‘My Divorce Lawyer Is on Speed Dial’: The Wild Life of Harry Hamlin, the Not-So Quiet Real Housewives’ Husband
Harry Hamlin talks candidly about making gay movie history, his marriage to Lisa Rinna, his daughter’s eating disorder, and filming “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” his way.
Picture Harry Hamlin, L.A. Law star—and latterly Real Housewives of Beverly Hills husband—as a momentarily terrified accomplice to a Hell’s Angel biker in a California forest cloaked in darkness.
He was 18. It was 1970. He had grown up wanting to be an architect and intended to study environmental design at UC Berkeley. He had set off to register for classes there.
En route, at a party, he met a girl whose family had built a cluster of beautifully constructed treehouses in La Honda, California. State troopers and rangers had just evicted a group of hippies, Hell’s Angels, and members of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters from the structures. Now that they were vacated, she, Hamlin, and a group of others went to see them.
“We cooked spaghetti around the fire, had wine, had a guitar, sang songs, and then,” Hamlin recalled, “we heard a huge roar in the forest clearing. It was a Hell’s Angel on a Harley Davidson, a big guy with a beard. “Hey, anybody got a wrench?’ he said. “We were all terrified. We were just kids going to college for the first time.”
Hamlin had a wrench in his toolbox. The imposing biker took Hamlin to one of the treehouses and started whacking one of its drainage pipes with the wrench. “Out comes a huge package of blue pills,” Hamlin recalled. ‘“The cops came last week and we had to throw this shit down the sink,’ the guy said. ‘Thanks for the wrench, now open your mouth.’ Whatever those blue pills were, let’s just say for the next two days I was otherwise engaged, tripping off my face. I spent a couple of days in the ferns with the butterflies.”
Hamlin did eventually get to Berkeley, but was too late to sign up for its environmental design school. Instead, he enrolled in its drama program and planned to return to environmental design later. But part of his course was having to audition for plays. Good reviews led to bigger roles, and so his life course was reset—“until my sophomore year, when I got kicked out of Berkeley for running a brothel, even though I wasn’t officially kicked out, and I wasn’t running a brothel.”
Hamlin, now 68, laughed at how absurd that sounded, but he is the living embodiment of the saying “It’s always the quiet ones.” We met—him dressed all in black, lean, with a swooshing crown of salt and pepper hair—over a delicious lunch of (for him) iced tea, beef and barley soup, and chicken Milanese at Vice Versa restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. The wild tales had only just begun.
“I said to Lisa, ‘You can’t do this. Everybody who does that show gets divorced’”
Bravo viewers may see Hamlin shuffling around the background of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and think he is just the amiable, somewhat detached other half of premium firecracker Lisa Rinna, happily detached from the bitching and lunacy around him.
But Hamlin’s dramatic life has run the gamut of starring in Making Love (1982), a history-making gay movie, to TV stardom in L.A. Law, and now a passionate dedication to developing nuclear fusion technology—as well as trying to avoid the diamanté-studded shrapnel of Dorit, Erika Jayne, and co.
Hamlin has had a son with movie star Ursula Andress, has two daughters with Rinna who are supermodels, and talked passionately for two hours about watching one suffer from an eating disorder, homophobia in Hollywood, his love for Rinna, and a tumultuous professional and personal life befitting an actor who rebelled against the roadmap Hollywood laid out for him.
Hamlin is presently enjoying being back on stage, alongside Stefanie Powers, in Joshua Ravetch’s off-Broadway play One November Yankee (at 59E59 Theaters, to Dec. 29), both of them playing three very different sets of brothers and sisters around the carcass of a crashed plane. He first performed the piece with Loretta Swit in 2012.
Both he and Powers are ’80s TV icons, she for Hart to Hart and he for L.A. Law. “I never watched Hart to Hart, and I don’t think she ever watched L.A. Law,” said Hamlin, laughing.
“My home is on the stage, it always has been,” he said. “I’m very comfortable on stage and much less comfortable on a soundstage, where there’s a lot of waiting around. Really, one of the most boring things to do is be a film actor. There’s an excitement about being on stage present with an audience in the moment.”
On The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Hamlin is there and not really there. He is not on screen as much as the other husbands, and when he is, he appears to be a super-quiet, conflict-averse presence.
