Full Circle

Forever suave, George Hamilton bring his timeless style to his new line of cigars and cigar clubs.
| By Alysse Minkoff | From Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

George Hamilton looks, at 58, exactly the way a movie star is supposed to look: perfect. Always impeccably dressed and crisply pressed. Classically tailored with well-polished shoes. Vintage watch gleaming. His eyes are softer than people would expect. Warmer. Full of humor. Surprisingly, his wit is usually self-deprecating. He is his own best target, and endearingly so. Yes, his hair is always coifed in a Cary Grant-meets-Pat Riley style. And his cigar case does match either his belt or his watchband. Usually both. And, of course, people can't say the words George Hamilton without thinking about: The Tan.

The glossy 8-by-10 image that is George Hamilton--that has smoldered on movie screens for nearly 40 years--could almost be enough. The image that he has carefully crafted over the arc of his career bespeaks an elegance that has almost vanished. Yet people yearn for the timeless look of a white dinner jacket, to savor a Cuban cigar while sipping a well-chilled Martini, listening to a Noël Coward tune. It is almost as though, if they can combine the right props, people can recreate the time when a man was a gentleman and that made it possible for a woman to be a lady.

Certainly, most successful actors adroitly construct the stages of their private lives. And many have sold pieces of their success in infomercials, or at the local mall. But in the case of Hamilton, his art has clearly intersected his life. While the flavors of the month and the bankable names and the TV-Q ratings have all come and gone, for decade after decade, George Hamilton remains steadfastly Hamilton.

Say what you will about that deeply tanned matinee idol sitting in the corner booth at Hamiltons Las Vegas. Before you do, though, you should be reminded that you are sitting in his nightclub. George Hamilton is smoking a cigar that not only bears his name--but one that he has helped to blend. The cigar was presented to you in packaging the design elements of which he labored over, which bears his family crest. You are listening to music that he has selected and are sitting in an environment that he conceived. Yes, you should sit up a little straighter, because you look much more elegant under this lighting. Don't forget to order some of his imported Belgian chocolates; they match up nicely with a Hamiltons Zorro. And you thought he was just another pretty celebrity who cashed in on the cigar craze by slapping a band on a bunch of cigars and posing for some slick advertisements. Not to worry; George can patiently wait for you to catch up to where he's been all along. He's been doing it for most of his life.

The first line on his film résumé is Crime and Punishment, USA, a 1959 updating of the Dostoyevsky novel, with Mary Murphy; the last is 8 Heads In a Duffel Bag, with Joe Pesci. In between he went from playing a Palm Beach heartthrob in the 1960 movie, Where The Boys Are to portraying Moss Hart in Act One with Jason Robards. He saw the Light in the Piazza with Yvette Mimieux in 1962 and, two years later, played a tortured Hank Williams in Your Cheatin' Heart. In 1979, he produced and starred in the comedic hit Love At First Bite, following up its success two years later with Zorro, The Gay Blade. Hamilton has shared on-screen kisses with Sandra Dee, Mimieux, Natalie Wood and Romy Schneider, to name but a few, and in his first 10 years in Hollywood he made 18 movies. Currently, he stars in the NBC situation comedy, "Jenny," playing the title character's deceased B-movie-star father, Guy Hathaway, a role that suits him right down to the monogram. In the show, he appears weekly to co-star Jenny McCarthy in dream sequences, video wills and late-night movie clips, dispensing fatherly advice. Hamilton likes being a dead man, he says, and feels that he has achieved a new level in his career: parodying himself, posthumously.

While enjoying a single-malt Scotch and a Hamiltons Zorro, Hamilton attempts to comprehend his longevity. "It's a strange thing. You keep getting redefined in different eyes. When you go down a classic road, there is a truth to it. I think people keep getting on and off your train. They go away. They come back. Eventually they think, 'Hey, this guy has weathered it pretty good. He's done all right.' And then when you start to become a sign of their longevity, they like you. They fight for you because they want to see you exist. They want to see you succeed because somehow if you don't, they become out of date.

