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My life was a train wreck.
I had torn the rotator cuffs in my shoulders. This was a result of years of rehearsing for movies like Zorro, the Gay Blade, where twelve hours of fencing lessons one day, followed by twelve hours of bullwhip practice the next, had caused my shoulders to be stuck in the ten o'clock and two o'clock positions, in a sort of hideous, contorted version of Al Jolson in Mammy.
To make matters worse, I had blown out my knee in the Broadway musical Chicago when the young actress playing the dummy to my ventriloquist became too energetic and bounced so hard on my knee that I felt my right joint explode on the spot. The doctor later confirmed that part of the cartilage had shredded, making it temporarily impossible for me to walk. So much for the old razzle-dazzle. Even worse, not long afterward, in a bad parody of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, I had broken four ribs jumping aboard a friend's yacht. Plus, there was the little matter of my balance problem...
And that was the good news.
In the midst of my assorted agonies, my agent called me up. He seemed to call me only when three little old ladies in a nursing home needed entertainment. But this time, opportunity, big-time, he said, was pounding at my hospital door. My agent's chance of a lifetime was for me to be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, the reality dance-off show pairing celebrities with professional dancers, recently imported from England by ABC. In its first season, in the summer of 2005, Dancing had been the number one show in the country, with more than fifteen million viewers.
My first response at hearing the offer was to laugh so hard that I nearly broke another rib. Well...well? the agent pressed me. Wasn't I thrilled? Wasn't I interested?
Sure, I thought. If we can find a dance where seizing up, screaming in pain, and dropping to my one decent knee was part of the routine.
"It's a great career move," the agent said, falling back on the ultimate showbiz cliche;.
"The Bataan Death March had a better chance of having a happy outcome," I replied.
"Millions of people will be watching," he said, giving me the hard sell.
"That could be a problem," I replied.
The agent sold and sold, puffing about how big the show had been in the UK and now here. What stars had been on the first season? I asked. He hemmed and hawed. Evander Holyfield, he said. The boxer. The champ. The guy whose ear Mike Tyson bit off. Trista Sutter. Who was that? I asked. Big star of The Bachelor reality show. Huge, he said. A star? Stars were different when I first started in the game. Who else? Kelly Monaco, the season's winner. Major soap opera star, major Playboy model. Who else? Rachel Hunter.
Rachel Hunter? Now, he was talking. Rachel, the supermodel, had been married to Rod Stewart, just like my ex, Alana, the supermodel. Rod and I, who on the surface seemed to have nothing in common, did share a seemingly identical taste in women. Before Alana, we had both been involved with Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland, and after Alana, we both dated the beauty Liz Treadwell. At least I always came first. In any event, in my Six Degrees of Rod Stewart game, the mention of Rachel Hunter made me feel that perhaps destiny was at work here.
"Good career move?" I sought the agent's assurance. It would be huge exposure, I mused. It was better than having folks continue to confuse me with Warren Beatty or, worse, forget me altogether. I had begun to get those people coming up to me and saying, "I know you. I know you."
And I would prod, "George Hamilton?"
"No, no, not him," they would reply. "What show'd you play on?" they would continue.
After I had rolled off half a dozen titles or so, they still had a blank look. Somehow the excitement disappeared when I had to give them clues.
At this point, I think it's important you know something about me. I have never been good at planning. You might say I hate plans. They take all the fun out of living. In my family, we liked to do the dumbest thing possible just to lessen the chances for success, and then work our way out of it. What is life without challenges? That's how we lived. So Dancing with the Stars was really no leap of faith. I knew I would heal. I knew I could pull it off. I didn't know exactly how right then, but I knew I could do it. "God watches after us," my mother had always assured us, and I believe that, too.
So I limped, hobbled, and dragged my disapproving body onto a plane and made my way from Florida, where I was recuperating, to Los Angeles -- to Studio 46 in CBS Television City in Hollywood, with rehearsals already under way for a show that still had a few bugs to work out.