“It’s totally deliberate,” he told The Daily Beast. “They were not going to hire Lisa if I didn’t do it, and the husbands have the same obligations as the wives do. They want you to show up and be involved. I said I wasn’t going to do that. So we concocted a way to get around it.”
The first night of Rinna’s filming was at Lisa Vanderpump’s Pump restaurant, said Hamlin. They filmed her there for hours, waiting for Hamlin to fly in from Vancouver, where he was making a movie. He arrived hours late and then refused to sign the contract he was asked to sign. But by that time “they had shot all this great stuff with Lisa. They had to shoot me without me signing a release.”
So, we see you as much as you want to be seen?
“Exactly. I don’t have to do any of it. Sometimes Lisa will say to me, ‘They’re begging me to have a scene with you. If we give them that I get brownie points.’”
When Rinna first came to Hamlin and said she was thinking about doing the show, Hamlin said, “I have my divorce lawyer on speed dial, and I do.” (Hamlin was smiling as he said this, but proffered his phone toward me, as if to show how serious he was.) “I have had three opportunities to use him; once with Ursula, and two of my ex-wives. It’s the same guy every time. We send Christmas cards to each other every year. I said to Lisa, ‘You can’t do this. Everybody who does that show gets divorced. It’s a horrible, horrible thing, to do that show.’”
Rinna asked Hamlin to talk to her friend Bethenny Frankel, who had made millions from her Skinnygirl brand and who was the queen bee of the New York housewives’ franchise until announcing her departure from the show following the end of the most recent season.
Hamlin and Rinna have their own clothing brand, “and so Bethenny convinced me from a branding point of view it would be a good thing to do. Then I was open to doing it on my own terms,” he said.
Hamlin says all the drama is real and unscripted. After every show, “I pull out my psychology degree from Yale and my DSM-5 manual, and we see what all the personality disorders are blossoming and figure out how to deal with all the personalities, and what Lisa can do to stay above the fray.”
He is not close to any of the other husbands, except Mauricio Umansky, Kyle Richards’ other half: “We say hi and hug each other.” As for the volcanic departure of Lisa Vanderpump from the RHOBH franchise, Hamlin said, “I’ve always been very fond of Lisa and [her husband] Ken [Todd]. I’m very fond of them both, and delighted by them both, whatever issues they had with other people.”
Hamlin talks with genuine pride and admiration, and love, for his wife. “I have seen her over the last 26 or 27 years get involved in any number of projects—soap operas, TV movies, clothing stores, clothing lines. Whatever it is, she figures out how to do it perfectly, rises to the top, and makes the best of every situation.
“We listen to each other. Really listen to each other. The thing about listening is that it’s not something that comes innately to human beings. Normally we have a tape playing in our heads all the time. It can be hard to allow what other people are saying actually in. That’s what Lisa and I do—we listen. And she’s smart, she’s the smartest person I have ever met. She’s smart as a whip. Our favorite thing is to hang out.”
On the show, she calls him “Harry Hamlin.” Is that what she calls him at home? Hamlin laughed. “No. I don’t know where that came from. No, she does not say, ‘Harry Hamlin, put the toilet seat down.’ I am ‘Harry’ at home.” He laughed. “I think she is trying to keep my career alive when she says that, to make sure people know who she is talking about. She is reminding people I’m still alive as an actor.”
Rinna and Hamlin have two daughters, Delilah Belle Hamlin, 21, and Amelia Gray Hamlin, 18. Both well-known models, they have huge social media followings and recently launched the DNA by LA Collective athleisure line. Amelia was praised for being open about suffering from an eating disorder—which also emerged as a piercing moment amid the fluff of an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
“It was very strong of her to do that,” Hamlin told The Daily Beast. “I was absolutely proud of her. She’s quite a person. She’s this force of nature. I don’t know where that came from but it did…” From both you and Rinna, I suggested. “From Lisa, anyway,” Hamlin said. “Amelia went through it for sure. No question. She had written her seventh- or eighth-grade paper on body image. She was very aware of that. A year later, two years later, she got hooked by it. We’re not sure if it was full blown anorexia nervosa.
“She lost a lot of weight. She saw a picture of herself that she didn’t think was flattering and freaked out. She lost 40 pounds in a couple of months. The first thing that the specialist we took her to at UCLA said was, ‘You’re one of strongest people I have ever met. To have the discipline it takes to lose that much weight that quickly takes great dedication.’”
I asked Hamlin what it was like to see Amelia in a state of such suffering in front of him.