"There is some sort of strange complicity that happens with the 'older generation.' It reassures them. It rings true. The younger people look at you and think this is enduring. Solid." Before he takes himself too seriously, he sips his Macallan 18 and says with a dazzling smile, "And the fact that my ex-wife was married to Rod Stewart and their two kids think of me as some sort of really nice uncle and come to talk with me from time to time. And to be [actress] Shannen Doherty's father-in-law and, [now, actress] Angie Everhart's father-in-law in the same lifetime is pretty interesting stuff, too."

His life reads like a movie script. One would expect no less from the offspring of society bandleader and White Shoulders perfume developer George "Spike" Hamilton and the much-married Anne Stevens Potter Hamilton Hunt Spalding. By the time he was a teenager, for instance, young George could mix an incredible Martini. He went to countless high schools, including Hackley, an exclusive private school in Tarrytown, New York, but he fell a few credits shy of his high school diploma.

When Hamilton arrived in Hollywood with about $90 in his pockets in 1957, he borrowed a damaged Rolls-Royce from a friend to drive to his auditions, and as soon as he earned enough money, he bought the car. There were times when the car got more film work than he did.

The story behind Hamilton's career is far more interesting than some of the films he has appeared in, something he freely acknowledges. "I don't think I have ever reached, as an actor, my capacity," he says. "And I don't think I ever allowed myself to do that. And it's not Hollywood's fault. It's my fault. I spent a lot of money over my life and I put myself into situations where I basically had to compromise. I never felt that I had this burning desire to be an actor at all costs. I would never deny something to my family or to myself for my career. And there were times as an actor that I really had to compromise financially.

"Hollywood is a real simple game. It's not too difficult to figure it out: they don't know. They have not a clue about worth or value until it's rung up at the box office. So until that's rung up--until an actor's leveled off, an actor can do almost anything he wants. The first indication of success in Hollywood is the word 'no,' not 'yes.' Because with 'Yes' you've agreed, and gotten in with them. If you say 'No' immediately, they think you're something they've got to have, and it's the best negotiating card you have in Hollywood.

"And I used to take it all personally. But things have changed. I don't have the same perspective I once had. I have a sense of humor about it. I don't take it personally, at all. To me it's as dispassionate as gambling downstairs in the casino. I probably would have been out of this business at least five or six times because my career stopped dead in the water and I just had to reinvent it. It wasn't something I wrestled with. It wasn't life-threatening. [Some actors] just go off into a place where they don't hear from you for 10 or 15 years. I couldn't afford that luxury. I have a family to support. I have to make money."

Hamilton did the short-lived nationally syndicated "The George and Alana Show" in 1994, and appeared in guest shots on television shows, where he impressed everyone with his extraordinary lack of movie star fuss and nonsense. Everyone from busboys and cocktail waitresses to casting directors and studio executives just plain like George Hamilton. Just about everywhere you go, the words "warm," "funny," "self-effacing" and "genuine" are all you hear in connection with the man. He is so well liked, it's scary.

For Hamilton, being a great guy comes pretty easily. "I'm finding that I'm very comfortable in my skin and very happy with myself. And at 58, this is where the game really starts to get interesting. The stakes are up now. There is more time invested. Life has gone by for more than half a century and now it's time to double down--not before. When you're young, you've got all the age on your side. All the energy. What's the big loss then? Now there's a commitment to life. It's time to figure out the endgame, the exit strategy," he says. "The bar gets higher all the time; that is your personal evolution andit constantly defines you.

"But one of the biggest challenges about getting old is that you start to become a little bit conservative about life, and I need to work against that. I think, 'Wait a minute. I've got to think about these decisions. I've got to think about what's in my pockets, not what's in my pants, so I'd better be careful.' But I'm also all about adventure. I love to tear up the map. The map is the boring part of the journey. I don't want to start planning my old age, because that's when the adventure goes out the window. I know what the big picture is and it's bigger than I thought--but if I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it, I'd be bored to death. I want to be as materialistic as I am spiritualistic. I want that balance because I like all of it. Why not have it all? I think you can. I know now that the world perceives people who they think have a particular lifestyle--that they have the secret--and they want to buy into that fantasy. And if you stay around long enough you win by default."

