Hamilton, c. 1931
James Neil Hamilton
September 9, 1899
Lynn, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||September 24, 1984 (aged 85)|
Escondido, California, U.S.
|Elsa Whitmer (m. 1922–1984; his death); 1 child|
An only child, Hamilton was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. His show business career began when he secured a job as a shirt model in magazine ads, similar to fellow silent film performer Reed Howes, who was known in advertisements as "The Arrow Collar Man".
After this, he became interested in acting and joined several stock companies where he gained experience and training as an actor in professional stage productions. This allowed him to secure his first film role in 1918 in Vitagraph's The Beloved Impostor, however, he obtained his big break from D. W. Griffith in The White Rose (1923). In 1924, he traveled to Germany with Griffith and made a film about the incredibly harsh living conditions in post-World War I Germany, Isn't Life Wonderful.
While filming America in 1924, a soldier's arm was blown off. As fellow actor Charles Emmett Mack recalls, "Neil Hamilton and I went to neighboring towns and raised a fund for him--I doing a song and dance and Neil collecting a coin."
Hamilton was signed by Paramount Pictures in the mid-1920s and became one of their leading men. He often appeared opposite star Bebe Daniels. In 1926, he played one of Ronald Colman's brothers in Paramount's original silent version of Beau Geste. In 1926, Hamilton played Nick Carraway in the first production of The Great Gatsby, now a lost film. He starred in John Ford's Mother Machree with Victor McLaglen, and with John Wayne in an early bit role before he was well known, the title of which would coincidentally become sidekick Chief O'Hara's catchphrase in the Batman television show nearly four decades later. He was steadily employed in supporting roles and worked for just about every studio in Hollywood.
He made the transition to sound pictures at the end of the 1920s and continued appearing in noteworthy productions.
In 1930, he appeared in the original production of The Dawn Patrol (retitled "Flight Commander" after its remake), playing the squadron commander, a role played by Basil Rathbone in the 1938 remake. Hamilton was billed above newcomer Clark Gable in the 1931 Joan Crawford vehicle Laughing Sinners, in which he plays a cad who deserts Crawford's brokenhearted character. He originated the role of milksop Harry Holt, Jane's fiance, in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, and he actually received top billing in the film. Hamilton reprised the role in the 1934 pre-Code sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
He appeared in 268 films, both silents and talkies, and made five films in England in 1936 and 1937.
"A"-level work in Hollywood dried up for Hamilton by the 1940s, and he was reduced to working in serials, "B" films, and other low-budget projects.
He starred as the villain in King of the Texas Rangers, one of the most successful movie serials of all time for Republic Pictures in 1941.
In Since You Went Away, a 1944 epic about life on the home front in World War II, Hamilton is seen only in still photographs as a serviceman away at war. His family's travails during his absence are the center of the movie. Hamilton reportedly shot scenes for the movie before filmmakers decided to keep his character off-screen. He appeared in the 1944 film noir classic When Strangers Marry with Robert Mitchum.
In a 1970s book interview for Whatever Happened To ..., Hamilton said he had been banned from A level work for insulting a studio executive. A Roman Catholic, Hamilton said that his faith got him through the difficult period of late 1942 to early 1944, when he could not obtain film employment and was down on his luck financially.
When television came along, Hamilton hosted Hollywood Screen Test (1948-1953), co-starred in the short-lived sitcom That Wonderful Guy with Jack Lemmon (1949-50), at the same time as Hollywood Screen Test, and did guest shots on numerous series of the 1950s and 1960s such as seven episodes of Perry Mason, five episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, as well as Maverick, The Real McCoys, Mister Ed, Bachelor Father, and The Outer Limits. During the late 1940s and early 1950s Hamilton performed on Broadway in such shows as Many Happy Returns (1945), The Men We Marry (1948), To Be Continued (1952), and Late Love (1953-54).
In 1960, actor Richard Cromwell was seeking a comeback of sorts in 20th Century Fox's planned production of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come but Cromwell died of complications from liver cancer. Producer Maury Dexter quickly signed Hamilton to replace Cromwell in the film, which co-starred Jimmie Rodgers and Chill Wills. During the 1960s, Hamilton appeared in three Jerry Lewis films: The Patsy, The Family Jewels, and Which Way to the Front?
Hamilton is best remembered today as Police Commissioner James Gordon in the Batman television series (1966-68), appearing in all 120 episodes of Batman. Yvonne Craig, who played Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara, said Hamilton "came every day to the set letter perfect in dialogue and never missed a beat--a consummate professional."
Hamilton was married to Elsa Whitmer from 1922 until his death in September 1984. They had one child.