“Horrifying. A lot of things happen when you lose that much weight. You lose your hair and your body suffers in other ways because it’s undernourished. I didn’t feel helpless, I knew there was help out there, that there were places we could go to seek help, and we did and found the right places to go. I was confident it was not going to affect her for the rest of her life. I knew she was strong enough to figure it out and get through it.”
His daughters are building an impressive professional portfolio at such a young age.
“They seem to be well-adjusted, although God knows what that is,” said Hamlin, with a chuckle. “They’re pretty present for kids their age, pretty in the moment, and I think the credit should go to their mother, who is dedicated to being present.” Hamlin is being modest. He said that when the girls were born he had vowed that he wouldn’t ever be away from home for longer than 10 days while they were living at home—and he has stuck to that. They moved out three weeks ago, and now he and Rinna face an empty nest.
“I didn’t grow up with my son, Dimitri [by Ursula Andress],” who grew up in Rome with his mother while Hamlin was in the U.S., his time with his son regulated by the courts. “Any son who doesn’t grow up with his father has issues,” said Hamlin. “You can’t grow up without having a dad and not have that affect your life.”
With his daughters, Hamlin said he had resolved, “I’m gonna stay here to put them to bed every night, be here to do homework with them, go see their dance recitals, plays, and all that.” Hamlin’s relationship with Dimitri, now 39, is now “great,” said Hamlin.
Three of his significant partners, including Rinna (Melrose Place) have been soap opera stars. Laura Johnson (his wife from 1985 to 1989) was on Falcon Crest. Nicollette Sheridan (Knots Landing) and Hamlin were married for only one year, from 1991 to 1992, the relationship “going south, very quickly and thankfully,” he said.
Hamlin wonders if the “distorted view of the world” working on a soap can bring provides a certain kind of real-world entertainment, although “‘entertaining’ can go to ‘dark’ very quickly.” Of his exes, he has only stayed friends, he said, with Andress.
“I was not a bully. I got bullied. I did everything by the rules”
Hamlin grew up in Pasadena. He was asked to leave his fourth-grade school. “I was not a rabble-rouser at all. I was the sweetest. I was not a bully, I got bullied. I did everything by the rules.”
But at 10 or 11, a friend whose father had been a soldier in World War II invited Hamlin to see his father’s collection of memorabilia taken from German soldiers “he had dispatched.” That included a copy of Mein Kampf, which a young Hamlin—not knowing of its importance—wrote a book report about for a teacher who, he later discovered, had survived a Nazi concentration camp.
Hamlin was asked never to return to that school, and his parents never told him about what had happened. “I put one and one together. I was a very scared child. I had an older brother who pounded on me. I was not very outgoing, or academic. All my report cards from fifth grade are just D’s and F’s.” Hamlin did like to create war games, which kids in the neighborhood played.
His father, Chauncey Jerome Hamlin Jr., was an aeronautical engineer, “before the term ‘rocket scientist’ had been invented,” developing the engine which would evolve into the F-1 that first took astronauts to the moon. That work meant his father was absent much of the time. Hamlin’s mother Berniece “was a drinker. She drank a pitcher-full of Martini and smoked a pack of Kent cigarettes every day during her pregnancy with me. I don’t think about my childhood much. Everyone around me when I was a kid has died [including two brothers, Rinna once intimated on RHOBH of alcohol-related issues].”
After that encounter with the Hell’s Angel, and once he had stopped tripping and arrived at Berkeley, Hamlin didn’t like the cramped dorm room he had been allotted and found a big fraternity house near campus with a “for rent” sign on its door.
The house, unknown to the authorities, had young women staying there—“and we had a higher grade average than other houses because they worked hard,” recalled Hamlin.
Everything was fine until a house fire that winter led to the fire department evacuating the house, including its female occupants. By this time, Hamlin was president of Berkeley’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and his name appeared in subsequent newspaper headlines. “The first national press I ever had in my life was, ‘Harry Hamlin Runs Brothel in Berkeley,’” he recalled.
Ronald Reagan was then the governor of California “and had already called Berkeley a denizen of depravity,” said Hamlin. At the time, he said he and the other members of the house should remain defiant. The then-dean of Berkeley, while accepting there was nothing the university could officially do (the house was private property), requested that Hamlin “in the strongest possible terms” not re-enroll the following year. He transferred to Yale.
“What has my life become that I am sitting next to Ursula Andress, barreling around the streets of Rome?”
