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Harry Hamlin: How my past came back to haunt me

Actor Harry Hamlin, best known for “Clash of the Titans” and “L.A. Law,” has written a memoir, “Full Frontal Nudity.” In this excerpt, he writes about an unfortunate incident at the Canadian border.
/ Source: TODAY books

Actor Harry Hamlin, best known for “Clash of the Titans” and “L.A. Law,” has written a memoir, “Full Frontal Nudity.” In this excerpt, he writes about an unfortunate incident at the Canadian border.

Prologue: August
I don’t like to work in August. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer used to spend August fishin’ and catchin’ frogs and that’s just what I like to do with my two little girls, who are smack-dab in the middle of their “wonder years.” Don’t get me wrong, I love acting and I’ve made a good living playing other folks for more than thirty years. At this point in my life, I love my kids more, and August for me and my family is kid time at our cabin on an island, on a lake in Canada. Every August we go there to wash off the past eleven months and start the next eleven fresh.

So I swore I would never take a job in August. Those thirty-one days would be ours, at least until catchin’ frogs and the like were no longer of interest to my girls.

I broke that promise when my daughters were eight and ten.

The offer came in unexpectedly the first week of the month. They needed me right away but I’d have to be gone from the cabin for only two weeks. The job was a television pilot being shot in Vancouver and directed by a famous film director whom I admired. The money was good enough and the part was delicious. So, hypocrite that I am, I flew from Toronto to Vancouver, leaving my wife and girls alone on the island. Before I could begin shooting, though, I needed to grab a work permit at the nearest border crossing. Americans can only work in Canada with a bona fide work permit signed by the ministry of labor or some such department. A PA (production assistant), Lyn, had been sent to the airport to pick me up and drive me to the border. Getting a work permit was a no-brainer. I’d picked up at least ten of them over the years as movie and television production “ran away” to Canada, where the greenback went a lot further.

Lyn and I reached the border late Sunday afternoon and ran inside the office to pay the small fee and pick up the permit. There was a cute twentysomething brunette on the other side of the counter and I thanked the stars above that I wouldn’t have to face some grumpy old border guard with stale breath. Little did I know that the stars hanging over me that day were not my lucky ones. I sauntered up to the pretty agent in her crisp black uniform, handed her my passport, and announced with a smile that I was Harry Hamlin and that I was there to pick up my work permit for Harper’s Island. That’s when those stars began falling from the sky.

The girl gazed at me through a pair of red-rimmed plastic glasses, cocked her head slightly, and gave me a quizzical look as though she recognized me. But it was not the kind of look an actor gets from a fan who can’t quite place the famous face, it was more like she was remembering me from a Ten Most Wanted poster hanging in the back office. She quickly began barking out questions with a snarl.

“Where exactly is Harper’s Island?” she asked.

I said that I didn’t know, it probably didn’t exist in real life, it was a TV show.

“What kind of work are you looking to do?” she barked again.

I told her that I was an actor.

“Do you have your paperwork?” she demanded.

“What paperwork?” I asked.

She looked at me like I was a terrorist. “You need your proof of education and your signed contract,” she responded, not looking at me but leafing through my passport in search of stamps from Afghanistan or Pakistan, or some other “-stan.”

I told her that the permit was already in the computer and that everything had been prearranged and that all she had to do was type in my name and Harper’s Island and I should be able to pay the $135

Canadian and be on my way. “Not so fast!” she barked again. “That’s not how it works. You need your paperwork. You need your proof of education and your signed contract.”

I explained that I did not have a signed contract because I had just been hired and had not even seen a contract. I asked her what exactly she meant by “proof of education.”

She said, “Why, your diploma, of course,” as though I was the town idiot, which, at that point, I would have settled for.

I told her that I had graduated from Yale in theatre arts some thirty-five years ago and that any diploma I might have had was long since dust but that she should feel free to look me up on IMDb, where my entire pre- and postgraduate history is located.

She looked me in the eye and said with pursed lips, “That’s not how it works here. If you cannot produce proof of education, at the very least I’ll need a signed contract.”

At this point, Lyn and I were going nuts. How could this pretty little thing be such a bitch? What had I done to create this madness?

I once again explained that there was no signed contract and that if she would just type my name into the computer, the permit would probably pop up preapproved. She starred at me as though I was deaf. “I need your signed contract or I can’t let you into the country. That’s all there is to it.”

