"If I’d been overestimated," says George Hamilton, photographed July 10 at his home in Los Angeles, "I may not have  made it in the first place." 
"If I’d been overestimated," says George Hamilton, photographed July 10 at his home in Los Angeles, "I may not have made it in the first place."
Sally Peterson

George Hamilton Beyond the Tan: At 80, Hollywood’s Ultimate Showman Looks Back on Scandals, Trump Ties and "The Joke Being on Me"

He's starred opposite Lana Turner and Brigitte Bardot, dated Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and a first daughter, made dozens of films (a couple of them good), befriended Imelda Marcos, and now he's taking stock of a remarkable life as a showbiz bon vivant.

George Hamilton doesn't mind if you lead with his tan. As he embarks on his ninth decade — he turns 80 on Aug. 12 — the actor and avatar of ease knows that his hue is what has made him an icon. Also a durable punchline. While he's the first to laugh about it — explaining that his dermatologist long ago "just gave up" on convincing him to limit his solar exposure, and counting himself lucky not to have been felled by skin cancer — he remains an evangelist for sunbathing, which he started because he didn't like wearing film makeup that melted in the heat.

Hamilton, who once received an honorary degree from the International Smart Tan Network, a trade association for indoor tanning facilities, that he still prominently displays, says vitamin D is "a healer for me." These days, though, to maintain his mahogany effect, he relies on a vintage stash of George Hamilton's Constant Color auto-bronzing tinted cream, which he once peddled on QVC.

He's uniquely qualified to assess the country's only better-known perma-tanner, Donald Trump. "I think he slops bronzer on and hopes it'll last till the evening — easy to put on, probably a spray tan: less fussy and camera-ready," says Hamilton, whom Trump once employed as a host of Miss Universe and later bestowed with a Lifetime Achievement Award for "debonair style."

For anyone seeking more than skin-deep analysis of the president, Hamilton is not your man. He says he hasn't voted in his life and believes it's irresponsible for actors, who "have no qualifications," to express opinions on such matters. "They're given an unusual amount of credibility," he says. "A lot of young actors do it and they shouldn't. The political [people] are happy to use your persona. I think it's unfair to the voter." (Still, this belief didn't stop him from discussing gun rights on a 2016 Fox & Friends appearance to announce his new gig as KFC's "Extra Crispy" Colonel.)

That said, Hamilton keeps a Make America Great Again cap in the corner of his living room, which Trump, with whom he has mutual Palm Beach pals, gifted him at a campaign rally the actor says he happened into at Trump Tower. The president, he says, "was always a performer in his own mind" — like Hamilton himself.

Though his more than 60 film roles include Evel Knievel, Hank Williams and the consigliere in The Godfather: Part III ("Unfortunately, I wasn't in the better ones"), Hamilton's best character has always been George Hamilton. Long before it became axiomatic for actors to leverage their personal brands, Hamilton understood that his persona was matinee idol. (One who did an awful lot of TV.) He's parlayed his shtick into one of Hollywood's remarkably long-lasting careers — including as pitchman and owner of eponymous cigar lounges — outlasting stretches when the acting offers dried up. Now one of the last remaining products of the old studio system still actively working, he offers a singular perspective on a transforming industry.

Hamilton remains vigorous, in all connotations. His trainer has him boxing. His vitamin intake includes 40 pills a day. "It's off the rails," he admits. He's developing two films and a TV series as a producer out of a well-staffed office suite in Beverly Glen, where he first invites THR to meet him, taking a seat beneath a large chalk pastel portrait of his more youthful self. His current projects include a sequel to his star turn as Dracula in the hit 1979 romantic comedy Love at First Bite ("As long as I'm alive, I can play that guy; the more befuddled I might become, the better") as well as a drama about the life and 1970 disappearance of his friend Sean Flynn, son of Errol. And while Hamilton, who dated the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Danielle Steel and Britt Ekland, isn't currently romantically attached, he's quick to qualify: "I have dates." Indeed, it was on the way to a dinner rendezvous a few months ago at industry hangout Craig's — a regular spot where he can often be found with pals Robert Wagner, Tom Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvie Vartan — that he and a companion ended up in a Bentley-on-Bentley wreck. Luckily, they were unscathed.