If the late 1990s is any guide, Hamilton is winning. People are starting to dress up again. There is a return to glamour and elegance. They want the perfect Martini, not some microbrew of the month. They're listening to Sinatra at the Sands and the best of Dean Martin, not gangsta rap. And, of course, they are smoking cigars.

Historical note: Hamilton smoked his first Cuban cigar when he was 17 on the balcony of the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, before things got, well, political. So his passion for cigars predates the cigar phenomenon by a generation. As a savvy businessman, he'd like to capitalize on a favorable trend. "I think people started smoking cigars because they thought of a cigar as some sort of a 'success symbol,' " he says. "I have always enjoyed cigars, but I smoke them without the fanaticism that is going on now. And with it there has been a huge shift in the bar business. I've seen people start to linger over cigars, people rooted to chairs, starting to bond over cigars. I saw this throwback to almost Victorian life where people were starting to puff and smoke and drink Port and sherries and single malts. And it was wonderful.

"So I decided to blend my own cigar. I blended a cigar for myself to begin with [because] I think there is nothing better than having your own personally selected cigar. Just as my father made his own blend of tobacco for smoking and my great-great-grandfather was in the tobacco business, I was trying to create something special. I wanted a cigar that was subtle and indicative without screaming at you. A lot of people, when they smoke a cigar, don't know what they are smoking. They don't really try to figure out why a cigar works for them. Because I smoked for so long and have smoked so many different cigars in my life, I knew what I was trying to get at. And the hardest part of the whole process is to get consistency over a long period of time. That once you get the cigar right, that you know that you can create it for the next several years. That the people who have decided that they like that cigar won't be getting a different cigar the next time they buy one. It's like creating a great soufflé and then deciding how I can make that soufflé for the entire Seventh Fleet. You don't want to have a sense of army cooking about your cigar, but you do have to be sure that you have enough of the right tobacco."

After many trips to the Dominican Republic, meeting with master blenders, looking at land and smoking hundreds of cigars, Hamilton was finally ready to put together his first line, Hamiltons Reserve. "Creating that cigar was truly an intuitive experience," he says. "We sat down with the theory that we were going to put together a nice little cigar. They gave me lots of cigars and I smoked them, and I kept saying 'No.' I sat down with a master blender and we started talking about the best cigars we had ever smoked, and I realized that what he liked and what he was producing were two entirely different things. And I just unleashed the creative part of him. We started smoking cigars that I enjoyed and I said, 'This is where I want you to go with this.' What I wanted was just a little hint that when you've taken a puff of a Hamiltons and you're just about to take another--it is the memory of the last puff that makes you want to take the next one.

"So the basic cigar was not the difficulty. It was the little additions they had missed. It was adding a note here and another note, and then it became a question of balance. There is a basic blend that I like in my cigars: it has power to it, but is has a lot of subtlety. It isn't a one-note cigar in terms of complexity. A cigar should be gustatory and tactile and olfactory. And you've got to be able to look at it. I like to try things that haven't been done, but the bottom line is that when you close your eyes and smoke one of my cigars--it had better be great. A lot of people can smoke a 'nothing' cigar and be happy with it; I can't do that. I'm in search of something that I know exists, that I've had. But it's fleeting. And what everyone is trying to do is connect immortality to a fleeting moment. A cigar is a symbol of that. And it is also an extension of my lifestyle."

