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Harry Hamlin: What I Know Now

The film and TV actor riffs on psychology, enduring marriage and the power of a pinkie ring

Harry Hamlin
Nigel Dickson

Siren song

My mother took me to see Richard Burton on stage in Hamlet when I was 13. What electrified me most was afterwards — seeing Liz Taylor waiting for him outside in the back seat of the limo with roses.

To the moon, Harry!

My father was a rocket scientist, head of the Jupiter rocket program. He built the rocket engine that went to the moon, and I now have his patent. But he also thought the space program was nonsense. He said, “There’s no reason to go up there, there’s nothing there!”

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A fork in the road

I went from an Episcopal boarding school wearing a coat and tie every day in a Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania to Berkeley, where I wanted to become an architect. I was late to school and those classes were mostly full, so my plan was to do one quarter of acting then go back to architecture. Then they started putting me in play after play, and I didn’t have time to go back to architecture school.

Being humane

I loved them, but my parents were bigots. The words they used for different ethnic groups were atrocious. I was 15 —  what did I know except what I heard around the dinner table? Until I went to camp in New Hampshire and a counselor took me behind the tent and roughed me up, saying, “That’s not the way the world works!” That was a huge life lesson.

The doctor is in

Since college — I ended up majoring in drama and psychology — a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has sat on my desk. I can use it to identify personality disorders, particularly among the folks on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills [starring his wife, Lisa Rinna].

Personal impact

Forty years later, people still come up to me and say the film Making Love [in which his character comes to terms with being gay] changed their lives. I get emotional every time — I cry.

Dad’s atonement?

Right after Making Love came out, he and I were going through the airport on one of those electric carts, and every time we passed somebody, he would say, “Here’s my son! He’s in this movie Making Love!” He was so proud of me. He hadn’t seen the film yet, though, so he didn’t know what it was about.

Advice from the lord

Laurence Olivier was my hero, and he and I talked once about how he used accoutrements to help him find characters, such as that green umbrella he used for a particular character he was having trouble channeling. He said, “OK, now I know who I’m playing.” For Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches I wear a little pinkie ring — that’s my green umbrella for the character I play.

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Rejecting Clint

Warner Bros. offered me a huge deal in 1978, a type of contract that was called the Clint, after Clint Eastwood. And I turned it down. I didn’t want to be a big movie star. It would be like being an ouroboros — a snake that eats its own tail. You’re always looking over your shoulder at who’s coming up next, knowing your next project has to be better than the last.

Mr. Mom

When our daughters [Delilah, 24, and Amelia, 21] were born, we lived in Los Angeles, and I said to my wife, “I’m not going to leave until they leave. That’s when I’ll do theater in New York again.” I stayed home for 20 years and I put the kids to bed every night — until they became too old for that. I really wanted to be there for them growing up, and I was.

His marriage secret

The secret is to not expect anything. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. My relationship with Lisa [married 25 years] has always been to take it one day at a time. And we give each other a lot of rope.

Daddy’s girls

My entire life I’ve been terrified of women. But I see women in an entirely different way now, having raised two of them. They’re just as human and have all the same foibles and fears as I had.

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Quit worrying

I’ve read so many studies where octogenarians or centenarians are asked, “What was the one biggest waste of time in your life?” Number one is always worrying. It’s useless to worry. My worldview involves acceptance instead of worry.

Healthy at 70

I walk about three miles a day and listen to books while I walk. That’s my only fixed routine. I lift some weights. I cook my own food — everything’s fresh. I don’t eat anything processed. I took turmeric for a shoulder problem, and now its gone. I don’t take vitamins. Well, I started taking a multivitamin a couple of months ago, then I forgot about it.

Climb every mountain

I’m drawn to going mountain climbing every year. I’m alone, so it’s sort of my walkabout. I don’t do real climbing — I scramble. Once it took me three years, three different tries, to get over a pass called Hands and Knees in the High Sierra. A few years ago, Lisa insisted I start taking a satellite phone with me.

Sexiest man alive, still?

In 80 for Brady, I play an ex-Super Bowl champion from the ’70s and early ’80s. I basically become Jane Fonda’s boy toy in the picture. She and I get to make out. But the biggest revelation for me was working with Rita Moreno, who’s 90 — I was stumbling through the reading, and she was just like, bam, bam, bam, perfect.

Finding happiness

I don’t know what happiness is. Is it a new car? Is it making a lot of money? Great sex? I have no clue. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “A man is just about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” That’s how I do it.

Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actor Harry Hamlin, 70, will appear in the AMC series Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches in 2023. He’s on the board of governors of the National Space Society and is a cofounder of TAE Technologies, a developer of clean fusion energy.