George Hamilton’s life more interesting than movies he made

  • By Edward Guthmann San Francisco Chronicle
  • Thursday, November 20, 2008 4:31pm
  • Life

George Hamilton doesn’t care if people call him a dandy, a twit, an aging roue. He doesn’t care if they look at him and see only the suntan and the Jay Gatsby clothes, and forget that he’s been a working actor for 50 years.

“I think it’s much better to be underestimated,” he says. “I love it. People think you don’t get it, or you don’t see it or understand it. But it gives you the best upper hand you can possibly have.”

Today, Hamilton is best known for his enthusiastic, self-parodying appearance on the second season of “Dancing With the Stars.” He was 66 at the time — he had the Cloris Leachman slot — and lasted six weeks, finishing fifth in the competition. He says it gave him a whole new fan base.

“It was great to be young again, to beat the clock, even if it was only for a few weeks,” Hamilton writes in his new memoir, “Don’t Mind If I Do” (Touchstone; $26). Co-written with William Stadiem, the book opens with the “Dancing” gig and then flashes back to a peripatetic, wildly improbable life.

To a great extent, “Don’t Mind If I Do” is a defense of extravagance and high style. In Hamilton’s case, it was a family tradition that began with his bon vivant mother, Teeny, and his older brother, Bill.

“I was never an earthshaking actor,” Hamilton, 69, said over lunch at the Ritz-Carlton. “What’s interesting is that I’ve survived. My life was always more interesting than the films I was in.”

Hamilton is a natural raconteur — he hosted a short-lived talk show with ex-wife Alana Hamilton Stewart — and he has a knack for turning conversation into entertainment. He looks like a prince or a count: navy blazer and gray slacks, pinstriped shirt and brown loafers. Dark hair with a crescent of white along the hairline. Bleached-white teeth.

Hamilton lives in Palm Beach and Los Angeles today. His son by Alana Stewart, Ashley, is 34 and working as a standup comic. G.T., his son by ex-girlfriend Kimberly Blackford, is 9.

By nature, Hamilton does nothing by half measures. He dated President Lyndon Johnson’s plain-jane daughter, Lynda Bird, performed a “Pygmalion” on her and took her to the Oscars. He squired Elizabeth Taylor in her slimmed-down, post-rehab period, dated Danielle Steel and partied on Imelda Marcos’ yacht, where “caviar in oil drums was brought aboard.”

He says he lost his virginity to his stepmother at age 12 (“my own sexual bar mitzvah”), had a gun pointed to his head by Evel Knievel (whom he played onscreen) and discovered early on that suntanning would be for him “what the phone booth, funny blue suit and cape were for Superman.”

It’s a bizarre life story, and it all started with his charismatic, four-times-married, Arkansas-raised mother, Anne. “Wildly unrealistic,” he calls her, “the ultimate Southern belle.” Called “Teeny” by her friends, she was equal parts Auntie Mame, Holly Golightly and Scarlett O’Hara.

George — the spawn of Teeny’s second marriage, to a glamorous bandleader — was the middle son and the most outgoing. David, 13 months younger, was the quiet one. Half-brother Bill, the product of Teeny’s first marriage, was gay, closeted and the chief conjurer of Teeny’s lush, Lalique-and-Cartier lifestyle.

Hamilton was 16 when Teeny, between husbands, decided to take her sons on a cross-country husband hunt. For $1,300 they bought a Lincoln Continental. “The goal was to visit all her old boyfriends, the ones she had passed up,” he writes.

Teeny’s road trip is the subject of “My One and Only,” a forthcoming movie starring Renee Zellweger. The project began more than 10 years ago, long before Hamilton wrote his book, when Hamilton’s friend, Merv Griffin, decided that Teeny’s peregrinations were fodder for a film comedy.

Bill and Teeny are both dead, and Hamilton says he wrote the book for them. “They would have adored the idea that a book was written about them and a movie made about them. That’s all they wanted out of their lives. What better than to have given them a stage to be famous?”

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