In 1976, in his first major role, Hamlin performed in an American Conservatory Theater production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, playing the screwed-up Alan Strang. “It was an unbelievable play to do. There was just one little thing…” He smiled. Ah, I said, the nudity? “Yes, the director didn’t want us [Hamlin and his female co-star] to take our clothes off on stage until opening night.”
Off-stage, waiting for the first time to do it, he sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to himself to build confidence. When the moment came he was aware of “3,200 sets of eyeballs” looking down at his crotch, as well as the audience members sitting very close to him on bleachers on stage. He got on with it. “I did want them to turn the heat up,” he conceded.
Playing Perseus in Clash of The Titans (1981) made Hamlin a leading man and heartthrob for women and gay men. “It affected heterosexual men in a different, good way too,” said Hamlin. “They liked him. He was this hero and got to save the girl.”
Hamlin and Andress—who were together from 1979 to 1983—met on the movie. They had “a significant age difference,” Hamlin laughed—as I tried to find the polite way of addressing it—of 14 years.
“My parents did a very odd thing when I was 11 or 12,” he said. “For Christmas they gave me a five-year subscription to Playboy. Under the Christmas tree one year is this magazine, with a message, ‘Congratulations on your five-year subscription to Playboy.’ I never asked them why me and not my brother, who was two years older than me. My only guess is they thought I may be gay. I don’t know that. I was a cherubic young boy. I never complained about it. It made the 15th of every month extraordinary for me for a few years. That was the day when the magazine arrived in the mail.”
Andress was in one of the first issues the young Hamlin received. “I have to say it was beautiful photograph. I’ll never forget it. It was of Ursula in a waterfall naked. Obviously, I’d seen her in [the James Bond movie] Dr. No.”
At a supper with his Clash of the Titans co-stars, who included Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, Hamlin was seated next to Andress. They chatted. One night, at 3 a.m., his Rome hotel phone rang. It was Andress, who told him, “I had a dream about you,” and that her home was near his hotel.
She suggested they have breakfast, then visit a flea market that had been a topic of discussion at dinner. “She had a blue metallic dune buggy that she rode around Rome in, and she wore a cowboy hat,” recalled Hamlin. “There was no way she could go around Rome without everybody looking at her. I thought, ‘What am I doing? What has my life become that I am sitting next to Ursula Andress barreling around the streets of Rome?’”
Their relationship began. Then, while attending the Cairo Film Festival on a special boat journey down the Nile, Andress told Hamlin, “Harry, I have to go back to Rome. I am late.” Hamlin looked down towards his stomach, as he recalled the moment. Andress was pregnant with Dimitri.
“That November I gathered my family in Pasadena together at Thanksgiving and told them, ‘I’m dating Ursula Andress, and we’re going to have a baby.’ My oldest brother, Clay, who was Ursula’s age and who always had this unbelievable crush on her—his jaw dropped. He was very jealous.”
Hamlin asked Andress to marry him. “She refused for tax reasons. We stayed together for four years on and off. She wanted to stay in Rome, and my career was in L.A.” Hamlin was offered another movie, Nightwing, “about bats terrorizing a small town in the Midwest.” Then he was offered “a huge contract” by Warner Brothers.
“I never wanted to be a movie star, and Hollywood was trying desperately to make me into one. I turned down the biggest contract Warner Brothers has ever given anybody. It was called ‘the Clint,’ because the last time anyone had had a contract given to them was Clint Eastwood. It was for a three-picture deal. The money was amazing.”
Hamlin recalled the meeting with then-president of theatrical film production Robert Shapiro, the contract papers laid out on a table in a grand office.
Hamlin had been sent the scripts of the then-planned First Blood and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, “which would have had me as Tarzan swinging around naked in the jungle,” and hated them.
“Would you make me do a film if I didn’t want to?” Hamlin said he asked.
Shapiro said Hamlin would not be forced to do anything against his wishes. OK, Hamlin said, could they insert that clause into the contract? Shapiro refused the request.
“I knew there was something fishy going on there, so I said ‘thank you very much’ and walked out.” Shapiro, said Hamlin, told him that that he hoped they could still work together, but Hamlin didn’t set foot on the Warner lot for another 13 years, “and when I did it wasn’t for a movie.”
A more significant career-defining controversy was just around the corner, when Hamlin took on the role of Bart in Making Love, the first mainstream Hollywood drama with a gay thematic focus, featuring a historic screen kiss between Hamlin and co-star Michael Ontkean.