It was a scene of only slightly organized chaos. The costume designer was showing off sequin-bedecked numbers to doubting executives, while makeup artists were practicing their art on their reluctant celebrity captives. In the midst of all this, the network people were quarreling over musical arrangements. I could see they were all as ill prepared for what lay ahead as I was, and somehow this was consoling.
I met the other stars, my rivals for the mirror-ball trophy they gave the winner after eight weeks of dips and splits and twirls and whirls. There was no money involved, but stars were supposedly way beyond money. Publicity would be its own reward. This being network television, there was someone for every demographic, all here meeting and greeting, smiling, and trying to get a handle on one another: Oscar winner Tatum O'Neal; football legend Jerry Rice; Bond girl Tia Carrere; Melrose Place stunner Lisa Rinna; sports anchor Kenny Mayne; news anchor Giselle Fernandez; rapper Master P; singer Drew Lachey; wrestler Stacy Keibler; and yours truly. I guess I was there to cater to the geezer demographic. At sixty-six, I was the oldest contestant by way too many decades. At my age, I wondered, shouldn't I have been at the Kennedy Center getting a medal instead of making a fool out of myself ? Who did I think I was, a poster boy for AARP? On the other hand, it made me feel so young, while the Kennedy Center would make me feel like I was out to pasture.
One island of sanity in this sea of confusion was the host of the show, Tom Bergeron, the ex-host of Hollywood Squares. Ably assisted by cohost and E! reporter Samantha Harris, Tom was enormously capable and very funny. No one was better with a one-liner. He could always find something witty to say to cover someone's flub or to smooth out an embarrassing moment. This easy gift of his proved valuable time after time during the show.
My assigned partner was soon introduced to me. Her name was Edyta Sliwinska (pronounced EH-di-tuh), and she was so striking that I knew the only way I could upset this woman would be if I got between her and her mirror. For all her ravishing beauty, Edyta still inspired confidence. After all, she had been partnered with Evander Holyfield the previous season and had stayed in the ring with him. She was tall and powerful. From the moment I met her I knew that I was in good hands. "Not to worry, little prince..." she fired off in an intoxicating Polish accent. While she had the sinuous body of a showgirl, she had the rock-solid personality of an ironworker. I quickly made a twohour film in my head featuring Edyta driving a team of mules across the Polish countryside, while fighting off invading Mongol warriors, then -- and only then -- taking time to self-deliver her baby in the field.
For every complaint I had about my diminished performance capabilities, Edyta had a ready answer. "Because of my broken ribs, I have a little dip and twirl problem," I malingered.
"I can dip and twirl myself, no one will ever know the difference," she assured me with only the slightest touch of narcissism. Finally, a woman who's a self-starter! This was heaven. Mom was right. God is truly good.
For such a blockbuster, I was a little surprised by the show's skimpy operating budget. I guess I had been spoiled by my Hollywood studio days, when the red carpet was rolled out everywhere you turned. This was going to be strictly tourist class. No champagne and caviar on this trip -- only the ubiquitous bottle of Evian water -- if you were lucky enough to be tossed one.
Little did I know that the first part of the competition would be vying with other contestants for a rehearsal hall. Naturally, some halls were better than others. One had a leaky roof, another had been recently refitted and still had wet varnish on the floor, and most of them smelled like a Gold's Gym. They all seemed to have one feature in common: a wall of fame sporting framed eight-by-ten glossies of everyone from long-forgotten movie hoofers to the hottest new boy bands to the latest hip-hop gangstas. They were a visual reminder of how fleeting fame can be.
From one day to the next, we never knew where we were going, since these halls were rented for only a few hours each day. On more than one occasion we had to wind up our session quickly to make way for an incoming children's ballet class or the like. Eventually, the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Beverly Hills came to my rescue by offering up their state-of-the-art facility. Did I mention that things have a way of working out for me?
