Harry Hamlin Says Playing a Gay Man in 'Making Love' 'Ended My Film Career': It Was 'Ahead of Its Time'

In Making Love, Hamlin played the role of Bart, a writer who becomes romantically involved with Zack, a young doctor (played by Michael Ontkean)

Harry Hamlin
Michael Ontkean (left) and Harry Hamlin . Photo: 20th Century studios/Kobal/Shutterstock

It's been four decades since Harry Hamlin played a gay writer in 1982's Making Love, a film about a same-sex affair — and the first of its kind for a major studio.

"I was told by a lot of people, you can't do that movie," says the actor, 70, reflecting on the film's 40th anniversary. "I think it had been offered to pretty much everybody in town and everyone had turned it down because they thought it might be damaging to their careers."

"I didn't see it that way," Hamlin tells PEOPLE. "I was looking for something serious and something meaningful, rather than doing a movie about vampire bats invading a small town in in the Midwest, which is the type of fare I was being offered at the time."

In Making Love, Hamlin played the role of Bart, a writer who becomes romantically involved with Zack, a young doctor (Michael Ontkean) married to Claire, a TV exec (Kate Jackson). "It was way ahead of its time," he says.

"Even though I was told by my friends not to do it, my agent said I should," he notes. "He said I was somewhat Teflon because I was out in the press having had a son with Ursula Andress. (Their son, Dmitri Hamlin is now 41.) And he said, 'Everyone knows you're straight so you're going to be okay.' But I didn't really pay much attention to any of that noise. I thought it was interesting and bold. I was attracted to that."

Harry Hamlin

Looking back, he says the reception to the film "ended my film career."

"For years, I'd think was that the reason why I stopped getting calls? And finally realized that was the last time I ever did a movie for a studio," the actor says. "I've done independent films but never a studio film. I had been doing nothing but studio films and basically going out on all the castings for all the movies. That stopped completely."

"It never really got the attention that I think it probably deserves, given the time in which it was released," says Hamlin of the film.

Now married to Lisa Rinna, 58, of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, with whom he has two daughters, Delilah, 23, and Amelia, 20, Hamlin says, "The movie was panned and my performance was ignored. The reviews were all negative, pretty much."

"As far as the film business sort of shutting the door, I think it just had to do with the fact of the studio system being a closed system and once they saw there could be some confusion about my sexuality, then they just said they didn't want to take the chance," adds Hamlin. "If they were contemplating having me be a love interest to a young female star, the thought was, 'How is the audience going to react?' Even though I was straight, I think the perception at the time was that anybody who could play gay must be gay."

Harry Hamlin
Michael Ontkean, left, and Harry Hamlin. Moviestore/Shutterstock

"Regardless of the effect it had on my film career, I went on to have a great career — and I still do. I'm very proud of having done that movie," says Hamlin, who would go on to become a big star with the hit series L.A. Law in 1986, and build a wide-ranging career, including a turn in Mad Men and a recently playing Tom Brokaw in National Geographic's The Hot Zone: Anthrax, streaming on Hulu. "I'm interested in working as an actor. I happen to think that TV is where its at right now. As long as the part is good, I'll do it."

Making Love, directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story), was based on a story written by A. Scott Berg and adapted into a screenplay by Barry Sandler. "Seeing this story unfold on a large screen helped a lot of people deal with a subject that had long been taboo," says Berg.

Harry Hamlin
Michael Montfort/getty

"There was plenty of hyperventilating and fear when the movie opened," Berg recalls. "In many cities audience members walked out when, for the first time, they saw two men kissing. But many more people saw themselves… or that falling in love with somebody of the same sex did not signal the end of the world. It helped many forge new lives for themselves."

As Hamlin notes, "Now a gay love story can be told freely. There's been a tectonic shift since 1981 in people's conscious and how they approach human sexuality."

"People come up and thank me for making the film and say they were affected by it and that it helped them come out or it helped them talk to their parents about their sexuality," he says. "Very rarely does one have an opportunity to have that kind of effect out there in the zeitgeist."

The new Academy Museum in Los Angeles is hosting a 40th anniversary screening of Making Love on June 23 with a post-screening Q&A to feature Hamlin.

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