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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Don’t mind if he does

I finally finished one of those books I keep reading off and on, sometimes for months or years at a time.

This one was George Hamilton’s autobiography, Don’t Mind if I Do, which came out a couple of years ago. It was written by Hamilton “and William Stadiem” and, as we learn in the acknowledgements at the back of the book, much of the material on Hamilton’s childhood was ghostwritten by his younger brother David.

I was actually surprised to find myself reading this book, given the piles of other books waiting for me to finish or start. I mean, I had never been particularly interested in Hamilton, as his film career isn’t exactly the stuff of cinematic legend. To me, he was the pretty young man who played shallow patrician characters in movies like Where the Boys Are and who was fodder for comedians’ tanning-as-a-lifestyle jokes. He wasn’t on my radar, although he kept showing up in the occasional movie and in the TV 1969 miniseries The Survivors (along with the likes of Lana Turner, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ralph Bellamy) which was a precursor of primetime rich-and-beautiful soaps like Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty (on which he also played a role). Like many maturing Hollywood leading men, he eventually made the transition from straight roles to comedy, with Love at First Bite and Zorro, the Gay Blade. And darned if he didn’t show up in The Godfather: Part III, essentially as a replacement for Robert Duvall in a role that was drastically cut by the time the movie was released. And my mother was a faithful viewer of George & Alana, a daytime talk show he hosted with his ex-wife in the mid-1990s.

Hamilton recounts all of this in his book, and what comes as something as a surprise (but probably shouldn’t) is how self-aware he always seems to have been about his talents, his strengths and limits, the quality of his movies and the image he was deliberately projecting to the world. He came at the tail-end of the era of Hollywood stars—as opposed to major film actors. He was still part of a system where one’s putative off-screen image was as, or more, important as the work on screen. Hamilton deliberately set out to project a certain lifestyle—a fantasy of the playboy bachelor who lives the good life and beds one beautiful woman after another. He was essentially James Bond without the espionage gig. He was primed for this career and lifestyle by an eccentric southern family that, despite little means, insisted on living a life of glamour and sophistication, either in New York or Los Angeles or points in between. The heads of the family were his Arkansas belle of a mother, called Teeny, and Bill, her son from her first marriage, who was nine years older than George and flamboyantly gay. Their adventures across America and as far south as Acapulco, as Teeny looked up old suitors and flames to find herself a rich husband, would make a great movie plot. And, in fact, it did become a movie, executive-produced by Hamilton and released last year. Called My One and Only, it starred Renée Zellweger and Logan Lerman as fictionalized versions of Teeny and the young George.

As you would expect, Hamilton recounts his various milestones through his career, giving heaviest emphasis to the early ones: Crime & Punishment, USA, Home from the Hill, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Where the Boys Are, Angel Baby, Light in the Piazza, Two Weeks in Another Town, The Victors. There is interesting background material about how Hamilton got these roles, what happened behind the scenes and, most prominently, which leading ladies he tried, or succeeded in, bedding. (Seemingly, almost all of them.) In the end, this is a story of a 20th century Don Juan, who is continually falling in love. There is nothing in the least predatory or swaggering in Hamilton’s accounts of his amorous adventures and misadventures. He truly seems to be in love with each and every one of the women in his decades-long parade of liaisons. He never has anything negative to say about any of these women and, at the inevitable parting of the ways, he always describes it as mutually agreeable or his own fault, for not being “the marrying kind.” (He has married only once, for three years, to the model Alana Collins, later better known as Alana Stewart.)

The list of paramours is impressive. It begins with him losing his virginity, around the age of 12, to singer June Howard, who just happened to be his stepmother and the mother of his young half-sister. In the hands of another memoirist, this incident would have surely come off as an accusatory tale of exploiting a minor. In Hamilton’s hands, it is a fond memory of something totally sweet and natural. He went on to have relationships with Betty Benson (wife of mega-producer Sam Spiegel and purported inspiration for the fictional Holly Golightly), White House resident Lynda Bird Johnson, Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland (ex-wife of Peter Sellers who, like Hamilton’s future wife Alana, would go on to marry singer Rod Stewart), actor Elizabeth Taylor (in between marriages to Senator John Warner and construction worker Larry Fortensky) and mega-author Danielle Steele. Given Hamilton’s extensive romance c.v., it nearly seems simpler for him to specify which women he has not slept with. Notable among these is his close friend Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines. Hamilton is a staunch and unabashed defender of the Marcoses and insists that they were very good for their country.

There is plenty of other name-dropping in the book. All kinds of famous people come and go through its pages. During his Palm Springs period, he was benevolently taken under the wing of Colonel Tom Parker, who engineered a somewhat ill-conceived Las Vegas show built around Hamilton. When the colonel’s main property, Elvis Presley, died in 1977, Hamilton was among the select few who were flown on the King’s private plane, the Lisa Marie, to the funeral in Hamilton’s birthplace, Memphis. Clearly a charmer, Hamilton has endless anecdotes that are interesting and/or laugh-out-loud funny. Like the time his mother locked her new husband out of their New York hotel room with no clothes on because he was drunk—and he tried to re-enter the room through the window via a sixth-story ledge. The exploit lasted long enough for newspaper photographers to gather and the photo made the front page of the New York Post. Or like the time, while filming The Man from Marrakech in Franco-era Spain, Hamilton went to Madrid for a weekend break and found that the only way he could get a drink was to go to a brothel. Walking into the bar, he was surprised to hear a very familiar and boisterous voice wafting from across the room. It turned out to be his mother having a drink with Ava Gardner.

The book is a hoot. You may not want to live Hamilton’s life. (I got exhausted just reading about it.) You may not even approve of it. (No matter how hedonistic his exploits are, he always seems to be genuinely concerned and thoughtful towards his friends and women.) But it seems to serve the same purpose that Hamilton himself serves. He lives the fantasy so that we don’t have to.

-S.L., 26 August 2010

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