The competitiveness in me was ratcheted up a notch when I spotted some of my competition. The clear favorite in my eyes was Drew Lachey, from the boy band 98 Degrees, which apparently did a lot of fancy Chuck Berry-ish moves. Plus, Drew had starred on Broadway in the musical Rent. Yeah, I starred in Chicago, but it cost me a knee. Drew was the brother and bandmate of Nick Lachey -- the then husband of Jessica Simpson and half of the Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood of modern Hollywood coupledom. In short, Drew was big man on campus here in Television City. He ambled over to greet me. He had the tight, confident walk of a bulldog, with all the same assurance. Teamed up in the competition with a ravishing Filipino/Irish/Russian dancer named Cheryl Burke, he was thirty-seven years younger than I was, incredibly agile, with ripped muscles. I could barely believe it when in rehearsal he leaped catlike high above his partner's head and landed on both knees, skidding to a halt with a perfect smile on his face. I could only imagine the collateral damage I would cause if I tried a stunt like that. I needed a plan.
Of course, I knew the rudiments of dance. The deRhams' society dancing class in New York City where Mom had enrolled me, kicking and screaming, had taught me something. "Now, gentlemen," the elderly owner Willie deRham would intone in his bored voice, "grasp your young lady's right hand in your left hand and then close your hand as if you were wrapping it around a rose petal.
"No, no, Mr. Hamilton, your posture is all wrong. Hold your partner firmly. Lift your arms. Higher. Higher!" Instantly furious at me for not being able to capture the picture-perfect position he held in his mind, he decided I should instead dance with a piece of furniture. "I do not believe you are ready yet to dance with a young lady. So for the rest of your lesson your partner will be that chair." He pointed to a folding chair in the corner.
"Pick it up, Mr. Hamilton, now one...two...three...one...two...three...step, step, step...if you do this well, I may let you dance with a shotgun."
Years later, when I was a young man in Florida, one of my first jobs was giving lessons in a Palm Beach dance school. Before you think I somehow had an unfair advantage over the other candidates for the job, you should know that I survived in this brief employment only by staying one step ahead (literally) of my students. You see, I didn't really need to know how to dance. All I had to do was learn a new step each day and then teach it to my clients.
Each morning the head salesman/instructor would come in and remind us of our duties. "Remember, instructors," he would say, "these are married women, unmarried women, lonely women, desperate women, and mainly widows with lots of money with nowhere to go." Then he went on to explain that their idea of a social life was for all thirty couples from the school to go out together once a week, have a little veal piccata and a light wine, and then to start off with the same dance step in the same direction on the same downbeat. It was hideous.
"Now, Mr. Hamilton, today you will have Mrs. Bluestein, Mrs. Goldman, Mrs. Kelly, and Mrs. Coronio. Let me caution you, Mr. Hamilton, Mrs. Coronio is handicapped, so she will be in a wheelchair. Your job will be, on beat, to spin her wheelchair in the direction she wants to go. She will have the same feeling as if she were dancing, that's all she expects." Later, I did my best to accommodate by urging Mrs. Coronio to "put a little more snap in your wheelchair."
Also, during the lessons, we were advised to wear our watches with the face on the inside of our wrist so that near the close of our hour we could sneak a look at it and say, "Oh, I'm so sorry, our time is about up. But if you were a lifetime member of our school, you wouldn't have to worry about time; you could dance for as long as you like." That's the way we sold lifetime memberships. But now I had much bigger problems than pitching lifetime memberships to willing widows. This time I had to really learn to dance and do it pronto.
The other theoretical leg up this geezer had was that my father had been a bandleader in the Benny Goodman / Tommy Dorsey era. I may not have known the dances, but I did know the music, from "Begin the Beguine" to "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Of course this was all useless now. The dance music they used on the show sounded straight from American Idol, and I had never heard any of it. To me, their jazzed-up versions barely resembled the classic dances they were supposed to accompany. I wanted music that could go with a more traditional foxtrot, tango, or cha-cha. I pleaded uncoolness, and my humility paid off; the producers allowed me to dispense with certain numbers they had picked for me in favor of a few of my own selections. Musical director Harold Wheeler went along.
