Harry Hamlin revisits his role in the groundbreaking gay romance 'Making Love': 'I was cautioned against doing it'

Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin play gay lovers in the 1982 drama, Making Love (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)
Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin play gay lovers in the 1982 drama, Making Love. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp.)

Never let it be said that Harry Hamlin doesn't do intensive research for his roles. Forty years ago, the Clash of the Titans star stepped up and accepted a part that every other actor in Hollywood had turned down, playing one of the leading roles in 20th Century Fox's pioneering romantic drama, Making Love. Directed by Arthur Hiller and written by out gay screenwriters Barry Sandler and A. Scott Berg, the movie starred Hamlin and Slap Shot's Michael Ontkean as Bart and Zack — the first gay couple depicted in a mainstream studio movie. And Hamlin tells Yahoo Entertainment that he did his homework before filming began.

"I went to a gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard," the 70-year-old actor remembers now. "I'd never been to one before, and I went in to get the flavor of it. I had been in a couple of movies, so I was somewhat well-known and was spotted right away. People came up to me and propositioned me and wanted to buy me drinks and stuff like that. One guy gave me his phone number after I explained what I was doing, and said he'd like to help me 'understand the whole paradigm.' I never called him back!"

Hamlin didn't have to rely on the kindness of strangers as research for Bart; he also had several gay friends he could talk to about the role. But those friends all told him the same thing. "They cautioned me against doing it," he says. "I was cautioned against doing it by a lot of folks."

The only person who endorsed his decision was, surprisingly enough, his agent ... but not for the reasons you might expect. "He told me that of all the actors who'd been offered the role and had turned it down, because I was in the press a lot for having had a son with Ursula Andress, nobody was going to mistake me for being gay. And I said, 'Regardless of that, I like the theme of the movie.'"

Ursula Andress and Harry Hamlin at the 54th Academy Awards in 1982. The couple met on the set of the 1981 film 'Clash of the Titans' (Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Ursula Andress and Hamlin at the 54th Academy Awards in 1982. The couple met on the set of the 1981 film Clash of the Titans (Photo: Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Hamlin also liked the larger aim of Making Love — to change the perception of gay men as murderers or sadists that had taken hold in pop culture due to films like Dirty Harry and Cruising. "Nobody was making movies about gay lovers, and if they were they were killers or they had to be killed," he observes. "This was the first movie I'd seen where the characters were actually drawn true to life, and they weren't perverse in any way."

Ironically enough, the "true to life" aspect of the script is what kept Hollywood's biggest stars away from Making Love. At that time, being an out gay actor — or even being perceived as being gay because of a role — remained a potential career death sentence. As a result, 20th Century Fox struggled to find an actor to co-star alongside Hamlin, with everyone from Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford to Tom Berenger and William Hurt reportedly turning down the role of Zack, whose romance with Bart blows up his marriage to Claire (Kate Jackson.) Eventually, Ontkean signed on and cameras finally started to roll. "It was a movie about something that was going on in the zeitgeist, and no one was really talking about it," Hamlin says. "It was a risk I wanted to take."

Unfortunately, it wasn't a risk that paid off — at least in the short term. Released on Feb. 12, 1982, Making Love was greeted by indifferent reviews and disappointing box office returns. And Hamlin says that he noticed an immediate impact on his own career.

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the 1981 action movie, 'Clash of the Titans' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Hamlin as Perseus in the 1981 fantasy favorite, Clash of the Titans (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

"That was the last studio picture that I ever did," he notes. "Before Making Love, I had been on the A-list and I was going out for every movie that was being made with a character in my age range. After that movie came out, I never had any more meetings for studio pictures. Now could that have been because I just was really s****y in the role? Maybe. Could it have been that I pissed off people in the studio system? I don't know. But if you look at those two dots, it's pretty easy to connect them."

Even though Making Love failed to change the industry overnight, it does mark the beginning of a turning of the tide for depictions of gay characters in movies and on television. As the '80s continued, films like An Early Frost, Parting Glances and Longtime Companion picked up where Hiller's movie left off. And in 1993 — 11 years after Making Love — Tom Hanks won an Oscar for playing an out gay man dying of AIDS in Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. Hamlin says that he's witnessed the personal impact of the film on moviegoers firsthand.

