanned actor in his Tulsa, Okla., hotel room — the coffee maker.
“This is a whole new experience for me,” he says by phone. “I’m 72 years old. It’s about time I learned how to do this. Hold on a minute.”
Vague clanking sounds can be heard, for more than a minute.
“It doesn’t look like coffee,” Hamilton says when he gets back on the line. “It’s just sugar and milk and warm water. This is the worst milk and water I’ve ever tasted. You really want to think that you can do something on your own, and you basically become an idiot.”
Hamilton, who stars in a revival of the hit musical “La Cage aux Folles” that reaches the Hippodrome this week, lets out a big, contagious laugh.
Just what you would expect from the man who wrote in his 2008 autobiography “Don’t Mind If I Do”: “I’ll never stop being able to laugh at myself.”
Hamilton could retain A-lister status indefinitely on his iridescent smile and self-deprecation alone, but he remains very much in the game.
“It started out that I would do this tour [of “La Cage”] for nine months,” he says. “Then they talked me into doing it for 12. Meantime, I am producing a movie and working on another show. But if you don’t take on something a little daunting, you rust out. I went to Tony Bennett’s [85th] birthday party the other night. My God, he must have sung 30 songs. That’s what I mean.”
Hamilton doesn’t seem capable of rusting (bronzing is another story).
Although not every chapter of his long career has exactly been memorable — “Sextette,” with an embalmed-looking Mae West, is a glaring case in point — Hamilton has demonstrated remarkable resilience in a tough business, from “Where the Boys Are” to “Zorro, the Gay Blade,” from “Dynasty” to “Dancing with the Stars.”
When the Memphis-born Hamilton arrived in California by car in 1957, the biggest thing on his resume was a few roles in high school productions. “And one month later, I was under contract at MGM,” Hamilton says.
By 1959, he had started making films, and a name for himself.
“I’ve been employed most of the 52 years since then,” he says. “I often wonder what would have happened if I had taken a right turn instead of a left turn on the way out there. Maybe I would have been a good politician. But I wouldn’t give this job up for anything. I’ve had a wonderful, charmed life.”
Movies were the dominant factor in that life, along with quite a few women, of course — his sex life began with his own stepmother (when he was 12) and progressed through various actresses, a president’s daughter and many more. But stage work has frequently been one of Hamilton pursuits, too.
“Being in the theater organizes your life,” he says. “You feel that you really have a job. I remember talking to William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable — not one of them felt they had a real job being in the movies. Gable was just happy he wasn’t driving a truck.”
Hamilton’s “real job” at the moment is to portray Georges, owner of a would-be glamorous drag club in Saint-Tropez and longtime partner of Albin — aka Zaza, when dressed as a sparkling chanteuse.
Adapted from the popular 1973 film of the same name by Jerry Herman (music) and Harvey Fierstein (book), “La Cage aux Folles” took home the best musical Tony Award in 1984. An innovative revival that originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory was the basis for a Broadway production that won the best musical revival Tony last year.
That revival featured TV star Kelsey Grammer as Georges, a casting choice that paid off at the box office. When it came time to find a Georges for the national tour, producer Barry Weissler did not have to agonize over anything.
“Who could portray a wonderful bon vivant like Georges better than George Hamilton?” Weissler says.
A quick phone call sealed the deal. Weissler already had confidence in Hamilton as a musical performer, having engaged him for stints in “Chicago” over the past decade.
“He loves the stage,” Weissler says. “And this is a very good musical. Albin and Georges are wonderful characters; there is plenty of meat there for a star. But it is not an easy job, moving from city to city, doing press. And it’s a grueling evening in the theater. We just have to keep George rested.”
And perhaps caffeinated. Back in that hotel room, Hamilton continues to lament his fate.
“If I had called room service, I would have had that cup of coffee by now,” he says, laughing heartily again. “Maybe I should go on the Internet and find out how to make a cup of coffee.”
There’s the sound of someone entering the room, and Hamilton lets out a “thank God.” It’s his assistant, back from taking care of various things. She promptly conjures up a double espresso for the actor.
Judging from Hamilton’s voice, nothing about the rehearsal period for “La Cage” and the tour so far — it will have visited two dozen cities, from Schenectady, N.Y., to Los Angeles, before it’s over — has fazed him.
“I’m enjoying this,” he says. “It’s a class act. It’s got some of the finest actors you could find. We all became instant friends onstage. And we have a group of transvestites in this show that are really amazing — my next book may shock and amuse you.”
The laughter is even heartier this time.
The actor can get serious, as he did when he started preparing for the gig.
“I had to get my timing back,” he says. “You can’t learn timing in film. You can develop technique but not timing. That comes from being onstage. If I have any comedy ability, it comes from the years I went across the country onstage.”
Although not exactly known as a vocalist (a brave attempt at a Las Vegas musical show in the 1970s bombed), Hamilton is taking that part of his “La Cage” duties in stride.
“I’ve sung in musicals,” he said, “and not just in ‘Chicago.’ Barbara Cook and I took ‘Funny Girl’ on the road. It’s just a matter of getting the instrument back again. It’s a muscle. Before doing this tour, I went to the best vocal coach in the business, Joan Lader. People buy sincerity in singing. I remember seeing Rex Harrison in ‘My Fair Lady.’ He didn’t sing at all, but I liked it better.”
The traveling part of the tour appeals to Hamilton. It’s part of his life story, after all. After his parents split up, his mother took Hamilton and his brothers on a cross-country escapade in the 1940s, a journey that inspired the recent film “My One and Only.”
Hamilton seems energized by the opportunity to connect with the public.
“I asked Cary Grant once why he would go on the road with a one-man show,” Hamilton says. “He told me it was the only way he got to know the people who had written all those fan letters. That’s what it’s like on this tour. I’ll be walking down the street, and someone will shout out, ‘How are you enjoying the show? We’re going to come again on Thursday.’ It’s great.”
For his “La Cage” role, Hamilton drew partially upon his experiences working on the 1978 spoof “Zorro, the Gay Blade,” a project he spearheaded. He played twin brothers; the straight one, after being injured, was replaced as Zorro by the gay one.
“My half-brother was gay,” Hamilton says of his late sibling. “We grew up together. He was an enormously charming, funny guy. I loved his taste, talent and humanity. He gave me an ability to guide that movie through, so it wasn’t offensive. He used to say things like, ‘It is no crime to be poor, only to dress poorly.’ Doing [‘La Cage’] reminds me of that.”
For Hamilton, this is not a gay musical, but a human one.
“I’m sure when it was first performed, it was very shocking and perhaps was a gay anthem,” he says. “As much as it may still seem edgy or controversial, it’s very family-oriented. Now, Middle America sees that it’s a play about love and family and about who you are, and the very true values that we’ve lost. There’s a wink of the eye, of course, but it’s very ennobling. I hear crying in the audience, not just laughter.”
Just as with his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2006, the “La Cage” tour puts Hamilton back in the national spotlight and may earn him a new wave of admirers. The only thing the grinding schedule won’t do for him is help him keep up with his trademark pursuit.
“I haven’t been in the sun for weeks,” Hamilton says. “But if you peeled off a layer, you’d probably find another tan from 1957.”
If you go
“La Cage aux Folles” opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through Saturday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $59.25 to $91.20. Call 410-547-7328, or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com.
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