On Wednesday, July 24th, the last day before the long-awaited Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood debuts at the New Beverly, our July salute to the fetching faces of the late ‘60s, knockout men in retreat and underestimated women in reinvention, concludes with a double feature celebrating perhaps the most unexpectedly resilient of the classical hunks who were being displaced by rougher-looking ascendants: George Hamilton. While other marquee males of his era began to have trouble adapting to the new casting climate, the versatile actor almost effortlessly continued to get consistent work, often times by lampooning his charming persona and sun-enhanced complexion. And the two films chosen to represent him in this program demonstrate both his genuine dramatic thrall and his rakishly comic zeal.
In Evel Knievel from 1971, Hamilton finds a dramatic role that still smartly mines his personal sense of excess, portraying the self-created stuntman who fascinated America by jumping his motorcycle across an escalating series of heights and obstacles. As he prepares to propel himself over an unprecedented 19 cars at Ontario Motor Speedway, Knievel presents and narrates dramatized flashbacks of his life, from committing petty crimes in his youth, his unconventional courting of his wife Linda (Sue Lyon), the drive to increase the stakes of his jumps and the physical toll exacted on his body, and the fallout from his spectacular attempt to leap over the fountains of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Through his combination of will, arrogance, and showmanship, Knievel demonstrates the maxim he sets forth in his opening monologue to the cinema audience: “The only thing that can get in my way is fear, and fear is not a word in my vocabulary. I have not and never will know what that word means.”
Hamilton had been developing a fictional script about a rodeo rider turned motorcyclist when in the midst of his research, he learned about Knievel and decided to tell his story instead. In a statement made during production, he declared, “I’m not sure why Evel does what he does on a motorcycle. But I do know that by the time the picture is finished I’ll be able to say it in one sentence.” Doubling as producer, he partnered with Joe Solomon, whose Fanfare Corporation had been making several biker films as Wild Wheels, Angels from Hell, and The Losers, the latter film prominently featured in Pulp Fiction, and whose writer, Alan Caillou, wrote the first drafts for the biopic. Dissatisfied with Caillou’s script, Hamilton approached rising screenwriter John Milius, asking him at first to merely punch up the dialogue; instead, Milius did a page-one rewrite. While Knievel himself had some reservations about the warts-and-all portrayal Milius created, Hamilton recalled, “[Evel] started to adopt lines out of the movie for himself. So his persona in the movie became more of his persona in real life.” One of Milius’ additions, where the fictional Knievel referred to himself as “the last gladiator,” inspired the title of a Knievel-family-approved 1998 documentary The Last of the Gladiators. Besides providing real footage of his previous stunts, Knievel performed the 19-car jump created specifically for the film. As part of a wave of daredevil docudramas that became popular from the end of the ‘60s onward, Evel Knievel grossed over $4 million, and led to Knievel playing a fictional version of himself in the action-adventure Viva Knievel! for Warner Bros. in 1976.
Die-hard patrons of New Beverly’s midnight shows know well that the opening monologue to Evel Knievel is the initial salvo in the primary “anything can happen”-themed trailer reel that has played before many Saturday screenings since the first major renovation/reopening in October 2014. So for those of you late-night denizens keeping score, this means that as of this event, Knievel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Pretty Maids All in a Row have screened at the Bev, and we still eagerly await getting to see The Hypnotic Eye and The Burglars, not to mention also getting a taste of those delicious Hero’s Pasties!
From the American heartland, Hamilton leaps to the luxury playgrounds of Europe as regal cat burglar Jeff Hill, the Jack of Diamonds, from 1967. Hill has been well trained by his mentor the Ace (Joseph Cotton), but has been mostly using his skills on playfully robbing movie stars’ jewel collections (with Zsa Zsa Gabor, Carroll Baker, and Lilli Palmer portraying themselves), which the Ace fears will lead to his downfall. During one such romp on an ocean liner, he meets a worthwhile rival thief in Olga Vodkine (Marie Laforêt), and upon discovering the shared friendship between the Ace and Olga’s father Nicolai (Maurice Evans), all four of them join together to execute the heist of the Hazerhoff Collection, a veritable $5 million World Series of jewels, from a near-impenetrable Paris vault. But dogged insurance investigator Von Schenk (Wolfgang Presiss) has been after all of them for some time, and their World Series may just turn into a three-strike shut-out if they’re not at the top of their game.
Producer Sandy Howard had been an early proponent of partnering with foreign operations – his previous project City of Fear had been done with British producer Harry Alan Towers, and he had acquired the U.S. rights to the first Gamera film from Japan’s Daiei studio, supervising the U.S. edit that became Gammera the Invincible. For Jack, he linked with BavariaFilm and producer Helmut Jedele, who fully funded the production. BavariaFilm’s studios had been a popular destination for many American directors, particularly Billy Wilder, who shot much of One, Two, Three at the complex; Jedele and BavariaFilm would later produce Wilder’s 1978 penultimate film, Fedora. Howard’s co-writers on Jack, Jack DeWitt and Robert L. Joseph, also wrote together on Howard’s Italian-financed Ty Hardin film King of Africa. Actor-turned-director Don Taylor, who previously made Ride the Wild Surf with Fabian (featured earlier on July’s calendar), helmed the shoot, and would direct again for Howard on his 1976 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. MGM, who already made Doctor, You Must Be Kidding with George Hamilton and Sandra Dee, and had another Hamilton project forthcoming, George Pal’s The Power, acquired Jack for release after its completion. In their 1967 promotional reel for theatre owners, Lionpower, they excitedly proclaimed Jack of Diamonds as “the King of Thieves!”
As Jack was a German-backed project, it contained two of Germany’s best character actors in the cast. Wolfgang Preiss, representing law and order, was a direct 180 turn from his most popular role of the period as one of cinemas greatest antiheroes, Dr. Mabuse, whom he first portrayed in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse in 1960, and then in four sequels. Preiss was also a frequent presence in English-language films filmed in Europe, including Is Paris Burning, Bloodline, and The Formula. While they have never acknowledged it, it is likely that influential post-punk band The Wolfgang Press got their name indirectly from the actor. Karl Lieffen, playing Hill’s manservant Helmut, was also a prolific presence in German film and TV, and is most familiar to American audiences from playing James Cagney’s chauffeur Fritz in One, Two, Three, and appearing in the November 1968 TV adaptation of Heidi, which NBC infamously cut away from the East Coast feed of the Oakland Raiders/New York Jets game to broadcast, causing viewers to miss Oakland’s upset win. Co-star Marie Laforêt was a popular French “yé-yé” singer in the style of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan, and is most recognizable from starring in Rene Clement’s Purple Noon with Alain Delon.
John Milius said that George Hamilton once told him, “I’ll be remembered as a third-rate actor when in fact, I’m a first-rate con man.” Hamilton in recent years proclaimed, “Success is something that you have to earn. You have to have a humility for it, because it can leave you in a second. It may remember you, but it can sure leave you. I think if you don’t get that, and you don’t have gratitude for what you are and where you are, it doesn’t come back, and it goes away forever.” Luckily, for himself and for generations of fans, George Hamilton remains a welcome cultural presence, and we encourage you to spend a night at the New Beverly basking in the glow of not just his infamous suntan, but his compelling performances.