The King and Queen of Style
Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards co-hosts George Hamilton and Joan Collins show the desert why they reign as celebrities
George Hamilton and Joan Collins have been friends since the late 1950s, and they got on famously during this photo shoot. Afterward, they went to Desert AIDS Project, where they recorded PSAs promoting the annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards. When they emerged from the recording room, Hamilton joked to her, “If you keep at this, you could be professional.” Later, as they posed for pictures in front of a backdrop for the fundraiser, he announced to the photographers, “I have been in the most important points of Joan’s life.”
Photograph by Michael Childers
Location: Marc Ware residence, Palm Springs
Wardrobe stylist: Susan Stein
Hair and makeup: Jamie Lyn of J. Russell! The Salon, Palm Desert
Jewelry: Lugano Diamonds of Newport Beach and Alexis Bittar of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Caftan: Aiisha Ramadan
Herman Miller Chair: 20 First Modern & Vintage, Palm Springs
They both recall Don the Beachcomber as a hot spot in Palm Springs. They’ve both written autobiographies and are now developing one-person theater retrospective shows of their decades in show business. They both claim they spend most of their time in airplanes between residences and jobs. They dated in the late 1960s and have remained friends, have worked together professionally, and will co-host the 2011 Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards on March 12. They both look impeccably put together. But when Joan Collins suggests George Hamilton tuck a fuchsia handkerchief in his jacket pocket to match the caftan she’s wearing for a photograph, he demurs.
“It’s a little too Dancing With the Stars,” he says, before adding, “Maybe if I just had fuchsia lipstick and you didn’t say anything about it.”
Quips are a Hamilton trademark — a trait he exhibited when he ballroom-danced his way into the hearts of the reality show’s fans in 2006. As much as he jokes, the suave actor also takes things seriously — even Dancing With the Stars.
“You didn’t realize until you got into it what a commitment it was,” he says, adding that he ended up learning and then rehearsing routines eight hours a day. In 2009, he took a star turn on another reality show: the U.K. version of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here — a production he opted to leave. “I was 18 days into it when I realized I didn’t really want to win,” he reveals. “I had nothing to gain from it. I learned a lot about myself, [such as] it’s good to get right to the finish line and say, ‘I don’t have to cross this.’ The journey was what this was about.”
In biopic movies, Hamilton has portrayed Moss Hart, Hank Williams, Evel Knievel, and William Randolph Hearst.
“They’re very crossover people, don’t you think?” he says. “I really like to mimic things. I will see somebody make a move and then several hours later will be able to do it, and I kind of try to go outward-inward with idiosyncrasies. … I got Hank Williams and Evel Knievel better than the others because I really worked on those and got to know the person through other people. It’s a whole other approach to making a movie when you put a [fictional] character together. If you are doing somebody [real], you have to examine them through other people’s eyes and then through their own eyes, and it’s complicated. That’s the conflict. … In 50 years, I have never really got it the way I wanted it.” (He adds that he’d like to do more biographies.)
He also camped it up as Count Dracula in Love at First Bite and as Don Diego de la Vega and his gay twin in Zorro, the Gay Blade. Those may be his most well-known movie roles — gaining both popular and cult followings. In contrast, his first credited film role had him playing a law student who murders a pawn broker in a 1959 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The 20-year-old film novice even got to add an element not in the script: playing the bongos. “I used to [drum] on a beer can,” he explains. “I was doing it on the set, and the director said it was great ‘caged energy.’”
Another surprising aspect of Hamilton’s career in entertainment: a Billboard hit in 1963 titled “Don’t Envy Me” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. According to Hamilton, it was just part of Hollywood’s PR machine. “We were all made to do that. It was just another way for them to get you famous,” he says. “I didn’t really sing. I don’t think I am particularly great at it.” (Judge for yourself: The song is on YouTube.)
Hamilton’s good looks, radiant smile, abundant charm, and toned-and-tan body in fitted blazers and cashmere sweaters supported his reputation as a playboy in his younger days. While maintaining those qualities at the age of 71, he can afford to be more philosophical.
“I find that women who are really attractive are the most insecure of all,” he says, noting that one has to be “overly charming” around them “because they already don’t believe what you are saying. … You have to find small faults they would agree with to validate that you are interested in them, such as saying, ‘That color is not great on you.’”
Hamilton plans to debut a one-man show with film clips, stories, as well as some singing and dancing, in London this spring. He’s also developing a TV show (a Cheers-like ensemble-cast sitcom in which he plays the owner of a bar) and is “retilling the ground” concerning a proposed reality show.
When he’s not working, Hamilton listens to his inner self. “I make a decision when I wake up in the morning if I want to go back to sleep for an hour. And that second hour is the most relaxing of my whole life. It gives me that stolen time that I can’t get otherwise. When I’m working, I am a compulsive list-maker. When I’m not working, I choose to ‘waste’ time — and it’s not really a waste,” he says. “If you don’t learn to do that, this business will have robbed it all away from you. [When I’m not working], I do exactly as I feel, not what I think I should do. When I work, I do what I think I should do.”