He replaced his totaled Continental GT with an identical model: "That car was elegant in a fistfight, and I liked that."

***

On the Texas set of Hamilton's 1960 breakout, Vincente Minnelli's Home From the Hill, a boy asked co-star George Peppard if Peppard was a movie star. The Method-trained thespian replied that, actually, he was an actor. Then the kid turned to Hamilton and wondered if he, too, was an actor. Hamilton responded that, in fact, he was a movie star.

While Hamilton had said it to razz Peppard, he realized he meant it. He was a fervid soldier at MGM's backlot boot camp, where he'd honed the all-purpose practical arts: fencing, riding, shooting and whatever else might be needed in everything from comedies to Westerns. ("To this day, I can take a bullwhip," he boasts, "and cut a cigarette in half.") More crucially, Hamilton — armed with good looks, easy charm and a given name so WASPy it almost seemed a put-on — couldn't have been more game to participate in what would prove to be the old studio publicity machine.

"I just played into it," Hamilton says, grinning. "They did all the lying." In conjuring his playboy image, MGM manufactured an old-money background. In reality, he spent his teen years on the edge of real wealth in Palm Beach and attending the tony New York prep school Hackley for a short spell alongside true blue-blooded best buddy Herb Allen, the financier scion now famed for his Sun Valley mogul conference. ("He knew he was going to inherit the earth; I only knew I was going to pretend I was going to do it.")

Friend of six decades Joan Collins doesn't think it's all a put-on. Or, at any rate, he became who he was feigning to be. "George was urbane and charming by the time I met him when he was 20 years old," she says. "Very elegantly dressed and able to make you laugh: You can't say that of many people."

Hamilton's no crank about the good old days. But he does relish how, once upon a time in Hollywood, contrivance was an inalienable right. He deplores the cult of authenticity that has overtaken the town since his heyday. "Everybody has to be 'real,' " he says, spitting the word. "That's not the purpose of being here. It's invention."

***

Hamilton credits his larger-than-life Southern belle socialite mother, Anne, known as Teeny, and nine-years-older gay half brother Bill as defining influences. They'd brought him and younger sibling David from small-town Arkansas to Beverly Hills when George was 7. Teeny was escaping Hamilton's father, a philandering bandleader. Both mother and brother harbored dreams of stardom.

The family settled into a house along the upper residential stretch of Rodeo Drive, where by Hamilton's account they entertained the likes of Clark Gable, whose supposedly false teeth were "all I could look at," and Gloria Swanson ("Very strong-minded. She'd say things like, 'I'll poison myself if I wish!' "). He soaked it up. His takeaway was Teeny's and Bill's devout commitment to glamour as a way of life: "It took the mundane out of the world."

Brother David, whom Hamilton frequently visits in Palm Beach, describes the perspective that Teeny and Bill shared as "a philosophy of optimism, a looking for the best out of life, to make it adventurous rather than dull." While never poor, mother and brothers were at times broke — which they saw as temporary, "a bad hand in a poker game" — as Teeny teetered from one supportive suitor to the next. (Merv Griffin labored for years to turn Hamilton's early life into a film, finally released in 2009 as My One and Only, with Renée Zellweger as Teeny and Logan Lerman playing 15-year-old Hamilton.)

The serene relationship Hamilton possesses with artifice was, however, not passed on to his own children. When shooting a Kardashians-knockoff reality show for E! in 2015 called Stewarts & Hamiltons (it lasted a single season), he found that his grown sons — Ashley, an actor, musician and comedian, and George Jr., a college student — didn't share his equanimity about self-caricature. "The joke being on me," says George, smiling. "I've long been OK with that."