"Not long ago, I was in Palm Springs and a man came up to me in tears, telling me that I had such an effect on his life," he says. "People still come up to me all the time and thank me for making Making Love, because I helped them come out of the closet or explain to their parents who they were. Being an actor, you want to be able to make something that entertains, but also uplifts people and make them think about their lives. And this movie did that for a whole group of people."

To mark the 40th anniversary of Making Love, we spoke with Hamlin about why Bart was the role he was most attracted to; how he and Ontkean filmed the first gay kiss in a mainstream Hollywood movie; and how the filmmakers secretly used body doubles for the love scene that followed.

Arthur Hiller had previously made 1970's Love Story, which set the template for many of the romantic melodramas of that era. Did he want to take the same approach to Making Love, just with a gay couple?

I don't know that it was his idea. I think the studio went out to him probably because of the success of Love Story, and the theme of that movie. The first Making Love script I read was much more cutting edge and salacious. It had some scenes in it that were pretty raw, like the scene in a gay bar — in those days, there was a lot going on behind the bars on Santa Monica Boulevard. But the studio thought that it would be a little bit too much for the audience to handle, so they sweetened the script. The various iterations I read as the first day of shooting approached got more and more saccharine.

Was that frustrating for you?

Yeah, because I was really drawn to the edginess of the original script. I play a writer in it, and I wanted my character's office to reflect the frustration of a writer. I've written a book myself, and my office was always filled with the detritus of pages that were tossed away and empty Coke cans — all kinds of stuff that a writer doesn't spend the time tidying up. [Laughs] So I would come in the night before shooting on that set and spend about an hour or so making it my own. I'd put little bits of this and that everywhere, like a napkin with muffin crumbs on it. That made it feel like there was some verisimilitude to the scene.

Then I would get there in the morning and it would be cleaned up! I'd say, "Wait a minute guys: I spent an hour here last night making this mine," and they'd say, "No we want him to fastidious." So I was disappointed by that a little bit. I wanted him to be a little bit more edgy, more like he was in the original version of the script. But that's a minor complaint, because the overall theme of it was what I was attracted to.

Harry Hamlin became one of the first major Hollywood stars to play an openly gay man in the 1982 film, Making Love (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection)
Hamlin was one of the first major Hollywood stars to play an openly gay man in the 1982 film, Making Love. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection) (©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

There's a long list of actors who turned down the role of Zack. Did you audition opposite any of them?

No, and I also didn't have to read for my role — I was offered it. I knew that pretty much everybody had been offered it. At the time I was being offered some really weird movies. There was one in particular about a small town somewhere in Oklahoma that was being attacked by rabid vampire bats. It was being sold to me as a pro-Native American movie, because the town was populated by Native Americans, but it was really about vampire bats wrecking the place.

So I turned that down, picked up the Making Love script and said: "This is a real movie about something that's really going on in the world. It's going to be groundbreaking, and it's going to be dangerous and I like living dangerously." I also have a certain amount of hubris, which has gotten me into trouble in my life. So you combined wanting to live dangerously with hubris and you get me taking on Making Love.

Did you ever consider playing Zack, or was it always Bart?

No, Bart appealed to me. I liked the fact that he was a loner and somewhat of a sexual predator. At least, that was my interpretation of the script and of the character, and I never had any thoughts of doing it any other way. I remember that Bill Reynolds, the editor of Making Love, called me right after he finished his cut. He wanted to tell me that he was pretty sure that I was going to be nominated for an Academy Award. I'd never met him, but he'd been editing me every day and had an intimate knowledge of my performance. So I was walking around on cloud nine for a few months until February 15th, the week after the movie came out when it was just destroyed by the critics. [Laughs]

Hamlin as Bart in a scene from Making Love (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Hamlin as Bart in a scene from Making Love. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

One of the key scenes in Making Love is the love scene between you and Michael. Were you given any guidance for how to perform that?

We had a week of rehearsal before filming, and Michael really wanted to rehearse the whole love scene. I told him: "First of all, we both know how to kiss. And second of all, it's your first time kissing a man, as it is mine. I think it'll be better if we do this for the first time when the cameras roll and don't rehearse." I won that battle, and we didn't discuss it again until the day of the scene. While we were preparing, all of the studio brass came over, because it was a big moment in Hollywood history. Two men were about to kiss onscreen in a major studio movie.

