Metro Weekly

Family Ties

''La Cage Aux Folles''' George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber on old Hollywood, gay relationships -- and why the best of times is now

MW: Chris, you’ve played both characters. Do you have a preference?

SIEBER: I don’t. Georges is not the flamboyant character in the show, but Georges has such an incredible thing to do in the show. You really have to hold the show together. Georges is the glue. Because the character is a stage manager, a producer, a director, a husband, a lover, a father, all these things, everything’s just coming at Georges for two-and-a-half hours, and then he has to deal with his lover Albin, who is out of control, just nuts – and drama, drama, drama constantly.

But Zaza/Albin — I’m having a blast. It is so much fun to play, but exhausting beyond belief. The show is the most vocally demanding show that I’ve ever done in my entire life. To keep up the energy and then bring all that energy just down and be able to be so focused to make sure the audience is right there with you at the end of act one where it’s so quiet that people are literally on the edge of their seats. It’s a rewarding feeling to know that there’s an audience there in the palm of your hand and you could literally do anything with them. It’s a powerful moment.

MW: George, did you have any qualms about playing a gay man?

HAMILTON: Let me just give you a little history so that you kind of understand where I come from in this situation. My half-brother, Bill — I called him my half-brother, half-sister [Laughs.] — he was from my mother’s first husband. And Bill was gay. I learned a lot about his world from him. And the world at that time was bitterly hurtful. It was a [gay] world more of drinking than it is now, of gymnasiums. People didn’t work out. They drank. It was all about closeted relationships.

And my brother really didn’t like to have anyone know that he was gay, but the lovers he had were all very kind of macho in style. And as he got older and as his life started to change — he died really of alcoholism, both renal and liver failure — I literally kind of held his hand through his whole death for six months and was in the hospital with him every day. And during that time, I healed my relationship with him and learned a lot about him. The last question I asked him before he passed away was, ‘What would you do if you had it all to do over again? What would you change?’ And he said, ‘I’d love more.’

I thought, ‘God, that was never him.’ He was always worried about whether his studs matched his links or whether his shirt [matched his] shoes, or whether he had a Rolls Royce – he was very materialistic. But it came down to that. And I thought, ‘My God, that’s what it was all about for him.’ And it changed me. I understood the gay world through my brother. I understood it in Hollywood because I saw that the whole town ran on gay power. Everybody of talent in every department had that eye that my brother had.

MW: Do you think it made you more accepting of the gay world to have a gay brother?

HAMILTON: Of course it did.

MW: But it’s not a given — it could have gone the other way, though. What in you made you accept him?

HAMILTON: Well, he was dying, and when someone is dying and you are talking to him about real things, you either walk away or you get involved. And I’m a person who doesn’t really walk away from much. When I have a challenge or something, I like to see it through — win, lose, or draw. Because the lesson is what it’s about for me. As much as I’m flip and funny about stuff, I love the challenges of doing things.

MW: Is it fair to say that you bring part of your brother’s memory into this performance?

HAMILTON: Every night, every night. I use him with Chris a lot. Especially when [the son] Billy accepts him in front of us all, because that’s the feeling I would have thought my brother would have had, when he got acceptance from me for who he was.

MW: George, you come from the heyday of Hollywood. At that time gays in Hollywood – Rock Hudson, for example – had to live a different, sheltered life. Today, even though more gay actors are coming out, there’s still this underlying notion that if you want a leading-man career in Hollywood, stay in the closet. What’s your perspective?

HAMILTON: I can’t tell you what is correct or what is right as far as the answer to that. I can tell you what is. [Years ago,] the rule of thumb at the studio was that you could not wear any form of religious medal — that divided your audience immediately. You didn’t take big stands — actors were not to be politicians. Most actors I’ve known don’t have a lot of really terrific ideas about politics and all that. They have this very liberal attitude and take it to the hilt. But gay…

Well, it was said that if you were gay, you could not be a leading man. It was a dictum that was not verbally spoken, but generally thought by the studios. I knew actors that were gay. I went under contract with several at the very end. And they played heterosexual parts — look at Rock Hudson in Giant, what an incredible role he played. I think that dual life was very hard for all of them because they were playing something they really weren’t. But they all knew each other and there were people who were not only accepting of it but who — well, Elizabeth Taylor, for instance. Elizabeth loved Rock. She loved Monte Clift. She understood what was going on in the studios and she also understood AIDS and everything else.

MW: But it’s different now than in the day of the matinee idol. Shouldn’t it be easier for actors to come out and be part of the Hollywood system?

HAMILTON: Truthfully, I don’t know if Middle America will accept a [major] gay man in a leading heterosexual part. They will accept it as a gay part, but they think that there is something that is not right about a gay person playing a heterosexual. There are pockets of this country that will not accept it.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.