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The gentleman from Saint-Tropez

George Hamilton takes on a new challenge in a revival of 'La Cage aux Folles'

George Hamilton is starring in the Broadway touring production of the flamboyant farce “La Cage aux Folles.’’ George Hamilton is starring in the Broadway touring production of the flamboyant farce “La Cage aux Folles.’’ (PHOTOS BY PAUL KOLNIK)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / December 2, 2011
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In his dashing corner of the pop-culture universe, George Hamilton is the consummate tuxedo-clad gentleman: his complexion a deep-fried tan, his hair pomaded back with precision, a martini swirling flirtatiously in one hand. This is what people of a certain age once called a ladies’ man.

“In fact, I’m wearing a tuxedo right now,’’ jokes Hamilton on the phone from Cleveland. “I’m sitting in the back of a Rolls-Royce, sipping a martini as we’re having this conversation.’’

But a look at Hamilton’s decades-spanning résumé - from MGM studio player to reality television star - belies that myth of simple suavity. In fact, the 72-year-old actor is an unabashed risk-taker.

His latest gamble involves starring as Georges, the owner of a Saint-Tropez drag club, in the Broadway touring production of “La Cage aux Folles.’’ With Christopher Sieber as Albin, the club’s star and its primary diva-in-residence, the Harvey Fierstein-Jerry Herman musical comes to the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre Tuesday through Dec. 18.

As Georges, Hamilton is not only stepping into the polished penny loafers of Kelsey Grammer, who won acclaim for the role in the show’s 2010 Broadway revival. He is also challenging himself physically by performing in the musical for a year on the road.

Immediately after an early round of rehearsals, he tore an Achilles tendon. Then, in September, he faced a virulent strain of the flu that forced him to cancel promotional appearances for “La Cage.’’

“I’m not afraid of a lot of things anymore, and I embrace them with open arms,’’ he says. “I think it’s like being on a high wire. I’ll always take on something a little bigger than I can do, and I know that by doing it I can get better.’’

It’s easy to forget that Hamilton has cunningly reinvented himself multiple times to arrive at his current starring role in Terry Johnson’s stripped-down, deliberately rough-around-the-edges version of “La Cage,’’ which took the 2010 Tony Award for best revival of a musical and won Johnson a Tony for his direction.

Hamilton has starred on Broadway himself, playing Billy Flynn in “Chicago’’ for three different stints in the past decade, but he says his original intention was never to become an actor. He had planned to go to medical school, but was nudged toward acting by his mother.

He started at MGM, earning his first notices for 1960’s “Where the Boys Are.’’ He appeared as eye candy in films such as “All the Fine Young Cannibals’’ (1960) and “Light in the Piazza’’ (1962).

“I was doing a lot of formulaic movies,’’ Hamilton recalls. “They wanted me to have a James Dean intensity. Then they wanted a watered-down Rock Hudson/Cary Grant-style actor. I realized I would not survive if I stayed under my studio contract, so I got out of my contract.’’

That move led Hamilton to begin producing his own films. He starred in a 1971 biopic about jumpsuited motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, playing the title role. But the part that elevated him from second-rate heartthrob to box-office rainmaker was that of the loves-the-nightlife-loves-to-boogie vampire, Count Vladimir Dracula, in the 1979 comedy “Love at First Bite.’’ He continued in the comedic vein with “Zorro, the Gay Blade’’ (1981).

More recently, Hamilton executive-produced “My One and Only,’’ a 2009 Renée Zellweger movie based on a 1950s road trip he took with his mother. He has also gamely played along in reality television shows such as “I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!’’ and “Dancing With the Stars.’’ It was on the latter show that he first found himself battling injuries while performing in a very physical competition.

For “La Cage,’’ Hamilton’s leg is carefully wrapped each night (“Like a baseball player’’) before he takes the stage. Part of his commitment to the role lies in his appreciation of the show. The sequined and feathered farce began as a 1973 French play by Jean Poiret, which was made into a film in 1978. In 1983, the stage adaptation premiered on Broadway, with a book by Fierstein and lyrics and music by Herman.

“It’s been produced three times on Broadway, and each time it’s won the Tony for the best musical in its category,’’ says Fierstein in a separate interview. “It’s pretty astounding. About a year ago, Jerry Herman told me that it’s his most performed show. That it has eclipsed ‘Hello, Dolly!’ ’’

In his tar-thick rasp, Fierstein recounts how “La Cage’’ started its pre-Broadway run in Boston, smashing box-office records at the Colonial Theatre.

“We sat there crying in Boston,’’ Fierstein says. “We couldn’t believe that the audience went mental for it from the first show. Before the first performance you couldn’t give a ticket away. After the first preview, there were lines down the block.’’

A key to the show’s long-lasting success is that behind the production numbers and pancake makeup is a story about a family that becomes closer when faced with a difficult - albeit absolutely ridiculous - problem. Georges and Albin have raised Georges’ son together. But when that son, Jean-Michel, brings home a fiancée from a conservative family, the couple feels compelled to tone down their flamboyance - erasing all signs that they’re gay, including any evidence of their coupledom - for the sake of Jean-Michel’s impending marriage.

Hamilton may not have grown up under such sitcom-ish conditions, but he can relate. During the late 1970s, he was in Saint-Tropez watching the kind of bawdy drag shows depicted in “La Cage aux Folles.’’

“I was there, and I remember what it looked like,’’ he says. “It’s just something that people understood and what they did. It was tacky and fun, and people loved the travesty of that.’’

Additionally, Hamilton grew up with a gay brother whom he refers to as his “surrogate father.’’ That childhood gave him a bit of insight into his character of Georges, and he says it allows him to portray the character nonjudgmentally, but with humor.

“I really want the audience to see this character as a real human being,’’ he says. “I want to come out onstage as the cardboard cutout that people think I am, and then really work slowly into pulling them into a well-constructed, deeply sensitive piece of drama. And I want to deliver the jokes like a comedian, because it also has borscht belt setups and punch lines. If I can do all of those things, then I’ve done my job.’’

But like “La Cage,’’ it seems that Hamilton and his career are destined for frequent revivals and moments of camp.

“Honestly,’’ he says, “I think I would be at my best if I just walked onstage in a pair of underwear and a martini in my hand, said, ‘My name is George Hamilton,’ and took it from there.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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LA CAGE AUX FOLLES Presented by Broadway in Boston

At: Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre, Tuesday through Dec. 18. 866-348-9738, www.broadwayinboston.com