“I’m very proud of it,” said Hamlin. “In those days no one would touch that film with a 10-foot pole. But I always carry with me a certain degree of hubris. I’m not sure if it that has served me well or not. I loved the script. It was a story about the culture of that moment. Everyone warned me not to do it, except my agent, who was gay. He said, ‘You’re the only actor in this town who could get away with this because every day you’re in the tabloids with Ursula Andress, and everybody knows you’re not gay.’”
In 2019, social progress and identity politics have flipped the issue 360 degrees. The controversy now would be around whether straight actors should be playing LGBTQ roles. In 1982, the fear was around taking on a gay role, whatever your orientation (and there were no big-name out actors)—and what it could do to a career.
“My friends didn’t want me to do it,” said Hamlin. “I was warned against it by lot of people. Ursula didn’t care. I’m not sure she even knew about it. For better or worse, it was the last studio movie I ever made. That killed my career, totally killed it.”
But Hamlin does not mind. “To this day—it’s happened twice today—people come up to me on the street or in a store, and say, ‘Thank you for making that movie.’ Or, ‘Oh my God, that movie changed my life.”
Making Love: “At the time, I was a young leading man. Studios just couldn’t fathom having me paired up with a woman after that”
Hamlin and Ontkean told director Arthur Hiller they were fine with kissing each other, but, Hamlin said, “We said we would not fuck each other in bed, or do a love-making scene.”
Ontkean, said Hamlin, asked if they should rehearse the kiss.
“I said, ‘Mike, you know how to kiss?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I know how to kiss. In the script isn’t this the first time you have kissed a man? Wouldn’t this be great if on screen it was the first time you kissed a man?’ He said, ‘No, we should rehearse it.’ I said, ‘Mike, you rehearse with other people all you want. I will need to kiss you just one time. That’s it. Being heterosexual, the idea of kissing men is kind of an anathema to me.”
Had Hamlin ever had any kind of sexual experiences with men? I asked.
“No, the only time I kissed a man was that day,” he said.
And so, the big day of filming the kiss came. “This had never been done before on screen,” Hamlin recalled. “Sherry Lansing [then-president of 20th Century Fox], all the producers, writers, all the suits were there.
“I said, ‘Mike, this is my idea. Since your character has never done this before and is feeling trepidatious about it, why don’t we do it in a really romantic way?”
Hamlin now moved his head closer to mine as if he was Harry Hamlin and I, Michael Ontkean.
“We look at each other. Brush our lips, our mouth. No tongues. We kiss, the nicest, most tender kiss imaginable. We drown in that romantic kiss. Then, shoulder to shoulder, we head to the bedroom and do whatever we do next.”
Ontkean told Hamlin that sounded fine. When the moment came, Hiller shouted “Action!”
“Michael puts his hand behind my neck. He’s a little taller than I am. He comes in and puts his mouth over mine and shoves his tongue as far as can into my throat, the complete opposite of what we agreed on. I’m standing there. I do not flinch. ‘Act your way through this,’ I tell myself. ‘This is the biggest acting thing you’ve done in your life.’”
Hiller shouted, “Cut!”
Hamlin drew away. “I shouted at Michael, ‘I said no tongues allowed!’ Sherry Lansing was on the floor laughing. For the second take, I said to Michael, ‘Let’s go a little easier on the tongue action this time.’ It was the only time I had whisker burn. It means I do have great respect for women.” And smooth-shaven gay men, I said. “Yes, absolutely.”
That night, Hamlin said, screenwriter Barry Sandler and writer Scott Berg went to Santa Monica Boulevard and found (and paid) a couple of guys to film Making Love’s gay sex scene. “They looked like Michael and me,” said Hamlin. “The crew came back and filmed these two guys fucking in bed to approximate us. The two guys making love in the film are two random guys they picked up on the street.”
It’s true, you never see the men’s faces, just a blur of bodies and sheets. Why wouldn’t he and Ontkean film the scene themselves—they’re actors, after all? “No, the kiss was enough at that time. It was a huge thing for that point in history. It was just a step too far for me and Michael to do that.”
The effect on Hamlin’s career was immediate. These were homophobic times and about to become so much more homophobic, as HIV and AIDS entered the bigotry-dominated public discourse.