Each day, Edyta and I would meet in the rehearsal hall to plan, and eventually execute, the great dance resurrection of yours truly. And each day Edyta would arrive right on schedule, wearing her usual warm-ups. It was what was underneath that was always a pleasant surprise. As the rehearsals progressed she wore less and less. Always the romantic -- and in hopes I could charm her out of rehearsing for a couple of hours -- I would stop off at the bakery on my way and pick up a lavish pastry. Anything to delay having to dance! Couldn't I just talk, or simply stand there and be adored? I quickly learned that thanks to her unbelievable metabolism and the incredible number of hours she spent dancing each day, Edyta could literally eat a horse (preferably a Polish Arabian) and not gain an ounce. My daily food delivery then burgeoned into huge potato dishes and whole loaves of bread, even a giant Polish sausage. You may think I was trying to seduce her. Actually, subconsciously I was probably hoping she would get too obese to dance and I could get out of the whole damn thing.
Soon, miraculously soon, Edyta began to deliver on her promise to make me look good despite my infirmities. She specialized in teaching dance to children. Even if this big old baby was not made to order for her skills, I was a prime candidate for her second specialty: camouflage. All I would have to do is move my arm to the side and Edyta would twirl like a dervish in any direction I wanted her to. She could also bend over backward and raise herself back up without help. If I simply placed my hand behind her back, it looked as if I was doing all the heavy lifting. Maybe there really was a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, I began to believe. For fellow narcissists, this was like having great sex without messing up your hair.
Yet for all my emerging confidence, my mind kept planning escapes from the day of retribution that lay ahead. Some well-timed ipecac could make me imitate all the symptoms of a pandemic flu. That bay window in the rehearsal hall looked good -- maybe if I ran crashing through it and somehow managed to survive, they would take pity on me and let me go. Or perhaps I could drive into a center divider and do sufficient injury to myself to escape the whole ordeal...I could see the headlines now: "George Hamilton, Oldest Contestant, Favored to Win 'Dancing with the Stars,' Dies of Punctured Lung from Broken Ribs Sustained While En Route to Big Win."
The Hamilton mind was at its best planning getaways -- especially when faced with the prospect of humiliating yourself in front of an anticipated 25 million people in prime time (eight p.m. eastern time, seven central). Saddam Hussein, hiding in a hole in Iraq, wouldn't take those odds. Sometimes when you place your fate in the hands of destiny and your spirit calls, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / or close the wall up with our English dead" (whatever that means), the god of wild abandon takes over. You totally let go and say, "What am I worried about? Forget about it. If everything goes south, I can always move to a small country (of twenty-five million or less) where they will never find me." Once you pass that point, a sudden sense of relief sweeps over you that resembles what the condemned prisoner must feel when he utters his final words: "Let's just get this over with." Then, and only then, do you experience real freedom from fear and get ready for the wild ride and out-of-body experience that lies ahead.
Another point you should know is that I've never been good at rehearsal. In my book, there's no substitute for the real thing. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it once and I'm going to do it right the first time. Evel Knievel taught me this lesson: If you're going to be a daredevil, don't practice too much. It's too dangerous.
Nevertheless, I did my best. Weeks of rehearsal, aided by my chiropractor and a sadistic sports doctor who made me do squats and lifts to strengthen my knee, sharpened my performance. But I never kidded myself. Drew Lachey, the boy-band icon who had far greater dancing skills than I could dream of, was going to win this -- no question. All I wanted was not to be kicked off after my first dance.
Finally, in chilly January 2006, came the moment I had dreaded for so long, the moment of truth...or consequences. Edyta and I were number three in the lineup. You could hear the furious roar of hair dryers in the makeup room. Voices began to sound nervous while some contestants tried to feign nonchalance. "Oh yeah, I'm ready," Jerry Rice mentioned casually. "Sure, no sweat. I hurt a little bit, but I iced it." I could imagine him making that same statement at the beginning of a hundred pro football games where he was asked to play through the pain.
