The Happy Looker

“Yo, George! Nice tan. You’re blacker than me!”

George Hamilton was enjoying a leisurely stroll along West 125th Street when the remark, lobbed by a beefy man in a security guard’s uniform, stopped the actor in his tracks. Shoulders back, head slightly cocked, Mr. Hamilton unleashed a dazzling display of tooth enamel that underscored the mahogany hue of his taut movie-star face. His inky hair gave off a jaunty purple sheen in the sunlight. He might have heard a wittier bon mot in his life, but his easy laugh suggested it was unlikely.

It was the afternoon of May 8. Mr. Hamilton, who is in town shooting the new Woody Allen movie, had the day off and had elected to spend it in Harlem. He had lunched earlier on fried chicken, collard greens and candied yams at Sylvia’s, and for dessert he was relishing the accolades and good-natured ribbing of the uptown crowds.

Judging by the rapturous reception, Bill Clinton will have a hard act to follow when he takes possession of his new office later this summer. Women of every age and size screamed: “George Hamilton! I lo-o-o-ve you!” Men yelled the titles of his movies. Their firm favorite was Love at First Bite , the 1979 horror spoof in which Mr. Hamilton plays a disco-era Dracula who swiftly dispenses with a gang of muggers on these very blocks.

Since arriving in New York last month, Mr. Hamilton–who by his own admission has always been “famous for being famous”–had once again become a fixture of the local gossip columns. But as he walked the main drag of Harlem, he seemed intent on sending the message that his appeal was more than skin-deep. Those who have followed his career and remember his winning, nuanced turns in Where the Boys Are or Viva Maria have long harbored the suspicion that behind Mr. Hamilton’s arched eyebrow, knowing smile and fancy mole lurked at least one paradigmatic performance.

That he has yet to provide an obvious Act III has, strangely, contributed to his quixotic, evergreen appeal. But 40 years is a long time to coast on promise and a tan and, at 61, Mr. Hamilton sounds like a man with something to prove. “I don’t think I’ve done my best picture,” he had said a few days earlier. “But I think that keeps you lean and hungry. Most actors at my age think they’ve done that, and they fade on out. Me, I feel like I’m just beginning.”

Mr. Hamilton has chosen New York–the city where fame commingles with substance–as the stage for his latest rebirth. And he’s here to do substantial things. He’s attending the Actors Studio as an observer and teaching a class of his own at the Century Theater on East 15th Street. But just in case anyone misconstrues these gigs as a sign that Mr. Hamilton is acting his age, he let drop that he is the father of a 15-month-old love child (but more about that later).

The Harlem excursion felt somewhat stage-managed–his town car was idling a few blocks away–but it was difficult to think of another celebrity who would have gone to such lengths to demonstrate that he could hang as easily at the Harlem U.S.A. mall, where Mr. Hamilton surveyed the heaving crowd. “I don’t feel like any part of this city is forbidden to me,” he beamed.

“People have always thought I was born with money, but it’s not true,” said Mr. Hamilton, the son of a society bandleader turned cosmetics executive and a mother whom he described as an Auntie Mame character. “We were often broke,” he elaborated in his cultured, Belgravia-meets-Bel-Air drawl. “Never poor, though. Poor is a bad thought. Broke is just a temporary weather change.”

After his parents divorced when he was 6, Mr. Hamilton had a peripatetic childhood. He often begins a sentence with “When I was growing up in …”, but it’s anybody’s guess what the concluding phrase will be: Palm Beach, Boston, Mexico, London, California, Tarrytown, or Gulfport, Miss. When he was 14, he briefly attended Browning, the Upper East Side prep school, subsidizing his education by working in Manhattan’s flower district after school. “I paid my own way and my brother’s way, and I signed his report card,” he said. “I was fearless. I would go and sell flowers to whomever would buy them, in any district, anywhere. I realized early on in life that I wanted to cross all the boundaries. I didn’t want to grow up with a Brooks Brothers shirt and lockjaw. But at the same time I didn’t want to lose that, because that was part of me, too.”

Suddenly, a man in a sober white shirt and a Kente-cloth-patterned tie jumped out from behind a trestle table covered with flyers. “I’m your biggest fan,” he told the actor. “Now, could I interest you in a basic cable package from Time Warner?” Mr. Hamilton, who is looking for an apartment in New York but is currently enjoying the amenities at the Plaza Athénée hotel, seemed momentarily to entertain the offer before politely declining.

I had met Mr. Hamilton at the Plaza Athénée earlier that morning. He sauntered into the empty bar in a black cashmere jacket, black suede bucks, gray slacks and a white-on-gray-check Façonnable shirt. A white-gold Cartier Tank watch glinted at his wrist; every hair was in place. His fly was unzipped.

Some minutes later, when he made the discovery on his own, he explained that the same thing had happened to him the previous week, when he was talking to a style editor from People magazine and wearing button-front pants . “These things are always happening to me,” he roared.