Then Lyn, who was fit to be tied (I love that expression — fit to be tied! The picture it conjures up is good. There is Lyn, hog-tied and gagged, squirming around and squealing on the floor of the customs house!!), slid a call sheet in front of Miss Lunatic Customs Agent and said, “Look! There’s Mr. Hamlin’s name on this call sheet. He has to be at work at six. There’s the name and phone number of the production company. Please just look for the permit in the system.”

Miss Godzilla Face looked at the call sheet, looked up into Lyn’s blue eyes, seemed to soften momentarily, and said, “Oh, why didn’t you show me this before.” And looking straight at Lyn, not at me, she said, “I think I can work with this.” That’s when it hit me. There was a kind of “I know you’d rather be wearing your keys on your belt” moment between them and I knew why I was in such deep weeds but I could not imagine how deep those weeds would get within a matter of minutes.

It seemed then as though all was well. Ms. “I’ll show you who’s got more power in this room than you” had found the permit in the computer and was just about to sign off on it when she looked up at me one more time, clearly thinking something very sinister. She grabbed my passport and a couple of forms and asked me to take a seat as she headed through a rear door. As she disappeared she said, “I just have to check on something.” I sat down, thoroughly frustrated.

It had now been almost two hours since we started on this work permit saga. I was tired and hungry and fit to be tied. (So now I’m there, too, hog-tied and gagged, squealing and squirming on the customs house floor.) Twenty minutes later she reemerged with a smug little smirk on her face. “Mr. Hamlin, would you step to the counter, please?” came the familiar bark. As she looked down at a fresh printout, she asked in a deliberate and controlled tone, “So, tell me about these narcotics convictions.”

Apparently the new piece of paper was the result of a rarely performed “deep background” check. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she asked me that question. I laughed incredulously. “Excuse me? Narcotics convictions? I don’t have any narcotics convictions.”

“Well, it says right here you were arrested for felony possession of narcotics in San Francisco on November 30, 1970, and then again on June 4, 1973, in East Hampton, New York.”

Suddenly a time vortex opened up before me. My ears started buzzing and the back of my neck dripped with sweat. I had not thought about those things in almost forty years. I stammered a response, desperately trying to explain what had happened all those decades ago.

“As you may know,” Miss Pig Face said, “Canada refuses entry to any criminals who have felonies on their records.” She went on to say that if those convictions were for marijuana, it would not be a problem, but since my arrests were for felony drug possession and since they were still unresolved, she had no choice but to assume that I was a convicted felon and should be refused entry into Canada — permanently.

I was speechless. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. “Refused entry permanently!!” But my kids are in Canada ... my wife, all my stuff, the cabin! My father and grandmother are buried there. Harper’s Island! The director! The job! I was being deported — for good and just because some obscure forty-year-old records were incomplete. I knew I had to do something fast or I was screwed.

I pointed out that if she looked at my passport, she would see that at least four previous work permits had been attached to that document in the last ten years and that all of those were issued to me since the supposed criminal activity nearly four decades ago. I also pointed out that I lived for six weeks of the year in Canada and had come from and gone into the country at least a hundred times over the past forty years and had never been refused entry before. She gave me that smug look again and said that people had not been doing their job before and that she was damn well going to do hers.

Lyn and I were tearing out our hair. All I could think about was my wife and daughters, abandoned on a lonely Canadian island. Lyn was freaking out about the show. Her sole responsibility had been to deliver me to the set, and here we were, trapped in a customs house on the border.

“OK,” Little Red Glasses said, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time.” And she began typing away on her keyboard and explained that if I ever wanted to reenter Canada, I would have to carry with me sworn affidavits from the courts in San Francisco and East Hampton that I was not a convicted felon. All of these instructions were being furiously typed into my passport record so that the next uniformed power tripper would be sure to spot me for the felon I was.

But — she was giving me the “benefit of the doubt” this time and letting me work. She told me

to take my forms to the cashier, pay the $135 Canadian, and go to work. She said all that with a smile as though nothing unusual had just happened.

That was a year ago. As I said, I really don’t like to work in August. I prefer catchin’ frogs and fishin’ with my kids. Although I hired a lawyer to deal with the narcotics/Canadian border problem, it seems there are no records available from either court to prove one way or the other whether I’m a convicted felon. That means I may never be able to go to Canada again — or anywhere outside the U.S., for that matter. The decision to work that August was probably a mistake, mainly because I am now as good as a twice-convicted felon in the eyes of the vast computer system that tracks travelers worldwide. Harry Hamlin the grizzled felon! How could this happen? What winding road led to my criminal future? Where had my life gone so wrong?

Excerpted from “Full Frontal Nudity: The Making of an Accidental Actor” by Harry Hamlin. Copyright © 2010 by Harry Hamlin. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.