In quick order I'm called into the makeup room, where I go over and over my routine in my head. My chiropractor arrives to do a quick neck adjustment. I don all the accoutrements necessary to shore up my knee (leg brace, orthotics, support hose). For a moment I feel like a geriatric gladiator preparing to enter the arena. The finishing touches...well, maybe I could use another sip or two of Red Bull and a quick double shooter from Starbucks. Yes, that's better. That'll level the playing field with these twenty-year-olds. I'm ready. As I leave the makeup room, Randall, the costume designer, is rushing handkerchiefs to the female dancers, a few of whom are receiving the full-bodymakeup treatment. If only I could linger a little. Too bad I have such a pressing appointment.
Then comes the announcement that we are going live in twentyeight seconds. "What? What is that?" More Red Bull. A little face powder. Where's Edyta? There she is, completely ready and not a hair out of place. "And now, ladies and gentlemen...Mr. George Hamilton and his partner, Edyta Sliwinska dancing the cha-cha." The music starts. Edyta smiles at me and grabs my hand, and I start down the stairs with her, trying to summon all the spring of Fred Astaire in his prime. When I feel the warmth of the lights, I flash the smile I had learned to use to cover all my fears. Adrenaline, testosterone, whatever it is, begins kicking in, and I remember thinking to myself that no matter how bad I am, they can't kill me. I can barely hear the opening music for the drumbeat of excitement booming in my ears. Suddenly things are working that haven't worked before. My legs move with surprising assurance. My arms come up, no problem. I even manage to trail my arm behind me in that effete fashion the judges so favor. The dance that I expected to last an eternity was over in a flash. Last cha-cha in Hollywood? Maybe not.
The three judges were unexpectedly generous. "Geooorge! The master showman...so smooth, so debonair..." Bruno Tonioli effused. The Ferrara-born Bruno had been an Elton John video dancer and a judge on the British version of the show. Len Goodman, who ran a ballroom-dancing school in Kent, had also been a judge on the British show. Len was equally encouraging, though he cautioned that I should watch the frame; that was what dancing was all about. Carrie Ann Inaba, a Hawaiian singer and backup dancer who attended Barack Obama's prep school in Honolulu, almost seemed to be flirting with me. In the end, however, she confirmed Len's criticism, and gave me a 7 (out of 10) to Bruno's and Len's 8s. It stung, being judged like that by the woman who played Fook Yu in Austin Powers in Goldmember. But, in the end, 23 was a pretty great score for a big faker like me.
Somehow, though, I felt that I looked a little plastic dancing with Edyta. No matter how clever we were with our moves, it was still pretty transparent that she was practically dancing her way into a coma while I was finishing without breaking a sweat. It was a cheat and everyone would know it. So I went into full damage control. Partly to come clean and partly to enlist sympathy, I told the world on camera in the interdance interview sequence that I was struggling against my various physical challenges.
Off camera, I told Edyta that the rules were about to change. I was never going to outperform the better dancers with my footwork. I would have to dazzle them with my showmanship. So from then on, I crafted an approximately two-minute mini-motion picture for every dance number we were in. Borrow from the great Fred Astaire? Don't mind if I do. A touch of Cary Grant? That's okay with me. How about a dash of Gene Kelly? Bruno, the effusive judge, called me the ultimate showman...the great trickster. Whatever it was, whomever I lifted from, the ends justified the means. As each week went by, others were voted off, but I remained in the race. Seabiscuit was rounding the first lap and then the second and the third...the finish line was still far off, but if I didn't break down or throw a shoe, there was a chance, albeit a tiny one.
It was about this time that I met one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, and I've seen a few. Stacy Keibler was a well-known lady wrestler who exploded the old stereotype to smithereens. Stacy was no fuzzy-lipped behemoth gladiator but a swan, a ballet dancer, a statuesque modern goddess with forty-two-inch legs, the greatest I had witnessed since I had costarred with Cyd Charisse back in the Pleistocene era. Judge Bruno called Stacy "a weapon of mass seduction." The first time I saw her lift one of her gorgeous gams above her partner's shoulder, the whole objective of my involvement in Dancing with the Stars shifted. It was as if the world had done a sudden bounce in its orbit, blowing houses and factories off their foundations. From then on I didn't care if I won or even showed well. All I wanted was Stacy.
