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George Hamilton Discusses Playing It Straight in “La Cage Aux Folles”

The bronzed actor, starring as Georges in the Kennedy Center’s new production, talks musicals, making movies with Brigitte Bardot, and his more-unusual fans.

George Hamilton as Georges in La Cage aux Folles. Photograph by Paul Kolnik.

The role of Georges, the gay entertainment impresario behind the titular drag nightclub in La Cage aux Folles, might not immediately seem like the most subtle part for an actor to play. But for George Hamilton, who’s playing Georges in the touring production of LA Cage at the Kennedy Center, it’s a fairly straight role. “I feel like a caddy setting up a golf ball,” he says. “I set it up, and the other actors take the swing.”

For Hamilton, who confesses he loves hammy roles, Georges is actually teaching him a lot about humility. “My natural tendency is to do the absolutely ridiculous stuff like [1979 Dracula spoof] Love at First Bite,” he says. “But while I might have my name above the title, I actually find myself playing the straight man here, which gives the others permission to do absolutely anything. I’m in awe of their talent.”

This revival of La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway in 2010 starring Kelsey Grammer as Georges, and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, taking three (including the award for Best Musical). Georges, who runs a nightclub in Saint Tropez with his partner, Albin (a drag performer whose alter ego is named “Zaza”), gets an unexpected visit from his son, Jean-Michel, who wants to introduce his father to his fiancée and her conservative Christian family. The musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein includes “I Am What I Am,” a resounding anthem adopted by the gay rights movement and subsequently covered by Gloria Gaynor. “There’s probably not any song in musical theater that’s any better,” Hamilton says.

The role presented a few challenges for the 72-year-old actor, who’s already come through 94 performances prior to the Kennedy Center run. At one point, a torn Achilles tendon almost put him in an ankle cast, but he soldiered on. “I’ve been through worse,” he says. Legendary in Hollywood for his roles in Where the Boys Are, Your Cheatin’ Heart, The Godfather Part III, and Zorro, the Gay Blade, Hamilton has mastered the art of not taking himself too seriously. “Here’s the laugh of it,” he says about the show. “It’s supposed to be edgy and hard to accept, and yet every night I look out into the audience, and I see people in their eighties and nineties coming to see me. Older women send me flowers—one even sent me her panties.”

La Cage is set in Saint Tropez, which Hamilton first discovered when he starred in Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! with Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau. The role came accidentally—he was in Mexico, hiding after what he assumed was the end of his career “for possibly the ninth time,” when an actor dropped out, and Hamilton was drafted to play a Mexican revolutionary. He didn’t speak French, which was problematic, but Moreau offered some help. “Jeanne told me the only way I could learn French would be in bed, and that I should move in with her,” Hamilton says. “And funnily enough, that’s what happened.”

Still, the role of Georges is meaningful to him in a serious way, as well. Hamilton’s late half-brother, William (“I called him my half-brother/half-sister,” the actor says), was gay, and was never accepted by his family because of that fact. “He taught me a lot about life, about everything—taste and beauty,” says Hamilton. “And the issues of gay marriage and all that go on.”

La Cage aux Folles is at the Kennedy Center through February 12. Tickets ($65 to $130) are available through the Kennedy Center’s website.