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Friday, September 08, 2006


Neil Hamilton's Birthday

Neil Hamilton was born September 9, 1899, 107 years ago. One day, the principal at his high school told Neil to leave and never come back. That sort of thing went on a lot in those days, I suppose (too bad my own H.S. principal wasn't similarly disposed). He lived until 1985, and at least around the neighborhood, pretty accessible in retirement. I’m told that kids used to come to his door so they could meet Commissioner Gordon. Were it not for Batman, Hamilton’s would be an obscure name indeed, even though for a while, he was a major draw. D.W. Griffith directed him in a group of big-scale silents, and he was a dependable, but not overpowering, leading man for a number of distaff headliners, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Constance Bennett, and others. Neil had the look and carriage of the Arrow Collar model he’d been before acting took precedence, but talkies revealed a clipped reserve that limited his progress. Suddenly, he was the other man, or a cad. Either way, he wasn’t getting the girl any more. The first two Tarzan pictures found him chasing Maureen O’ Sullivan all over Africa, but audiences knew he’d never stand a chance. Hamilton’s star had indeed risen and set. He was one of those unfortunates wiped out by the Crash as well, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for him. As work dried up, so did his morale. Having ill advisedly invested in a 1939 World’s Fair exhibit, Hamilton again found himself flat broke and three months behind on rent. He’d decided to jump 500 feet off a Santa Monica precipice when a priest intervened. The road back went through Republic and PRC, but it was work, and age actually lent more credibility to his stern countenance.




The mature Neil Hamilton became one of those familiar and reassuring faces you’d see on a hundred television shows during the fifties and early sixties. He and his wife lived in modest digs in "the old section" of Hollywood and he picked up days on shows like Perry Mason and 77 Sunset Strip. By the time he surfaced on Batman, he was a known quantity among dour authority figures, and he made a perfect Commissioner Gordon. Hamilton was alone in refusing to camp up his performance, though others in the cast often did, to his oft-expressed disapproval. He drifted out of the business within a few years after that series ended. The old Classic Film Collector once approached him for his reminiscences of Griffith and the silents, and he fired off a withering refusal, which the newspaper obligingly published. It revealed a spirited, if cantankerous, journeyman actor loathe to give away his memories of long-ago stardom.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Griff said...

A wonderful post. I remember reading Variety's unusually respectful obituary of Neil Hamilton in the mid-'80s and feeling amazed to learn that the dapper '30s leading man turned steady '50s and '60s character player had conquered serious substance abuse problems. I wanted to know more about him, and began seeking out his films.

I don't know whether the curator has any info on the remarkable all-star THE WET PARADE, one of the strangest movies ever made by MGM, but it would be worth lengthy discourse at some point; Hamilton's bizarrely harrowing performance stands out amidst the movie's many absurdities and odd tones.

I must disagree that Hamilton didn't "camp-up" his role as Commissioner Gordon on the BATMAN tv series. Rather, I believe the actor's experience in plummy early talkies gave him a razor-sharp instinct of how to archly play the part and deliver those silly lines without going completely over the top... he's camping it up, all right -- perfectly. His fellow actors by comparison were just flailing about.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Mike In ohio said...

It's intersting to note that Neil helped manage his own fan club in the early thirties. At one time, I had a group of letters from Hamilton to a lady fan in Lorain Ohio. Each letter was type written on his personal stationary and signed. He would talk about what his hoobies were and mention his upcoming film roles (mostly MGM). In each letter he enclosed a current four page fan club newsletter titled "The Hamiltones". I doubt that many stars would even consider such a thing today. Many stars then, such as Neil, seemed truly gratefull for their fame and would take the time to respond to fans.

12:31 PM  

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