It didn't hurt that at the time I met her, to save my failing knee, the chiropractor had suggested I see a doctor about getting steroids -- you know, the performance-enhancing drugs that have damaged so many famous athletes' careers. This I did, and, aided by DEPO Testosterone (aka 'roids), I felt like a twenty-year-old again. Snorting, flaring my nostrils, and pawing the ground, I was ready for action. The tight bodies and skimpy costumes of the female dancers began to work a new magic on me. It was as if my evil twin, Mr. Hyde, had taken over my body. I even imagined myself jealous of Stacy's dance partner, the happily married Tony Dovolani, when he had his arms around her.
As I began flirting outrageously with this gorgeous swan, the audience, whose call-in votes were as crucial to winning as the judges' scores, became more and more involved in my joke. They loved it when I convinced a local Beverly Hills jeweler, Yossi, to lend me a seventeen-carat diamond ring and I slipped it temptingly on Stacy's finger during her interview. I told her it was the Hamilton diamond and that it came with a curse, Mr. Hamilton. I enjoyed the hopeless pursuit, but I'm not sure Stacy's young actor boyfriend found the whole thing very amusing. Thank goodness he wasn't a wrestler, too.
This new diversion, obsession, or whatever it was, was, in the end, no real help to my original, nonamorous goal of staying on the show. Poor Edyta, who had done everything but carry me onstage, was now paying the price for teaming up with me. We quickly sank to one of the two couples eligible for elimination each week. There at the bottom, I found fellowship with Master P, a hip-hop star whose son, Lil' Romeo, had originally been scheduled to appear on the show but had dropped out, leaving Big Daddy to step up and in. Master P refused to rehearse at all and would wing it each performance, often with disastrous results. I loved the guy, the way misery loves company.
Commenting on his total scores, which ran from 8 to 14, he told me, "Aw, George, I don't care. I'm going home to my fifteen-milliondollar crib. How many people here you think have a fifteen-milliondollar crib?" On his weekly postdance interview, Master P rationalized poor performance by saying that it was all about his doing it for his "hood." I picked up on that and when I had my interview, I chimed in that I was also doing it for my hoods: Palm Beach and Beverly Hills. Master P quickly confirmed, "Me and George are doing it for our hoods." I was down with my homey. We became the best of buddies.
Eventually, though, no matter how Edyta propped me up, and no matter how many rabbits I pulled out of the hat, Edyta and I were eliminated from the contest. We had lasted a very respectable six weeks and placed fifth out of the ten original contestants. Not bad for a bandaged, kneecapped, and distractedly lecherous geezer. I can't say I was sorry. A montage of memories flashed across my mind, like the time the seamstress insisted I have butt pads sewn into my costume to add some booty, the way Lisa Rinna became obsessed with dancing and pulled her whole family in, and how Tatum O'Neal parlayed the show into a job on Entertainment Tonight. Edyta ended up marrying her dancer boyfriend, and Stacy never gave me more than an air kiss. So much for the supposedly irresistible charms of the aging roue;. Sure, the Marlon Brando character in me from On the Waterfront would continue to bemoan that "I could've been a contender." This applied equally to Dancing with the Stars as to Stacy Keibler.
But thanks to the magic of testosterone, I had my summer of 1956 once more. My aches and pains vanished. I could be as ageinappropriate as Mick Jagger and get away with it. It was exhausting, but, jeez, it was great to be young again, to beat the clock, even if it was for only a few weeks. And better yet, I had spawned a whole set of younger fans, including cabdrivers, truck drivers, and students who now appreciated this rediscovered silver fox. They would shoot me the thumbs-up sign wherever I went. This happened for weeks, months after I left the show. Sometimes everybody would applaud when I entered a restaurant.
Performance snobs might say it was a little tacky, yet by risking everything I had learned a lot about myself...and I liked it. Funny how you can meet yourself in the damnedest places. The following year I heard that judge Len Goodman had told Jerry Springer he was no George Hamilton. As Master P would say, "Yo, dog, I'm down with that."
Copyright © 2008 by George Hamilton