“Best in Drag Show,” Harry Hamlin has lived a colorful life.
This is the second year in a row that the ruggedly handsome, 60-year old actor has judged the event in support of Los Angeles County’s Aid for AIDS (AFA). Hamlin’s wife of 15 years, Lisa Rinna, is also one of the celebrity judges. The October 7th fundraiser at the Orpheum Theatre will mark the current event’s 10th anniversary.
“It was wild,” Hamlin recently told me about last year’s show. “I hadn’t had any prior experience of it but as they say, try anything once. It’s a great fundraising opportunity and a really fun evening.”
To gay men of a certain generation (including myself), Hamlin will first and foremost be remembered as Perseus in the original, 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. Wearing a barely-there toga throughout, he displayed what one online commentator has crowned “the best nipples I’ve ever seen.” Hamlin was born and raised in Pasadena, the son of an aeronautical engineer father and a martini-swilling, socialite mother. He reveals many intimate, surprising facts about his upbringing in his 2010 autobiography, Full Frontal Nudity: The Making of an Accidental Actor.
Although he initially set out to become an architect, Hamlin graduated from Yale University with degrees in both Drama and Psychology. He then attended the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre, where he played his first lead role largely in the nude as the troubled stable hand in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Shortly after, Hamlin starred as the title character in a 1979 TV miniseries adaptation of Studs Lonigan.
Hamlin has appeared in several stage musicals over the years, including the popular Broadway revival of Chicago. It was his and Rinna’s involvement with Chicago in 2009 that ultimately led to their current involvement in “Best in Drag.” As Hamlin recounts, “Lisa and I were approached through friends. Greg Butler, who did Chicago with us and performs in "Best in Drag," was the one who really got us involved.”
“It’s a very sober event, which is great,” Hamlin said of his current gig. “But at the same time it’s outrageous and fun, and it’s great to know those two things can go together.” As he shares in his book, Hamlin experimented heavily with drugs and alcohol in his youth. He has since tried to live a more healthy and holistic lifestyle.
Hamlin also had the experience of being on the other side of the judges’ table when he appeared as a contestant on television’s Dancing with the Stars a few years back. “I don’t know what qualifies one to judge "Best in Drag," not having any prior experience with drag myself,” he reflected. “It’s just a lot of fun with obviously talented people.”
The actor enjoyed a popular and lengthy run on the series L.A. Law. It was during that time, in 1987, when People declared Hamlin the “Sexiest Man Alive” for the year. He has since appeared on TV in Veronica Mars, Army Wives and the reality series Harry Loves Lisa.
Of course, it is Hamlin’s performance in the 1982 movie Making Love that has endeared him the most to gay audiences. He played Bart, an unapologetically gay novelist who has an affair with his closeted, married doctor (Michael Ontkean). The film received mixed reviews from critics and wasn’t a hit at a time when gay suburban men didn’t go to the movies in droves (like we do today for Magic Mike), but it eventually found an audience on cable and home video.
“We just had a 30th anniversary retrospective screening in Hollywood last month, and it’s great to see that it holds up well,” Hamlin said. “It was a movie that was clearly ahead of its time.” Hamlin noted that director Arthur Hiller and A. Scott Berg, who wrote the original story the film was based on, were also in attendance. Hamlin speaks about his experience on Making Love in the acclaimed 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet.
Here’s hoping Hamlin continues to expose himself — his talent, that is — for years to come.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.