Hamilton contends it was for Teeny and Bill as much as himself that, at the age of 28, he bought the 36-room Grayhall in Beverly Hills, where Douglas Fairbanks once lived. He purchased the storied mansion with money earned off movies co-starring Olivia de Havilland, Brigitte Bardot and Lana Turner, films that not only were successful but had given Hamilton a real shot at critical approval — one he never appears to have been interested in. (The lauded French director Louis Malle, who cast him for 1965's Viva Maria!, once sighed, "He's more interested in being in the social columns — I don't understand — when he should be one of the greatest of his generation.")

Hamilton enjoyed the "huge pleasure" of lording over his estate, yet in time it became a burden. "A property like that brings you friends you don't want and relatives who come to stay and don't go," he says. "You become a custodian, arriving home at night and seeing 15 people for dinner and thinking, 'What am I doing?' " Later, when Hamilton married model-actress Alana Stewart and sold the place, Teeny and Bill sued him for financial support, arguing that his subsidizing of their lifestyle had, in effect, saved his life by precluding him from serving in Vietnam.

Hamilton's draft deferment had in fact been granted on the grounds that he was the sole financial provider for Teeny — which prompted an outcry when the public learned he was dating Lynda Bird Johnson in 1966. He brought the then-22-year-old presidential daughter to the Academy Awards that year. ("When I took out Woodrow Wilson's daughter, they didn't make such a fuss," presenter Milton Berle joked.)

While the actor insists his relationship with Lyndon Johnson was warm, recalling intimate family gatherings as well as a watch the commander in chief gifted him, behind the scenes there was trouble. The president — apparently skeptical of this movieland slickster — had his longtime fixer turned Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas spearhead an off-the-books FBI probe into Hamilton's personal life. The inquiry, whose machinations became public only five years ago, turned up nothing that could potentially be weaponized except that Bill was gay. Still, in that era, the budding romance was reckoned untenable because of the potential for scandal. "It was a bad time," Hamilton says of the saga, his voice soft. He broke up with the first daughter not long afterward. They've remained friends.

***

On another day, reclining on the cream sofa in the Wilshire Corridor high-rise condo where he's lived since 2008, his untucked dress shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel, Hamilton is expansive. On how a career in Hollywood is like gambling: "You've got to be a little bit foolish about the way you play." On his empathetic nature: "I don't believe I'm cerebral about my heart." And on how he's been grateful to be dismissed as a talking mannequin: "If I'd been overestimated, I may not have made it in the first place."

He's a vivid storehouse of alert detail. Yet when inquiry turns to pricklier matters, memory blurs.

A decade ago, he talked in swashbuckling terms about an affair with his stepmother, June Howard, a onetime singer in his father's big band. She'd initiated it when George was living in Manhattan for a stretch as a preteen with his father, by then working as a high-ranking executive at Elizabeth Arden. When they were together, "Her pelvis would arrive across the room before the rest of her," Hamilton once volunteered. In his 2008 memoir, Don't Mind If I Do, he called the experience "my own sexual bar mitzvah." But now, post-#MeToo reckoning, there's no romance to molestation, and he'll speak of the perpetrator only elliptically, if still sympathetically, as a discontented housewife, "slightly off, quite beautiful too."

(Though Hamilton is all for gender parity in the industry, he doesn't retreat from his past description of himself as "an enlightened male chauvinist," the kind who once issued such wisdom in a self-help book as "Women are like a fine violin: They just need to be appreciated and bowed properly.")

Hamilton is hard to pin down on the least-fun scandal of his life, the Justice Department's accusation that he was a front for the 1980s looting of the Philippine treasury at the hands of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Hamilton, an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, was granted immunity at the trial. He made headlines testifying that he'd received a multimillion-dollar loan from a Marcos associate that he'd used for a Beverly Hills mansion (later repossessed by the Manila government) and financed an ill-fated film about Gen. Douglas MacArthur's wartime experiences in the region. When asked about it now, he blinks in apparent bewilderment then goes, "Federal case?"