Hamilton plans to produce about 10 million of those symbols that bear his family crest in 1998. The Hamiltons Reserve, made by Tabadom, is spicy, with lots of earthy coffee and chocolate tones and touches of cinnamon. It has Connecticut wrapper with Dominican filler and binder and bears the whimsical names King George, Don Jorge, Lady H, Ashley and Zorro. The Hamiltons Upmann, George I through George VIII, made by Consolidated Cigar Co., is Dominican filler and binder with Indonesian wrapper. It is spicier with more power than the Reserve. Two additional lines, Hamiltons Private Reserve, made by Tabadom, and the lower-priced Hamiltons House Selection, made by Tamboril, will be released in 1998.

It is somewhat daunting to try to figure out where the lifestyle ends and Hamilton's "real life" begins. Walking out of his club in the New York, New York hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Hamilton doesn't look like an actor who has put in a near-24-hour day. At two in the morning, he's wearing the same elegant tuxedo he put on at 5 a.m. the previous day, shooting an in-house video for the hotel. Hamilton looks as if he just stepped out of the dressing room. Nary a wrinkle. His bow tie expertly tied. He smiles. Poses for pictures. Signs autographs. All with a genuine charm. Looking everyone in the eye, and even putting a nervous and blushing housewife from the Midwest at ease.

Sitting down at the casino's blackjack table, he muses, "I wasn't born wearing a dinner jacket. You're not born knowing how to do these things. And it isn't that it is an affectation--it was schooling. I was involved in movies and every day you would see yourself, bigger than any wall; and I started to study my 'look.' While everybody else was studying acting, I was thinking, 'Well, if only I had worn a different suit. Or, maybe I should have changed my tie. The scene might have worked better.' I never really expected an acting award. And although I enjoyed it, my image was a little bit more removed from who I was and in a way I was kind of embarrassed by it. Perhaps people thought of me as a slightly stuffed shirt or like I was a Little Lord Fauntleroy or something. Part of my image was self-inflicted and part of it was studio-inspired; and the combination made me just sort of laugh. It was like I became a role I was playing."

Through his laughter, the blackjack dealer deals Hamilton a face card. And then an ace. Then she deals herself a 26. Hamilton takes it in stride. "I think so many people fail to see the gift in everything that happens to them. They just don't get it. And that gift is what I am always looking for. I don't know where it's coming from, but I know it's on the way. I don't have any fear around it. I know it at a gambling table." The dealer has dealt Hamilton a 16, she is showing 15, he doubles down, somehow sensing the outcome. "I have extraordinary luck. But I also have the guts to play with that luck. I don't back off. I'm dangerous when I get ahead because I'll double up and triple up and ask the table to move its limit. I'm playing with their money then. That's when to get dangerous. Don't get dangerous when you're playing with your money." He stands at 16. The dealer deals herself a queen. Paying him off, the dealer asks him how the whole "Hamil-tan" thing started.

"I was in prep school in the East and I had that horrible pallor that you get in the winter. I looked just awful," he says. "And I went down to Palm Beach for the weekend and just got black. I looked better, I felt better. And sure enough, girls started to come on to me. I don't know whether it was puberty or the suntan or what. But I was in for it. If I could, I'd be out everyday in the sun. I love to sit in it. Read in it. It's a form of energy for me." Hamilton graciously colors up, pockets the casino's money and calls it a night.

Hamilton is a moving target these days, traversing time zones with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of men half his age. Over two weeks' time, he is in Las Vegas, working in his club and shooting the in-house commercial for the New York, New York casino-hotel that houses Hamiltons. Then he's off to Newport Beach, California, for a smoker at the Balboa Bay Club, back in Los Angeles for a night, then on to Miami to prepare for his role as host of the Miss Universe pageant. Next stop is the Dominican Republic to blend Hamiltons House Selection, the new line of cigars that Hamilton is creating, and then back to Miami to board a flight for Honduras to visit a tobacco factory. Finally, he's off to Pennsylvania for two days' worth of appearances on the QVC shopping network to market his self-tanning systems and then, at last, home to California.