Why someone as perfectly coiffed, made up, manicured, and styled as Joan Collins would want to prance around as a rat could be the ultimate question to stump Mensa members. Yet, from mid-December through January, that’s exactly what the London-born, American-celebrated actress did: She portrayed a rat (albeit a Queen Rat) in a revered English fairytale (Dick Whittington) at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
“I took my little grandchildren to see Henry Winkler playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan and they said, ‘Why can’t you do that?’ So I said to my agent, ‘Maybe I should do pantomime.’” (Pantomime, a Christmas tradition in England, is akin to vaudeville.) In the production, Collins sang Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to Be Evil.”
Collins knows evil, of course. For almost the entire decade of the ’80s, she starred as the scheming, face-slapping, sometimes-called-superbitch Alexis Carrington Colby on the primetime soap Dynasty. It is, she says, her second-favorite role of her 60-year career (her favorite being Amanda in a West End and Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives). Fortunately for ABC, Collins is less vengeful than Alexis.
“I am one of the unlucky ones, like [primetime soap Dallas star] Linda Gray, who do not get residuals from one of the most famous and popular shows ever. We were stupid, but who knew?” she says, pointing out that the show still airs on television in France and England. “I am not being bitter,” she adds. “It’s just that’s why people think I am rich.”
She may not be getting residuals from Dynasty, but she has and makes enough money to maintain homes in Los Angeles, New York, London, and St. Tropez (where she spends summers).
“In the south of France, my life involves entertaining my friends and playing with three grandchildren, eating, and drinking,” she says. “In Los Angeles, it involves telephone calls and meetings and trying to fit some time in to exercise.” Though she says, “I hate sports,” she works with a trainer on “leg work and stretching and things that one should do.”
Collins also spends time writing. She has written two autobiographies, six novels, and a half-dozen beauty/lifestyle books. But, on the print side, she can’t keep pace with younger sister Jackie Collins, who churns out best-selling novels almost annually. In 2010, she took on the role of an aging sex symbol in the film Fetish (which earned her the Best Actress Award from the New York City International Film Festival). She posed for the spring 2010 ad campaign for Alexis Bittar jewelry. She guest-starred in an episode of the sitcom Rules of Engagement (playing the mother of David Spade’s character). She completed a 10-night run of her one-woman show (One Night With Joan) for Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York. She traveled to Palm Springs for this story’s photo shoot and a tour of the Desert AIDS Project (see “Helping the Cause” at left). And she took to the London stage as a rat.
“I’m too busy [to write novels],” Collins says. “It takes a lot out of you. … You really need to be very dedicated and get down to it, and my life has been a bit fragmented.” She is, however, working on a book (due to the publisher this month) about her opinions on everything from fashion and food to marriage and morals. And she has regularly expressed her opinions online for the Daily Mail.
Take, for example, her thoughts about blue jeans.
“I was the first person to wear jeans at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,” she says, explaining that she saw Americans in movies wearing them, but jeans were hard to come by in England. “I went to a man’s shop and bought the smallest pair, and then I sat in a hot bath until they shrunk. I wore them constantly. Now everybody wears them, and it’s really quite a bore.”
These days, it would indeed be difficult to picture Collins in jeans, just as it is difficult to picture her doing her own hair and makeup. But she does — as she did for this photo shoot, relying only on touchups throughout the day.
“I have been doing my own makeup and hair since I was 17,” she says. “I started because in England I had this old makeup man and his hands always smelled of tobacco. I couldn’t stand him putting his hands on my face. I know how to do it. And, of course, I know my own face like the back of my hand — better than the back of my hand.”
Subsequent to this story’s print deadline, it was announced that Joan Collins and Robert Wagner were in development on a TV comedy series to be shot in Palm Springs: Chateau Chateau, based on an original story by Collins.
George Hamilton clearly enjoys life. He smiled easily from the day’s first shot through the last — and beyond. When asked how he could keep doing so, especially without it seeming forced, he answered, “Oh, I just find it all so amusing.”
His Palm Springs Life
George Hamilton’s remembrances of living in Palm Springs include Alana Stewart (before she married Rod Stewart), Elvis Presley, Colonel Parker, Iranian Princess Soraya, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant.
On his way to the Palm Springs Life photo shoot, Hamilton passed the mountainside house he owned from 1968 to 1974.
“I first rented Gloria Swanson’s house with a tennis court and liked it. Then I found a house at Patencio and Alejo,” he recalls. “It was just a weekend house, but it had charm.” Robert Wagner was a frequent guest, and Hamilton became great friends with neighbor and Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Parker.
Hamilton drove to Palm Springs from Los Angeles on Fiday nights and returned to the “city” on Sunday mornings.
“It was like living in two different worlds,” he says. “I had just made the Evel Knievel movie. I had 25 to 30 motorcycles.” His girlfriend, model and actress Alana Collins (who also had a role in the Knievel film), had plans.
“I was so happy fixing things and making things. I was working on a barstool, and she said, ‘We have to make a decision [about getting married].’ I went to Colonel Parker. He said, ‘It’s really simple. You have to make the decision or you will find yourself troubled. … Just get married today. I will get Elvis’ plane. We can fly to Las Vegas and you can be married in his suite at the International [Hotel].’”
