Legendary actor George Hamilton shares his journey from Arkansas to Hollywood and the famed friendships he formed in his memoir "Don't Mind If I Do." In this excerpt, he recounts his experience as a contestant on the reality show “Dancing With the Stars” and how it made him feel young again.
Chapter one: Desperate times demand desperate measures
My life was a train wreck.
I had torn the rotator cuffs in my shoulders. This was a result of years of rehearsing for movies like “Zorro,” the “Gay Blade,” where twelve hours of fencing lessons one day, followed by twelve hours of bullwhip practice the next, had caused my shoulders to be stuck in the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions, in a sort of hideous, contorted version of Al Jolson in Mammy. To make matters worse, I had blown out my knee in the Broadway musical Chicago when the young actress playing the dummy to my ventriloquist became too energetic and bounced so hard on my knee that I felt my right joint explode on the spot. The doctor later confirmed that part of the cartilage had shredded, making it temporarily impossible for me to walk. So much for the old razzle-dazzle. Even worse, not long afterward, in a bad parody of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, I had broken four ribs jumping aboard a friend’s yacht. Plus, there was the little matter of my balance problem ...
And that was the good news.
In the midst of my assorted agonies, my agent called me up. He seemed to call me only when three little old ladies in a nursing home needed entertainment. But this time, opportunity, big-time, he said, was pounding at my hospital door. My agent’s chance of a lifetime was for me to be a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” the reality dance-off show pairing celebrities with professional dancers, recently imported from England by ABC. In its first season, in the summer of 2005, “Dancing” had been the number one show in the country, with more than fifteen million viewers. My first response at hearing the offer was to laugh so hard that I nearly broke another rib. Well . . . well? the agent pressed me. Wasn’t I thrilled? Wasn’t I interested?
Sure, I thought. If we can find a dance where seizing up, screaming in pain, and dropping to my one decent knee was part of the routine. “It’s a great career move,” the agent said, falling back on the ultimate showbiz cliché.
“The Bataan Death March had a better chance of having a happy outcome,” I replied. “Millions of people will be watching,” he said, giving me the hard sell.
“That could be a problem,” I replied.
The agent sold and sold, puffing about how big the show had been in the UK and now here. What stars had been on the first season? I asked. He hemmed and hawed. Evander Holyfield, he said. The boxer. The champ. The guy whose ear Mike Tyson bit off. Trista Sutter. Who was that? I asked. Big star of “The Bachelor” reality show. Huge, he said. A star? Stars were different when I first started in the game. Who else?
Kelly Monaco, the season’s winner. Major soap opera star, major Playboy model. Who else? Rachel Hunter. Rachel Hunter? Now, he was talking. Rachel, the supermodel, had been married to Rod Stewart, just like my ex, Alana, the supermodel. Rod and I, who on the surface seemed to have nothing in common, did share a seemingly identical taste in women. Before Alana, we had both been involved with Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland, and after Alana, we both dated the beauty Liz Treadwell. At least I always came first. In any event, in my Six Degrees of Rod Stewart game, the mention of Rachel Hunter made me feel that perhaps destiny was at work here. “Good career move?” I sought the agent’s assurance. It would be huge exposure, I mused. It was better than having folks continue to confuse me with Warren Beatty or, worse, forget me altogether. I had begun to get those people coming up to me and saying, “I know you. I know you.”
And I would prod, “George Hamilton?”
“No, no, not him,” they would reply. “What show’d you play on?” they would continue.
After I had rolled off half a dozen titles or so, they still had a blank look. Somehow the excitement disappeared when I had to give them clues.
At this point, I think it’s important you know something about me. I have never been good at planning. You might say I hate plans. They take all the fun out of living. In my family, we liked to do the dumbest thing possible just to lessen the chances for success, and then work our way out of it. What is life without challenges? That’s how we lived. So Dancing with the Stars was really no leap of faith. I knew I would heal. I knew I could pull it off. I didn’t know exactly how right then, but I knew I could do it. “God watches after us,” my mother had always assured us, and I believe that, too.
So I limped, hobbled, and dragged my disapproving body onto a plane and made my way from Florida, where I was recuperating, to Los Angeles — to Studio 46 in CBS Television City in Hollywood, with rehearsals already under way for a show that still had a few bugs to work out. It was a scene of only slightly organized chaos. The costume designer was showing off sequin-bedecked numbers to doubting executives, while makeup artists were practicing their art on their reluctant celebrity captives. In the midst of all this, the network people were quarreling over musical arrangements. I could see they were all as ill prepared for what lay ahead as I was, and somehow this was consoling. I met the other stars, my rivals for the mirror-ball trophy they gave the winner after eight weeks of dips and splits and twirls and whirls.