“That’s the only trouble with not being married,” continued Mr. Hamilton, who has been divorced from Alana Stewart since 1978. “If I want to know if my bald spot’s showing, I have to walk out and ask the hall maid.” He pondered this for a moment and then said, “On the other hand, the hall maid never asks you, ‘Who were you with last night? And what time did you get back?'”

He has been relying on the good judgment of the Plaza Athénée’s maids since before it was the Plaza Athénée. When he was 11, his mother divorced her second husband, a Boston businessman, and uprooted her two sons to this East 64th Street address, which was then known as the Alrae. “They always treat me very well here. They put on my music when I come in the bar,” Mr. Hamilton said. A bossa nova played softly in the background.

He has made something of a science of hotel living. He generally travels with a specially customized Louis Vuitton trunk, which contains a fold-down desk for his laptop, a 1930’s martini shaker and special compartments for his Anderson & Sheppard suits and handmade shoes. For shorter trips, he confines himself to one pair of blue jeans, a dark suit and three sets of buttons: plain, gold and satin. “That way I can wear the jacket as a tuxedo, a blazer or a suit,” he explained.

The buttons come in handy, because it is in his social life that Mr. Hamilton truly fulfills his desire to “cross all boundaries.” Among the whirl of engagements he had squeezed into the two weeks he’d been in Manhattan, two stand out: One night, he had found himself in a joint popular with the Russian Mafia. “Some major guys,” Mr. Hamilton confided with a cocked brow. “They didn’t know me at all. But I could see in their eyes that we would connect. Before I know it, they’re sending cognac to my table.”

On April 23, Mr. Hamilton attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala with the actress Anjelica Huston. After the event, they went to the Stanhope Hotel, only to find that the bar was closed. Mr. Hamilton sprang into action: “I said to the manager, ‘Why are you closed down on a night when the Met is on? You’re the kind of guy who’ll give the bar business a bad name.’ [The manager] said: ‘This is a dead night.’ And I said: ‘It won’t be!'” The retelling seemed to fill Mr. Hamilton with a giddy joie de vivre . “I brought in 75 people and I made everyone sing ‘New York, New York,’ and I served champagne to everyone,” he said.

George Hamilton is clearly comfortable with his fame. “Living in the fishbowl is not a problem,” he said. In the sepulchral Plaza Athénée bar, his tan seemed to exude a gentle inner glow. “People basically want to do the right thing, and you just have to let them,” he continued. “They’re panicked to say hello to you, so you must put them at their ease. For example, it takes a lot of guts for a man who’s with a girl to come over. You have to show them in two sentences that the environment is safe … and you’re going to make them look good in front of their girlfriend. You do that and they become your best friend. Plus,” he added slyly, “they’ll introduce you to the girl.”

Mr. Allen’s spring project came along at a fortuitous time. He had previously been offered a sizable salary to appear in a film opposite the rap stars Method Man and Redman as a Vice President of the United States who gets turned onto dope by the hip-hoppers. Mr. Hamilton, who has an innate understanding of the fine line between self-parody and making a fool of himself, passed. “One week later,” he marveled, “I got a call saying ‘Woody Allen wants you for this movie.'”

Mr. Hamilton plays a movie producer in the film, and a natural assumption was that he would base the characterization on his longtime friend, Robert Evans. “Dustin [Hoffman] played Bobby a little in Wag the Dog , so I try to steer away from that,” he explained. “I’m trying to be myself, as if I were in that position, and I think that’s ultimately harder to do.” Besides, Mr. Allen had encouraged him to “just be you”–right down to the tan. “Sometimes they darken the leading lady,” Mr. Hamilton explained, addressing the problems his complexion can cause for cinematographers. “But it doesn’t bother Woody. He told me, ‘There are people as dark as you. I’ve never met one, but ….’

“As an actor, I feel like an abused dog having been in a shelter,” he said. He recounted how, as a young actor in the waning days of the studio system, he had worked “on the bell”–when the director was ready to shoot a take, a loud bell would ring out across the sound stage. “I used to freeze up,” said Mr. Hamilton, looking pained, “and it’s taken a lot of time to get rid of that feeling.” With Mr. Allen, however, “You can do pretty much what you want, as long as your ad libs are in character. He knows the minute the rhythm isn’t there.”

Mr. Hamilton is even doing a bit of directing himself as an acting teacher at the Century Theater. His friend, the New York-based acting coach George Di Cenzo, had been summoned west to tape a television pilot, and Mr. Hamilton found himself supervising a disparate group of about 30 actors on everything from Shakespeare to scenes from Girl, Interrupted . “I think my innate sense of making people feel good has helped me bring the best out of them,” he said.

Mr. Hamilton is full of the kind of no-nonsense tips that you rarely hear on Inside the Actors Studio . When it comes to learning lines, for example, he laboriously records all the other speaking parts at correctly timed intervals on separate tape recorders. He then plays them back and hones his own delivery.