Clearly he is on a mission, and loving the ride. Catching up with Hamilton in Miami, he is reflective and sentimental about where he is going, where he has been and about filling in the circles of his life. "I've built walls to keep people out, but I've also built the same walls to keep me in. I'm having to take them down a brick at a time. I have to constantly go back and try to keep my heart open. To remember that the worldly possessions are only a mark of progress you have on one level of your life; that they are not the only markers you have. The other is how you have developed as a person. That's why the circle still goes on for me. If I get the success without the fulfillment, then I haven't achieved anything in my life. You become an old fool at a certain point when that happens.I don't want it all because I deserve it; I want it all because I give it.I want happiness in my business life because I have succeeded and have achieved my goals, but not at the cost of other things."

Hamilton has been linked with some rather legendary women throughout his life, from Lynda Byrd Johnson to Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins. All of the women with whom he has been involved, including Alana Stewart, still speak highly of him. Although there is currently no one lady in his life, Hamilton clearly knows a lot about women. "A woman will test you just like a child will test you. Slowly, she'll figure out your barriers and your boundaries. The more you define her boundaries, the more she'll like you. Women want to know that you care. That they are going to be safe in your arms. That they have your unconditional support. A woman wants a man who allows them to be themselves, but will not give them too much room.

"And while a man is trying to figure out the size of a woman's breasts, the woman has already figured out whether or not you'd be a good husband, how many children you're going to have and what their names will be. They are so far ahead of men. Men are raised by women and we're born out of them. So it's no contest--women are far superior to men and always have been. It's when women wanted this equality thing that it all got messed up. And I love strong women. Strong women don't want a weak man, they hate weak men. So I think it's important to understand yourself. Once you feel comfortable with yourself, you can be comfortable with a woman."

Even though Hamilton has had his share of romances, he still feels that there are a few lessons as yet unlearned when it comes to affairs of the heart. "I know all of the moves. I've got all of them down. And I think the real adventure in relationships is not to make them. I'll trip myself up on purpose. I'll do all the things I can to prevent myself from making the move that I know is the easiest. It's too manipulative. When you survive by being manipulative, you get to the point where the joke is really on you. And I don't want to do that. Because a really good woman can take a man to a whole different level in his life. There's not one great man in this world who has had any real success that hasn't had a woman play a role in it. Guys who think they can go it alone are nuts. It's ridiculous. It just doesn't work. And I want to be known as a woman's man, but also as a man's man. I don't want to be one without the other."

As a father, Hamilton has had a brush with near tragedy, almost losing his son, actor Ashley Hamilton, now 23, to drug addiction. He and Ashley's mother, Alana Stewart, came together and dealt with the addiction as a family and, after a difficult time, Ashley has emerged on the other side, clean and sober.

"My son is an amazing boy," Hamilton says with obvious pride. "He has taught me so very much. In many ways he has had an easy ride and a hard time all at the same time. It was easy in the sense that he had an entrée into show business. It was difficult because once you get there, they want to kill you. I think he is a very sensitive and vulnerable instrument which, if bowed properly, could be a talent of major proportion. Unfortunately, he's going to get all the 'surface hits' anyone can take. He really had a dependency and he dealt with it. It takes time. A bottom is a bottom and you don't reach that bottom just because people think that you should. It was a monster to deal with, but it also gave me humility. I found myself staying in rehabs and in different programs even after he got out of them. It was an interesting time, very difficult, and also very enlightening."

Hamilton recalls life with his own father, George. "I learned a lot from my father. The most important thing was that he had the respect of the people he worked with. But he was a man who had become captive in this world, somewhere between his art and his work. The only things that he had to hold on to were the props of his life--pipes, Martinis, things like that. He would smoke a pipe with me and although we were separated by decades of age, we could have a moment of sharing through a pipe.

"He didn't know how to talk to me. The only way he could communicate with me was by sharing stories about what it was like in Hollywood in the early days. Or what it was like being a musician in the film business. And through his stories I'd learn his philosophy about people. Everything I learned about quality I learned from my father. What I saw in him was this need to be connected to some sort of classic tradition. I realized that these silly things we use in our lifetime, like pipes or cigars, these little props, were bonding.