“At the time, I was a young leading man,” said Hamlin. “Young leading men oftentimes have young leading ladies. Studios just couldn’t fathom having me paired up with a woman after that. It didn’t seem right to them. I didn’t really know what was going on at the time. My agent would say, ‘It’s slow out there.” He was most upset (and is still today) by a review written by a film professor of his at Yale who derided both the movie, and Hamlin as a “male model.”
Hamlin was signed with CAA at the time. He did a Sidney Sheldon miniseries, Master of the Game, then a Hamlet at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, and then returned west to do another miniseries, Space, based on James A. Michener’s book.
He was also approached to play Orry Main in the miniseries of North and South, based on John Jakes’ Civil War trilogy. “They offered me so much money. My agent said, ‘You have to do it.’ I said, ‘I can’t. It’s stupid. I’m a student of history about the Civil War, and this is a Harlequin romance novel about one of the worst things that happened to this country.’” Patrick Swayze eventually took on the role.
“The blood was so poisoned by then,” as he put it. Hamlin left CAA.
“At the moment Making Love came out, Hollywood was totally homophobic,” Hamlin said. “Twelve years later, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia. Nobody had really heard of HIV when Making Love was released.” I asked if he and Ontkean were friends or in touch. “I’ve never seen him again,” said Hamlin, “and from what I understand he will not talk about it. He wants to erase it from his life.” (Ontkean reportedly tried to stop clips of the movie being shown in the 1995 documentary film derived from Vito Russo’s master work, The Celluloid Closet.)
Hamlin has no regrets about making Making Love.
“Think about what the life of what a movie star is like. George Clooney is a friend of mine. He can’t leave the house or go outside. Even if he went to the Solomon Islands, people would follow him there. It’s a very small life. You are chasing your own tail for the rest of your life trying to make a better movie than the the last one. It’s not my idea of fun.”
L.A. Law: “At the end of the first season, I went to renegotiate my contract. Steven Bochco told me to ‘Fuck off.’ Exact words”
Hamlin’s next chapter of fame, and professional upheaval, was about to unfold. The hit TV show L.A. Law made him internationally famous when it debuted in 1986. It also earned him three Golden Globe nominations. He “loved” his co-stars, although none of them “knew how famous we were,” he claimed. “They never gave us any fan mail. Once a quarter they would bring four or five letters and say, ‘Here is your fan mail.’ We were so busy we didn’t care.”
He found his character of lawyer Michael Kuzak to be too serious and tried to inject humor and irony into him, despite the producers’ and writers’ attempts to keep him serious. Aided by the crew, Hamlin made mischief by eating in as many office conference scenes as possible: strawberries and carrots, and one day when no foodstuff was at hand, his own fingernails.
Initially, he turned the role down. But his then-wife Johnson advised him to reconsider. Hamlin said he read (show co-creator) Terry Louise Fisher’s pilot script and was “blown away.” Yet he left the show after five (of its eight) seasons.
“When I first met [show co-creator] Steven Bochco, Kuzak was described as a fortysomething, overweight, myopic ex-footballer. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m kind of thin with a full head of hair.’ Steven said, ‘You could be him.’”
Money was the issue. Hamlin said he’d be making half what he usually did and asked for more. Bochco, he said, told him the show could be a flop and so he could go off and do something else. If it was a hit, there would be lots of money all around, and Hamlin could renegotiate his contract.
The show was a huge hit. “So at the end of the first season I went to renegotiate my contract. And Steven told me to ‘Fuck off.’ Exact words. I reminded him of what he had told me, and he said, ‘I never said that.’ It created really bad blood between us.”
Bochco told Hamlin he would not get a raise and said he could leave the show if he wanted. Bochco wouldn’t sue him if he did, he added. Hamlin said he loved the show, wouldn’t leave it, but would need to find other work. “He ended up never giving me a raise for the rest of the four years I was on that show. Everyone else on the show was given a raise except me. I was being paid three times less than Nicollette [Sheridan], who I was married to then and who was on Knots Landing.”
Hamlin recalled, “I said I would take less money if Steven would let me direct one show per season. He said no and that he never allowed actors in his shows to direct any of those shows. I said, ‘OK, I’m not coming back,’ and I left the show.”
Hamlin wrote to Bochco years later, after the producer said “something nice” about him at an awards show. Then Hamlin heard that people had asked Bochco what Hamlin was like to work with. “He would say, ‘Don’t work with him,’” Hamlin said, then paused. “He was a special kind of guy, that’s all I’ll say.” (Bochco died, aged 74, in April 2018.)