Hamilton, who befriended Imelda when he participated in her country's attempt to create a Southeast Asian answer to Cannes, has remained a fan of the notorious spendthrift. He believes her to be a misunderstood humanitarian — she personally phoned Cedars-Sinai when Hamilton's brother Bill lay dying, startling the nurse on duty, a Filipina, into taking special care — and that the focus on her enormous shoe collection is "a big to-do about nothing. They're thought to be an extravagance, but, as my mother said, those are the kind of shoes they make out of a material to match the dress: not the greatest shoes on Earth."

Another longtime party pal, arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, was indicted in the same transaction. "I just knew him as an amazing character and never did any form of business of any kind with Adnan," explains Hamilton. "He was an impish, elfish, humorous person — always very nice. He wanted stars around him. It was his world." (Both Khashoggi and Marcos were later acquitted.) As for why he consorted with the Marcoses in the first place, given that Ferdinand had placed the country under martial law a decade earlier, he claims he was naive at the time of what he chalks up to broadly as "unrest in the country."

Hamilton's at his most forthright when describing the emotional bond he shares with his loved ones, such as ex-wife Stewart. It was his only marriage; the two separated in 1976 after four years together. Though she would go on to marry and divorce Rod Stewart, she and Hamilton remain close. They had a short-lived mid-'90s morning syndicated talk show, George & Alana, which competed with Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. "He'd always be very warm and outgoing," Stewart remembers, adding: "I don't think he understood that it's the guests who were supposed to talk on the talk show."

Then again, Hamilton does have more stories than most. Like about how he got a look at Elvis Presley in his coffin before his funeral (the rocker's manager, Col. Parker, was a close friend) and saved mourners a lamentable final impression by pointing out the tiny trickle of hair dye running down his forehead. Or watching his then-girlfriend Elizabeth Taylor — aboard Khashoggi's yacht (later sold to Trump) — in a face-to-face showdown with a tabloid photographer brought on board whose roll of negatives of her topless she'd gotten ahold of. "She looked at it," Hamilton recalls, "looked at it sideways, and said, 'Well, this looks rather good. Let him publish it.' And she just handed it to him and everybody went, 'phew.' "

He's clearly pleased to have so many tales to tell. But these days, as his life arcs through its final act, and so many of the fellow players who shared in those stories with him are gone, Hamilton acknowledges a certain wistfulness.

"It's not depression," he says. "It's melancholy. It's like the feeling of bubbles in champagne."

***

Brand Hamilton

From bronzer to fried chicken, the actors has proved that skin really does sell. 

George Hamilton still acts — for the past few seasons as Spencer Blitz on ABC's American Housewife. He's a utility player in the reality sphere, from Dancing With the Stars (eliminated in the sixth week of the second season) and Wife Swap to I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. He's an active producer. He's an author, every so often, of fizzy ghostwritten books.

And, perennially, Hamilton is a pitchman. Early on, he cashed in on his nickname, The Tanned One, with the George Hamilton Sun Care System during the late 1980s that at one point was sold exclusively at Neiman Marcus. Marketed as a "secret formula," it included a self-tanning exfoliating scrub and bronzer. More recently, as a spokesman, he has hawked the vitamin supplement Youth Infusion as well as another anti-aging formula, Renuva.

Yet as a peddler, his most prominent pop culture moment has been his big-budget commercial turns as the KFC Colonel, appearing on a branded yacht cruising through crystal-clear skies, talking up a double-breaded chicken sandwich that's "extra-crispy, like me." (Hamilton says he dug deep on the role, recalling meeting Colonel Harland Sanders when the two crossed paths while both were handling respective press duties at an Ohio radio station four decades ago.) 

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.