It is the curse of Harry Hamlin’s acting career that the one role he did not research in his usual exhaustive style is the performance he will never live down. The movie was the Greek-myth and special-effects epic Clash of the Titans, the co-star, statuesque Ursula Andress, and the big moment, off-camera. Harry as Perseus and Ursula as Aphrodite fell madly in love in 1979 and soon produced a baby boy, Dimitri, now almost 4. The fact that Andress was 43 at the time and Harry 28, and that no marriage contract was on record, only made the performance more of an improvisation.
Alas, the clash of the parents occurred four years later in 1983. Ursula was no longer quite so mad about Harry, nor Harry about Ursula, and they resettled in separate Los Angeles abodes. He now has returned with unbridled passion to a longtime love: the stage. Hamlin is currently making his Broadway debut in a revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 drama, Awake and Sing! Although the play, about a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, has been slammed as dated, Hamlin has been enthusiastically praised. The Hollywood glamour boy gone, he limps across the stage as Moe Axelrod, a greasy Depression-era thug with a wooden leg. “Moe’s eccentricity fascinated me. He’s a weirdo,” says Harry, who prepared for the role with his typical gusto. He read everything he could find about mobsters and the Depression and rented a VCR to watch old Jimmy Cagney gangster movies. He even visited a factory manufacturing artificial legs.
Even less prestigious projects, such as the soapy CBS miniseries Master of the Game, get the full Hamlin treatment. For the part of Dyan Cannon’s stuttering artist son, he hired a speech therapist. Harry also disappeared with an easel and paints into the Canadian woods for more than a week. On another project, the 1982 film Making Love, he joined a gay encounter group and hung out in gay bars to understand the psyche of his character, an aloof homosexual stud.
Hamlin’s socially prominent parents might not have expected this dedicated actor’s life from their son. His late father was an aeronautical engineer in Pasadena, Calif., where Harry’s world revolved around debutante parties and private-school life. As an undergraduate at Yale, he majored in drama. Afterward, he joined the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco for four years. Harry then won a coveted Fulbright scholarship to study Shakespearean drama in London. But in 1978, when an offer came to play opposite George C. Scott in Movie Movie, Harry decided to forego the Fulbright. “There is a point when you have to stop adding to your résumé” he says.
Just think. Had he followed the Bard, Hamlin might not have had a chance to show off his toga-clad torso in his second film, Clash of the Titans, which he found preposterous. “They had one guy squirting me with baby oil and another who made sure one nipple was always exposed,” groans Harry. But at least there was his Aphrodite, Ursula. “I sure didn’t meet girls like her at the cotillion in Pasadena,” Hamlin jokes. “Ursula is an amazing woman, warm and passionate with a good sense of humor, and I loved her deeply.”
During the four years they were together, they did plan to marry, but never found the right time or place, he explains. “Neither of us wanted to do it in a post office or some hideous government building.” More specifically, Harry blames the obvious obstacles—”our ages and different backgrounds.”
Though their relationship has since soured, a common bond is son Dimitri. Harry tells Mickey Mouse and Snoopy stories to him every day over the phone. “He critiques his papa after each one,” says Harry, smiling. To be near his boy whenever possible, the devoted dad maintains a bachelor bungalow in L.A. Harry’s future, however, is most likely in New York, where he hopes for a stage career portraying “ethnic, real people. Playing WASPs like myself is not very interesting,” he reports. Though there is no female co-star in Hamlin’s life right now, it may be only a matter of time. As the man says, “I like passion in everything.”