"My son, Ashley, and I found ourselves in England one Thanksgiving when Ashley was about 17. Now, Thanksgiving is not something that they particularly look forward to over in England. But Ashley just couldn't stand the idea that we weren't going to do something for Thanksgiving. So I searched all over London and finally the Connaught Grill told me that they would do a turkey for us. It was kind of depressing for Ash because he was not amongst his friends, and there we were having a turkey in some stodgy English grill. He wanted the stuffing and the gravy and black-eyed peas--and they rolled out this turkey on a silver trolley. Disaster!

"But after dinner they came over and asked us if we would like a glass of Port, and it was the first time in his life that I offered him a cigar. They brought over this amazing humidor, which was carried over with boxes in it. They'd bring them out and show you--you didn't dare touch or sniff a cigar. They'd clip it for you and hand it to you. He smoked a cigar with me that night and it was the most amazing bonding experience. And I could see how my father and I had passed a tradition on to my son.

"It was foolish in many ways; there was this anachronistic hypocrisy of us sitting there in England where they don't approve of Thanksgiving. But there was also a strange sense of personal history being played out. There was a bonding that I had not felt with anyone since my father died. So I realized in that moment that I had changed positions in my relationship with my son."

With the success of the Hamiltons cigars and the imminent launch of his fourth cigar line, Hamiltons Private Reserve, George Hamilton's cigar business is becoming a force to be reckoned with. In addition to Hamiltons at New York, New York, in Las Vegas, Hamiltons Humidor in Pasadena and Hamiltons Coffee and Fine Cigars in Beverly Hills, several other Hamiltons nightclubs are in the planning stages, each with a different theme and connected to a retail store that sells his lifestyle products: lighters, cigar accoutrements, Belgian chocolates, his own line of coffee, the tanning system, clothing, the requisite T-shirts and, of course, his cigars. QVC will feature a one-hour lifestyle show with Hamilton this spring. And Hamilton is still coming up with a myriad of projects.

"I feel a presence in both my artistic life and in my business life," he says. "And I feel those circles growing larger and connecting. The fascinating part of all of this is that at the end of the day, to do exactly what you want to do and live your lifestyle and to have someone else pay for it; [it is] in some ways, the greatest Final Joke. My job right now is to figure out what the public's perception is, what they are interested in, and find a way to market it. Kind of what Ralph Lauren did for lifestyles in the 1980s. And it isn't a race just to make money. It's a race to fulfill myself. To go absolutely full circle."

The marketing of the cigar lifestyle, as well as the creation of a fine cigar experience, are clearly things that Hamilton takes very seriously. "To me a cigar is about the words 'ponder' and 'contemplation.' The ephemeral becomes momentarily tangible for me. The drink and the cigar are not really lasting, but they are props that extend the moment. I think that is what people are looking for. In the overall, we all live in a life span that is the flick of an eye. If I can take an hour to commune with myself and others, I am grateful. I think these props, which are things that people can call pretentious, have now started to become what people are holding on to."

Hamilton is, once again, philosophical. "I've ended up on the same beach, in effect, as where I started. But there is a difference now. I've gone through life. I've seen so much, and yet I don't feel a day older than the day I left this beach to go to Hollywood. I'll be lying in the sun the same way, with the same smell of suntan oil walking by. The same feeling of the ocean. And I haven't thought of my age, or any of the time that has gone by. It's the ability to look at my life as though it was only divided by a moment. The years have been compressed into moments. And when you smoke a cigar, you can reveal your life in those moments in an abbreviated way."

Yes, Hamilton does have the perfect tan. And no, he has not led the perfect life. But he has learned much from the hand that life has dealt him. Hamilton's world has come full circle. And as a society, we have finally caught up to that classic, elegant and timeless place on the circle where George Hamilton has always been.

Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer living in Beverly Hills, California.

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