Much later, Hamlin’s casting on Mad Men (for which he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy) was a surprise—especially for series creator Matthew Weiner. “The casting directors snuck me in,” said Hamlin. “I don’t think Matt Weiner would have seen me if he knew I was coming in.” Hamlin didn’t get the role he auditioned for. Then Weiner called him to say he had in mind for the role of ad man Jim Cutler, whom Weiner described as “very continental.”
“I had no idea what that meant,” said Hamlin, “so I took it as a tabula rasa to make whatever character I wanted.”
Cutler disappeared from the show, so we never knew what happened to him, I said. Hamlin laughed. “I asked Matt the same thing. He said they were going to have me back for the final season but had run out of on-screen real estate. They only had only so many episodes to wrap up the stories of the other characters. Matt told me that Jim Cutler had gotten very, very rich, bought a yacht, and had spent the last few years sailing around the Mediterranean.”
On Shameless, 30-plus years after Making Love, Hamlin played gay again. “We had to wait for the younger actor to turn 18, or it would have been child porn, apparently,” said Hamlin, laughing. “It’s a very different climate and time to Making Love. It didn’t occur to me. I didn’t make any comparisons between them. It was a completely different character and time too.
“I’ve been asked to play gay so many times. I usually say no, but I really liked that Shameless character. I was asked to play a gay man on the final episode of Cheers, and I said no. I am the go-to guy for casting directors looking for someone to play lawyers, gay guys, and movie stars—and I’m OK with that.”
“I don’t feel aging. I climb mountains every year. I have a wife who dances, and I’ve got to keep up with her”
Hamlin said he had nothing planned after performing One November Yankee in New York. “I never had a plan in my life. I take it as it comes. I don’t push it. I don’t spend my time trying to smash a square peg into a round hole.” His clothing and energy businesses means he doesn’t have to work as an actor. He first heard about climate change in 1971, when the father of a fellow Berkeley student—who worked at the National Science Foundation—revealed the world-changing impact of climate change.
Hamlin co-founded Tri Alpha Energy in 1998 (now known as TAE Technologies) and said the company was nearing development of a “completely clean, non-radioactive fusion reactor that will supply enough electricity to supply the world for 100,000 years.” The Trump administration doesn’t have an approach to climate change, he added. “Thankfully, states do.”
Hamlin’s remaining dream acting roles are mostly Shakespearean (the theater roles he has most prized to date); he wants to perform Richard III, Prospero in The Tempest and Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, which he has done in workshops but not in a theater staging. In the shorter term, he has personally bought out the entire 59E59 theater on Christmas Eve, so he can fly home and spend Christmas with his family.
Hamlin will turn 70 in a couple of years but says he doesn’t think about aging. One of his colleagues at TAE Technologies is Andy Conrad, CEO of Verily, a life-sciences firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, “where his job description is to cure death, which could actually be a thing by 2045.” Hamlin laughed. “That may be too late for me. I don’t feel aging. I climb mountains every year. I have a wife who dances, and I’ve got to keep up with her.”
He would do more TV, “if it was something where I don’t have to sign a contract. I’m not good with contracts. A 10-episode thing, in and out—that would be good.” He seems very quiet, self-contained, and certain of what he does and does not want to do, I said. “If something doesn’t smell right, I walk away from it. And I have a pretty good smell test when it comes to most things.”
Hamlin’s phone rang; his driver awaited. As he put his coat on, I asked how this handsome man had played such an individual Hollywood game, stubbornly pursuing his own path. Hamlin said two stories meant the most to him; those of Icarus and Faust, the latter he once played in a production of Dr. Faustus at the McCarter.
“They have been huge influences in my life. Flying too high is an empty exercise, and will more than likely lead to your wings melting. Getting close to the sun has disastrous effects in the long run. Faust is obvious. This is a man who sold his soul to the devil in order to get material wealth. There’s a great lesson in that.”
Hamlin has also done Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles twice. “The one idea to take away from all three is that there is nothing any better than anything else,” said Hamlin. “As Shakespeare said [in Hamlet], ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Which means: It’s all the same, and if it’s all the same, then there is nothing to grab for, envy, or lose.”
And with that, this quiet but really quite wild house-husband of Beverly Hills said farewell, and shuffled—a slinky column of black—into the New York rain.