So they grabbed the dog, flew to Vegas, got married, called their mothers, played roulette, and flew back to Palm Springs. “The deal with The Colonel was that we would be back in time to watch the 10 o’clock news,” Hamilton says, chuckling. “He was a wise old man. … It seemed so much easier to do it that way. I think if I ever got married again, I would do it that way.”
Hamilton also called Parker when he needed $100,000. “He told me to come over at 2 o’clock. I thought, ‘Great, The Colonel will give me $100,000.’ When I got there, he said, ‘Just answer “yes” to this phone call.’” The call resulted in a Vegas gig. Veterans of the Strip’s entertainment scene, including Sammy Davis Jr., coached him during rehearsals. When Hamilton went to collect his $100,000 at the end of the week, he was told, “No, you owe us money.”
Apparently, rehearsal costs exceeded revenue; and Hamilton returned to Palm Springs checkless. Parker invited him to dinner on a Sunday evening, and Presley was there. Later, the club owner arrived, and Parker asked him whether, if Elvis had a “bad week” in Vegas, would he not get paid. “Elvis laughed, and I got my check for $100,000,” Hamilton says.
Before Alana, Hamilton dated the seven-year-older Princess Soraya (divorced from the shah of Iran). On the way to a Palm Springs club called Ruby’s Dunes (Hamilton describes it as a mob place where Frank Sinatra hung out), the princess told Hamilton that Sinatra had asked her out, but she considered him too old for her.
“I was 20 and driving a Bentley,” Hamilton recalls. At Ruby’s, the princess ordered a bottle of Champagne, and the waiter asked for Hamilton’s I.D. Hamilton replied that his I.D. was in his Bentley. When that statement-meant-to-impress failed to uncork the bubbly, Hamilton told the princess they had to leave.
“She asked why, and I said, ‘Because they haven’t got the year I like.’ As we walked out, I heard laughter. Frank had sent this guy over to card me.” Since the princess had rebuffed Sinatra, Hamilton says, “He got the last laugh.”
The next day, the couple went horseback riding at Smoketree Stables.
“All of the sudden, over the hill, I see this dark guy with gray hair — God on a horse. … It was Cary Grant, and he rode up.”
“Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it?” Grant began. Then he waxed on about the moon and said, “People sing ‘shine on, harvest moon.’ Soon they’ll be signing ‘shine on, harvest Earth.’”
After Grant rode off, the princess said to Hamilton, “He is so brilliant” — to which Hamilton replied, “No, he is stoned.”
While living here, Hamilton enjoyed Mexican restaurants, including Las Casuelas, Don the Beachcomber, then Melvyn’s and Le Vallauris. Since selling the house and until this photo shoot, he only returned to the desert for the dedication of his star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars in 1999.
“It was the end of an era for me in that I could have been happy here and lived here, but it was also the end of an era in Hollywood,” he says. “The Racquet Club was fun, and that kind of all went away too.”
However, Hamilton, who has apartments in Palm Beach and Los Angeles and a reserved hotel suite in New York, now says he would consider living here again.
“You have to be around the ocean, mountains, or desert — something that’s bigger than yourself, and this really answers that. There’s something very grounding about mountains. New York is all put together by the impermanence of man’s hand. Here, there’s some substance.”
Joan Collins used to spend weekends in the desert in the 1960s when her business manager had a house here. She stopped visiting, she says, “I guess because I get my sunshine in June, July, and August in the south of France” (her St. Tropez residence).
Hamilton’s Scoop on Collins:
She has an outrageous sense of humor, and she doesn’t take herself as seriously as people think. Most of the time, she knows that she can play the character and get away with it. I know that she knows that I know, and that’s why we always have been friends. I love her, but I am not in awe of her. … She understands the joke, and that’s why she’s not the joke.
Collins’ Scoop on Hamilton:
We have known each other since we were kids. He was the first young person I knew that had a Rolls-Royce. I met him at a luncheon party. He took me for a spin in his Rolls. He was very sophisticated for his age. He was 19, and I was slightly older. We have been friends ever since. We have a very good rapport. We are like brother and sister. He is a wonderful father, and he is completely dedicated to his youngest son, [11-year-old] George T.
Helping the Cause
After their Palm Springs Life photo shoot and interviews, George Hamilton and Joan Collins toured the Desert AIDS Project complex to learn firsthand about the nonprofit’s work prior to their co-hosting its main fundraiser on March 12.
During the tour, led by Executive Director David Brinkman, Collins recalled being on a magazine cover 30 years ago when a cover line read, “Mysterious disease is killing gay men.”
Since then, HIV and AIDS have struck more than gay men, including women and children. Brinkman explained that in DAP’s service area (about 11,000 square miles), HIV tests come back positive at a rate 400 percent higher than the national average. “We grow by 40 patients a month,” he said.
The tour, which included a multipurpose room and medical and dental clinics, clearly impressed the celebrities and reinforced the importance of their job co-hosting the annual awards gala.
“The event you are doing raises over $1 million in four hours,” Brinkman told them, adding that their fame helps the cause: “It’s the way we get national publicity.”