Home Run Harry

Special Features   Home Run Harry
 
From "L.A. Law" to Chicago lawyer, actor Harry Hamlin's career makes a case for challenging convention.
Harry Hamlin in Chicago.
Harry Hamlin in Chicago. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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There's no escaping the long arm of the law for Harry Hamlin, it would seem. On June 19 TV's "L.A. Law"-man, Michael Kuzak (1986–1991), hung his shingle out at the Ambassador Theatre, as Billy Flynn, the slick shyster of Chicago. Seconding that: No sooner had he hit town than "Law and Order" nabbed him for a guest shot (albeit as the accused).

The change of coasts, mediums and manners agrees with him, but the legal connection eludes him. "I don't think there's a cross-pollination between 'L.A. Law' and Chicago," he says. "It didn't occur to me they played into each other till somebody said, 'You're accustomed to being a lawyer. You'll be right at home.' I didn't put the two together."

Granted, as attorneys go, they are each other's flip side: Kuzak, the earnest white-knight who fought for Truth, Justice and The American Way in prime time for five years, v. Flynn, the cynical, buck-chasing, headline-courting mouthpiece who comes to the defense of particularly lurid damsels-in-distress in the pistol-packing Windy City of the 1920s.

And, too, to get here from there, Hamlin has had to tap into his musical skills, which have been entirely untouched since 1975, when he did a summer-stock Oklahoma! at California's Pacific Center for the Performing Arts. He did not, as you might imagine, play Curly, but instead portrayed the villainous Jud. His enticement for this kamikaze dive into musical theatre is, frankly, his leading lady: Lisa Rinna, a former star of "Days of Our Lives" and the present Mrs. Hamlin. "It was really my wife's notion. She has always wanted to do a big musical on Broadway. And we've been doing a lot of stuff together lately — so that we could have the kids with us.

"My wife has a great voice. She's worked on it all her life. The dancing we both learned doing 'Dancing With the Stars' on TV. That was a real primer for us. We had to go out live in front of 20 million people and do it with only four days' rehearsal each time. What I learned from that is it's possible to take on a discipline you're unfamiliar with and get it up to speed in a very short period of time. It just requires a tremendous amount of focus."

The new dimension he brings to Billy Flynn's tux-and-cane soft-shoe will be a little baton-twirling. "Everybody who does something like this wants to hit a home run — and you can in a role like this. There is a home run in that role. Some parts — there just isn't a home run there, no matter how hard you try and no matter how many things you do."

Case in point: His previous Broadway appearance 11 years back, playing John Buchanan Jr. to Mary McDonnell's Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke. "That's an example of a play where there's no home run built into it. Tennessee Williams even knew this and revised it. The whole prologue was changed, the dialogue was changed, and that production was a big success. The production the Roundabout [Theatre Company] chose to do was the original one, which Tennessee didn't like himself. But we tried — we gave that one an old college try — and it was well received, but there just wasn't a home run. It was a base hit."

In 1984, the belatedly prophetic Awake and Sing! marked his Broadway debut. By then he'd already made the two feature films he is most remembered for. In 1981's fantastical "Clash of the Titans," he was Perseus, mortal son of Laurence Olivier's Zeus — a toga-clad hunk who battled Ray Harryhausen critters. That was followed, directly, by "Making Love" with Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson — a love story that triangulated unconventionally along lavender lines. It flopped at the box office and severely impacted Hamlin's film future.

"I can't say absolutely that it did great damage to my career, but I can say absolutely that "Making Love" was the last studio film I made till I did "Strange Wilderness" last year. I'm proud of having done "Making Love." Knowing what I know now about what effect it'd have on my career, would I do it again? Probably — because I'm that kind of guy. I defy conventions. I always have, and it has never benefited me. If I had played by the rules, I could have a much larger career than I have now — but I, in fact, have exactly the career I always wanted to have. I have no regrets, really."

That's what it does to you — growing up Harry in the '50s. "Everyone else was Joe or John or George or Jack or Mike. To make an analogy: When I was 12, the bike every kid wanted was the Sting-Ray by Schwinn. It had high handlebars and a long banana seat so I asked my parents if I could have a Sting-Ray for Christmas. And what shows up under the Christmas tree but a powder-blue Huffy version of the Sting-Ray. I wanted a black Schwinn, and I got a blue Huffy with a white seat. Well, my name, Harry, was to me what that bicycle was to a black Schwinn. I basically lived a Huffy life. I was a black Schwinn on the inside, but on the outside I was a powder-blue Huffy because of that damn name.

"I always said, when I became an actor, I'd liberate that name — somehow change it from being a dirty name. I thought there was a way I could help the Harrys of the world be accepted. On the first day of filming my first film — "Movie Movie" — [director] Stanley Donen walked up to me with an old Newsweek article about movie names. It listed names that worked and names that didn't. Harry topped the list that didn't. He said, 'Now's the time. You might want to consider changing your name.' I said, 'Stanley, it's my name. If I can't make it with my own name, I shouldn't be able to make it. I wouldn't deserve it.'"

Harry Hamlin with the ensemble of <i>Chicago</i>.
Harry Hamlin with the ensemble of Chicago. Photo by Paul Kolnik
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