There was no money involved, but stars were supposedly way beyond money. Publicity would be its own reward. This being network television, there was someone for every demographic, all here meeting and greeting, smiling, and trying to get a handle on one another: Oscar winner Tatum O’Neal; football legend Jerry Rice; “Bond” girl Tia Carrere; “Melrose Place” stunner Lisa Rinna; sports anchor Kenny Mayne; news anchor Giselle Fernandez; rapper Master P; singer Drew Lachey; wrestler Stacy Keibler; and yours truly. I guess I was there to cater to the geezer demographic. At sixty-six, I was the oldest contestant by way too many decades. At my age, I wondered, shouldn’t I have been at the Kennedy Center getting a medal instead of making a fool out of myself? Who did I think I was, a poster boy for AARP? On the other hand, it made me feel so young, while the Kennedy Center would make me feel like I was out to pasture.
One island of sanity in this sea of confusion was the host of the show, Tom Bergeron, the ex-host of Hollywood Squares. Ably assisted by co-host and E! reporter Samantha Harris, Tom was enormously capable and very funny. No one was better with a one-liner. He could always find something witty to say to cover someone’s flub or to smooth out an embarrassing moment. This easy gift of his proved valuable time after time during the show.
My assigned partner was soon introduced to me. Her name was Edyta Sliwinska and she was so striking that I knew the only way I could upset this woman would be if I got between her and her mirror. For all her ravishing beauty, Edyta still inspired confidence. After all, she had been partnered with Evander Holyfield the previous season and had stayed in the ring with him. She was tall and powerful. From the moment I met her I knew that I was in good hands. “Not to worry, little prince ...” she fired off in an intoxicating Polish accent. While she had the sinuous body of a showgirl, she had the rock-solid personality of an ironworker. I quickly made a two hour film in my head featuring Edyta driving a team of mules across the Polish countryside, while fighting off invading Mongol warriors, then — and only then — taking time to self-deliver her baby in the field.
For every complaint I had about my diminished performance capabilities, Edyta had a ready answer. “Because of my broken ribs, I have a little dip and twirl problem,” I malingered.
“I can dip and twirl myself, no one will ever know the difference,” she assured me with only the slightest touch of narcissism. Finally, a woman who’s a self-starter! This was heaven. Mom was right. God is truly good.
For such a blockbuster, I was a little surprised by the show’s skimpy operating budget. I guess I had been spoiled by my Hollywood studio days, when the red carpet was rolled out everywhere you turned. This was going to be strictly tourist class. No champagne and caviar on this trip — only the ubiquitous bottle of Evian water — if you were lucky enough to be tossed one.
Little did I know that the first part of the competition would be vying with other contestants for a rehearsal hall. Naturally, some halls were better than others. One had a leaky roof, another had been recently refitted and still had wet varnish on the floor, and most of them smelled like a Gold’s Gym. They all seemed to have one feature in common: a wall of fame sporting framed eight-by-ten glossies of everyone from long-forgotten movie hoofers to the hottest new boy bands to the latest hip-hop gangstas. They were a visual reminder of how fleeting fame can be ...In my book, there’s no substitute for the real thing. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it once and I’m going to do it right the first time. Evel Knievel taught me this lesson: If you’re going to be a daredevil, don’t practice too much. It’s too dangerous. Nevertheless, I did my best. Weeks of rehearsal, aided by my chiropractor and a sadistic sports doctor who made me do squats and lifts to strengthen my knee, sharpened my performance. But I never kidded myself. Drew Lachey, the boy-band icon who had far greater dancing skills than I could dream of, was going to win this — no question. All I wanted was not to be kicked off after my first dance. Eventually, though, no matter how Edyta propped me up, and no matter how many rabbits I pulled out of the hat, Edyta and I were eliminated from the contest. We had lasted a very respectable six weeks and placed fifth out of the ten original contestants. Not bad for a bandaged, kneecapped, and distractedly lecherous geezer. I can’t say I was sorry. A montage of memories flashed across my mind, like the time the seamstress insisted I have butt pads sewn into my costume to add some booty, the way Lisa Rinna became obsessed with dancing and pulled her whole family in, and how Tatum O’Neal parlayed the show into a job on Entertainment Tonight. Edyta ended up marrying her dancer boyfriend, and Stacy never gave me more than an air kiss. So much for the supposedly irresistible charms of the aging roué. Sure, the Marlon Brando character in me from “On the Waterfront” would continue to bemoan that “I could’ve been a contender.” This applied equally to “Dancing With the Stars” as to Stacy Keibler.
But thanks to the magic of testosterone, I had my summer of 1956 once more. My aches and pains vanished. I could be as age inappropriate as Mick Jagger and get away with it. It was exhausting, but, jeez, it was great to be young again, to beat the clock, even if it was for only a few weeks. And better yet, I had spawned a whole set of younger fans, including cabdrivers, truck drivers, and students who now appreciated this rediscovered silver fox. They would shoot me the thumbs-up sign wherever I went. This happened for weeks, months after I left the show. Sometimes everybody would applaud when I entered a restaurant.
Performance snobs might say it was a little tacky, yet by risking everything I had learned a lot about myself ... and I liked it. Funny how you can meet yourself in the damnedest places. The following year I heard that judge Len Goodman had told Jerry Springer he was no George Hamilton. As Master P would say, “Yo, dog, I’m down with that.”
Excerpted from “Don't Mind If I Do” by George Hamilton with William Stadiem. Excerpted by permission of Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.