George Hamilton pushes through injury for Toronto-bound 'La Cage aux Folles'

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TORONTO - If George Hamilton had heeded the advice of his doctor, the sun-loving star might not be heading north of the border this week with a touring production of the musical comedy "La Cage aux Folles."

The 73-year-old debonair actor with the pearly white smile joined the hit stage show — which Mirvish Productions will open at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre on Wednesday — about a year ago after undergoing knee replacement surgery.

But during rehearsals for his role as French drag-club owner Georges, who is in nearly every scene, he started having problems with his foot.

And just the day after opening night, he learned he'd torn his Achilles in half.

"The doctor said, 'My bet is you're going to have to have this operated on and when you do you'll be out for six months. And you're going to have to go pretty soon because this is a halfway torn-through longitudinal tear,'" Hamilton recalled in a recent phone interview from his hotel room during a tour stop in Denver.

"So I went instead to a sports medicine guy and I said, 'If you had a guy playing in a game — let's say it's the Super Bowl — and you just wanted to get him through it, what would you do?' And he said, 'I'd create a false tendon there by taping it this way or that,' and I said, 'Well then do it.'"

The taping method worked, "and from what was supposedly going to be about five or six shows and then an operation, I'm now up into 325, 330 shows and I've had it for a year," said Hamilton.

"They tell me, 'Look, it's not going to heal until you get off of it,' but it's amazing that I've made it through it."

Of course, the perpetually tanned and dashing Memphis native has never shied away from a challenge throughout his storied acting career, which began with a contract at MGM studios and a Golden Globe-winning his role in 1959's "Crime & Punishment."

In 2006, for instance, he competed on TV's "Dancing with the Stars," pushing through his knee ailment to charm audiences and last six rounds.

"I always take on something a little bit beyond my grasp," said Hamilton, whose varied film roles have included an Ivy Leaguer ("Where the Boys Are"), country music legend Hank Williams ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), and a famed motorcycle daredevil ("Evel Knievel").

"I actually feel that if you don't do something a little bit harder and reach a little further, it's a recipe to grow older."

With "La Cage aux Folles," which won three 2010 Tony Awards (including best musical revival), the challenge was honing his singing skills and learning how to play the more subtle half of a two-person comedy duo.

The Saint-Tropez-set story follows Georges and his longtime partner/drag queen, Albin (Christopher Sieber), as they meet the conservative parents of Georges' son's fiancee. Harvey Fierstein wrote the book and Jerry Herman did the lyrics and music for the show that's based on the 1973 Jean Poiret play.

Hamilton said he's long been a fan of the 1978 film adaptation of the story, and he saw Kelsey Grammer play Georges on Broadway.

But it wasn't until he started to tackle the material that he realized Georges "doesn't have the funny lines that Albin has and he doesn't have the songs that Albin has."

"It's like I'm the straight man in a comedy team, so I had never had that in a play or in a movie," said Hamilton, whose humour has shone through films including "Love at First Bite" and "Zorro, the Gay Blade," as well as TV commercials for Ritz crackers and Wheat Thins.

"I've always had the comic role, if you would, so I had to learn to realize that it didn't matter; that what we were all going for was a composite, (which) was that at the end of the show everybody's on their feet and everybody's had a great time in that evening."

And that's exactly what audiences on the tour have been doing, said Hamilton, noting the story that was seen as edgy when it first hit the stage in '73 is now "a real crowd pleaser."

"The real values of this show are love, being true to who you are, and family, and they come through universally, and people relate to that," said Hamilton.

"We've been in some pretty interesting spots where (the concern was), 'A guy in overalls is going to sit down here and wonder what the hell's going on,' and instead they're the ones who enjoyed it the most."

Being on a long-running theatre tour "requires almost superhuman stamina," said Hamilton, but he likes the discipline.

To keep up with the demands of the job and his young cast members, he works out with resistance bands and an incline bike, does stretching exercises, and simply paces himself.

"I love to live a certain style of life, and I always do, and no matter what, I eat well, I live well," said the tuxedo-loving Hamilton, who avoids TV and the Internet, and has a wind-up clock because he likes "to hear a clock ticking."

"I have a breakfast tray and it comes in every morning and there's the flower and there's the Wall Street Journal," added Hamilton, who's also had a line of skin-care products and a chain of tanning salons.

"Even if I'm by myself, I pretend I'm my own butler. It's just the way I live."

Hamilton has worked several times in Canada and said he feels closely connected to the country. That's because his father grew up in Vermont's Memphremagog Lake area, on the Canadian border.

"I've always sort of felt part Canadian in that way, only because my father would always take us out on the lake into Canada and we'd always have our ale and our cheese and all of the things that he loved, and the maple syrup that they had in Vermont," he said.

"La Cage Aux Folles" runs in Toronto through Nov. 18.

Organizations: Royal Alexandra Theatre, Wall Street Journal

Geographic location: Toronto, Denver, Memphis Saint-Tropez Broadway Canada Vermont Memphremagog Lake

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