My worst moment: Harry Hamlin and the perils of being naked on stage
“I’m in my backyard and looking right now up at a red-tailed hawk,” Harry Hamlin says when we connect by phone. Later he would pause the conversation to take a picture of a garden snake. Being outdoors is where he prefers to be during his off time. “Every year I go up into the high Sierras, alone, for four days. I’ve been doing that since my 20s. It’s part of my annual routine, I guess. I’m getting on a little bit now, so carrying a 50-pound pack up the side of a mountain is getting to be challenging, but I still do it.”
Hamlin is known for everything from “Clash of the Titans” to a long run of iconic TV shows, including “L.A. Law,” “Veronica Mars” and his Emmy-nominated turn on “Mad Men.” His next role sees him playing news anchor Tom Brokaw this fall on National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” which premieres in November.
When asked about a worst moment in his career, Hamlin talked about his first professional gig, which required baring it all.
My worst moment …
“It was 1976 and I was called into the artistic director’s office at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where I was a second-year student in the advanced training program. So I go to his office and he said he was considering me for a leading role in an award-winning play, but he can’t tell me the name of the play because it’s top secret. And I said, ‘That’s great. Do I audition?’ And he said, ‘Actually, I just need to see your body.’
“And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I just need to see you with your clothes off.’ And I said, ‘You mean down to my underwear?’ And he said, ‘No, I mean everything.’ And I go, ‘Well, I’m sorry, that’s not something that I do.’ Who knows why he wanted to see my private parts, but he did. So I declined. I was 26 at the time.
“And then that play turned out to be ‘Equus,’ which had opened in London and won every award, and then it opened in New York and won every award there. And its third iteration was going to be in San Francisco. So when I found out that the play was ‘Equus,’ I realized that he wanted me to play this teenage boy who gashes the eyes out of a stableful of horses. The whole play is about trying to find out why he did this. The role requires that the character be 100% naked at one point, the full monty, in front of 1,600 people in the theater. The way it was staged, there was also bleacher seating on stage as well, three or four feet from the actors. So people were right there.
“Anyway, they cast another person. But then the part had to be recast and, once again, they came to me. And this time I took my clothes off. And was cast in the play. The American Conservatory Theater had won the regional Tony a few years before this, so this was a really big deal for me. It was my first paycheck; I got $126 a week and it was my first professional acting job.
“I was 26 and single at the time. And they cast a very beautiful young woman to play opposite me in the scene where I’m fully naked. She takes me to this barn, takes off all of her clothes and lies down on the floor, at which point I get undressed and mount her. The whole conceit of that moment is that he can’t do it — he can’t function — and the horses see him, and that’s why he gashes their eyes out. In rehearsals, we didn’t take our clothes off. We were always clothed when we did that scene in rehearsals.
“And I’m thinking, I don’t know what’s going to happen on opening night when she gets naked. Because as you probably know, for men, the visual thing is pretty powerful. So in addition to being naked on stage — which, by the way, was pretty scary — my fear was that as soon as I looked down at her, nature might take its course and that would be extremely embarrassing. And I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, obviously.
“Thank God my terror and anxiety hampered that. And fortunately it was very cold in the theater. Maybe that was on purpose. But there I was, standing on stage, and people were sitting on these bleachers not three or four feet away from me, and as I took my pants down, I could see every single eyeball shift down to look at one single thing.
“So that was a pretty embarrassing moment. But after that night, it became more and more routine.
“The show was a huge success and I ended up doing it for two seasons. And every single night when we came to that scene, that audience stopped breathing. You could literally hear a pin drop in that theater, which was a good thing because in those days, a camera shutter made a ‘click’ sound. So they had ushers that were stationed all over, and if they heard a shutter click, they immediately went over and confiscated that camera and took the film out. And it happened every night.
“But also you could hear the sound of the doors closing, because as soon as I took my clothes off, there were always people who were so outraged by it that they left the theater, and you could hear the doors go ‘phumff, phumff.’
“But what I learned from that experience is that once you do something like that, you can do anything. That’s a risk that you take as a stage actor. And it actually started my film career, because a casting director from Warner Bros. heard about that performance and that’s how I ended up getting my first movie.”
Did producers and directors have expectations Hamlin would do nudity on screen since he had already done it on stage?
“After the first movie that I did, Warner Bros. offered me the biggest contract they had ever offered anyone. It was called ‘The Clint,’ after Clint Eastwood’s contract and it had all the same bells and whistles. It was a three-picture deal with a lot of options on the back end. But I had a mole at Warner Bros. and I knew what films they were going to have me do. One of them was called ‘Greystoke’ and they wanted me to play Tarzan, swinging totally naked through the trees in that one. And there was this other movie, ‘First Blood,’ where they saw me as Rambo — also stark naked through the first 20-minutes of the movie. It was a terrible script, but (Sylvester) Stallone was perfect for the part. I would have been ridiculous in it.
“So I turned down the contract. And it was a huge moment in my life. I turned it down on the day I was going to sign it. I was in the office of the head of the studio, all the suits were there. I said, ‘I’m so grateful that you’re offering me this contract, but would you ever make me do a movie that I didn’t want to do?’ And they all looked at each other and said, ‘No, of course we would never do that.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t see anything in here about me having a say. Can we add that?’ And they said no, they couldn’t do that. And then I smelled a fish at that point and I walked out. No one can believe that I turned down that giant contract.
“As I was leaving the room, the head of the studio said, ‘We love your work so much, we’ll work with you anyway, it doesn’t matter, contract or no contract.’ And I walked off the lot and didn’t go back on the lot for 13 years (laughs) and it wasn’t even to do a movie, it was to have lunch with someone.”
The takeaway …
“That taking risks is OK. This was terrifying. But if you face your fear, it’s far better than succumbing to it. That’s why I have no problem going alone into the mountains and things like that.
“I think that having done ‘Equus’ did inform a lot of decisions in my life — I did it and survived it. I realized that taking risks is not only OK but something you should do. Something you must do.”