Then, of course, there is the experience that comes from having survived so many movie sets. About Godfather III –which, among its many disappointments, reduces Mr. Hamilton to wallpaper–he said he had trouble finding the motivation for a character who didn’t do anything except “follow around behind Al Pacino trying to help him out and look interested.” Finally, he turned to Andy Garcia for advice. “Count the hairs on the back of Al’s head,” Mr. Garcia counseled. “And I did,” laughed Mr. Hamilton. “I did it for weeks. I didn’t look interested; I looked fascinated.”

Mr. Hamilton arrived in Hollywood in 1958 at the age of 18, just as a new breed of actor was transforming the face of moviedom. For a budding matinee idol, his timing was lousy. “Somebody once said, ‘George Hamilton is the only guy I know who came to Hollywood, and they asked him, “Who would you rather be, Jimmy Dean or Marlon Brando?”, and George said: “David Niven,'” Mr. Hamilton said. “It’s true. I didn’t want that. I wanted that other thing that I’d grown up with. I liked the movie-star lifestyle as much as I liked acting. I thought movie stars were the royalty of America, and I wanted to join that group.”

Cast in the very first movie he auditioned for, Crime and Punishment USA , Mr. Hamilton nevertheless found Hollywood wanting. He had already cavorted on the zebra-striped banquettes of El Morocco at 17, attended Palm Beach dinner parties where Henry Ford II, Senator Jack Kennedy and C.I.A. chief Allen Dulles sat together and smoked cigars after dinner “like a giant tribal council.” So when an old school friend–Oscar Molinari, a cousin of New York-based socialite Reinaldo Herrera–invited him down to Venezuela, Mr. Hamilton hopped on the first plane south. “Everything I imagined Hollywood was going to be, Caracas was,” he recalled. “I lived this Hollywood idea in Caracas, dating, partying, studying bullfighting.”

But soon Mr. Hamilton had been lured back by the offer of a seven-year contract at MGM. His early films ran the gamut from Your Cheatin’ Heart , in which he played a surprisingly convincing Hank Williams, to Where the Boys Are , in which he turned his early, effortless charm on full.

In the mid-60’s, he gained off-screen notoriety by dating Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The affair elicited a level of public disapproval that’s hard to imagine today. L.B.J.’s enemies charged that he had personally secured Mr. Hamilton’s draft deferment from Vietnam. Meanwhile, when Mr. Hamilton brought the First Daughter as his date to the 1966 Oscars, the press frenzy upstaged the events onstage. “There was a presumption that I was some upstart trying to insinuate himself into the White House. Certainly, it hurt my credibility as an actor,” Mr. Hamilton said. Coincidentally or not, movie offers started to dry up and he was soon headed for TV land, the Harold Robbins series The Survivors and the eventual professional nadir of The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977).

At the end of the 70’s, Mr. Hamilton made his comeback, taking control of his career, producing and starring in a pair of films, Love at First Bite and Zorro: The Gay Blade , in which he deftly spoofed his own reputation as an effete playboy. He became a running gag in Doonesbury , where Zonker worshipped his tan. This brief renaissance fizzled quickly, however, and after that, Mr. Hamilton survived by turning himself into a free-floating franchise. He hawked self-tanning products on QVC, hosted a TV talk show with his ex-wife and operated a chain of cigar bars. All along, though, he never lost his mysterious hold on the public.

“Why does this generation respect me? Why am I not out of date?” he mused rhetorically, a look of sudden concentration creasing his remarkably unlined face. “I think it’s because I bridge the generations. I’m not like some actors my age who are frozen like moths in amber …. What was cool was I saw the end of the studio days. Commissary dinners. Dates with Marilyn Monroe. All the things guys read about, I did. We were told to date people at the studio. That was like being in a candy store.”

In 1970, Mr. Hamilton married Ford model Alana Collins. The ceremony took place in Elvis’ suite at the Las Vegas Hilton, and Colonel Parker was his best man. The relationship didn’t last–Mr. Hamilton was inexplicably going through a fleeting domestic phase. “I wanted to stay at home and raise children,” he said. She subsequently married and divorced Rod Stewart.

Today, the two are close again. “He can still make me laugh more than anyone I know,” said Ms. Stewart from California. “He’s a much deeper person than people give him credit for.” When his ex-wife says that we don’t know the real George Hamilton, she means it as a compliment.

Mr. Hamilton and Ms. Stewart had one son, Ashley, now 26 years old. Lately, Mr. Hamilton has taken a new, unexpected detour into parenting: “I have a little 15-month-old child that I had with a girl.” Mr. Hamilton said this so matter-of-factly that I thought he might be putting me on. He was not: “We’re not married, but I signed the birth certificate and I see the boy and I have co-custody of him,” he said (although he ultimately declined to identify the child’s mother). “I bought baby clothes last week and had a great time doing it. I have a responsibility to that child, and that comes built-in with me.”

He said he has been giving a lot of thought recently to his last act. “It’s the final turn, and most people flame out,” Mr. Hamilton said, indicating that he wished to avoid that fate. And even George Hamilton, veteran of The Victors , Hollywood Squares and QVC, can become philosophical: “This is where the road starts to get interesting,” he said, trying but failing to wrinkle his forehead. “Up until now, it’s been a piece of cake.”