So they were all standing behind the camera, and I said to Michael: "Let's make this a really romantic soft kiss, where we drink each other in and then we go off to the bedroom." He agreed, but then when the camera rolled on the first take, he walked up to me, put his hand behind my head and then went at me! Within seconds, his tongue was on my uvula. I was saying to myself: "Please, Harry, whatever you do, do not flinch. We want to get this in one take." I didn't flinch, and the kiss went on for quite a long time, long enough for me to get whisker burn, in fact. Then we walked off the set and into the bedroom and I screamed out, "Michael, I said no tongue!" [Laughs]

That just brought down the house. Everyone was laughing so hard, because they did not expect to hear that coming from off-set at that moment. We ended up having to do a second take, and this time Michael didn't put his hand behind my head. I told him, "Okay, well we're going to French kiss, but let's not quite be so quite so gnarly with it." So that's the one that ended up in the film, the second take.

Was there a longer version of Zack and Bart's bedroom scene?

There's a big story about that. Michael and I went to Arthur and said, "We'll do the kiss and we'll be in bed after the lovemaking, but we don't want to film any lovemaking." And they said, "Okay, we hear you." So we shot the kissing scene, and then that night, Barry Sandler and someone else went down to Santa Monica Boulevard. They found a couple of guys who looked like us and said, "Would you guys want to be in a movie?" So they got two guys off the street to roll around on the bed and never told us! We had no idea that our characters were going to be screwing on the bed until we saw the original cut of it. So the people that you see are body doubles.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was like, "Wait a minute!" Forty years later, it's kind of funny that they did that. I can just see Barry Sandler walking into a gay bar, finding a couple guys who were the same height and build as me and Michael and then propositioning them to sneak up to the studio in the dead of night to shoot that scene. They did a good job casting, right? [Laughs]

Ontkean and Hamlin in a scene from Making Love (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ontkean and Hamlin in a scene from Making Love. (Photo: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection) (©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Was there a reason why you and Michael didn't want to film the lovemaking scene?

We didn't mind rolling around a little bit, but they wanted full-on sex. I don't know how far those guys went and what they ended up putting in the film, but ... we didn't feel that it was necessary to show that, and I still don't think it was necessary to show that. It was just artistic differences, let's put it that way.

It's interesting that Bart doesn't really get an ending in the film. Zack and Claire go their separate ways and find new loves, but we never see what happens to him. Did you decide for yourself what his ending was?

That's interesting question, because he just walks off and fades into the future. We filmed this before the AIDS epidemic happened. That scourge was not yet present in the zeitgeist. And, you know, the scene where I first meet Zack in his office, I'm there because I've got a growth under my chin. Knowing what we know about AIDS now, we would not have that scene if we made the film a couple of years later, because it's chilling. So I didn't contemplate at the time where Bart would have gone in the end, but more than likely — given his lifestyle — he would've been one of the first men to contract AIDS. So that's probably what would've happened to him.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 22: Harry Hamlin attends the New York premiere of National Geographic's
Hamlin attends the New York premiere The Hot Zone: Anthrax on November 22, 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for National Geographic) (Astrid Stawiarz via Getty Images)

You've been open about how you feel the movie effectively ended your movie career. Did you really get the sense that because you played this character, people weren't willing to hire you?

Yeah, it was more of a general sense. No one would ever say, "Oh, by the way, we're ending your career because you played a gay guy." That was never spoken to me. But I think it's pretty obvious given the fact that my studio career completely dried up on February the 15th. I was also in a movie that didn't do well, too. If you're in a movie that doesn't do well, you get blamed for that. So it could have been any number of things, but I don't think it helped. I'll put it this way: If a casting director was thinking about casting me opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, they might think twice about putting someone who your audience might consider to be non-heterosexual.

And I went on to have a great career: I made a lot of in films and I had a great career on television. I also never really wanted to be a movie star. I wanted to be an actor and play challenging roles, and I've been able to do that on television and on stage. I just wasn't able to do that anymore in studio features. But that didn't really bother me, because if I'd wanted to be a movie star, I would've signed a huge multi-picture contract that Warner Bros. offered me in 1979. I turned that down, and that was evidence right there that I did not want to go down that road.

Promotional shot of actors Harry Hamlin, Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean, as they appear in the movie 'Making Love', 1982. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Ontkean, left, Hamlin and Kate Jackson in Making Love. (Photo: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images) (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection via Getty Images)

We're in a time now where it's being asked whether straight actors should stop playing gay roles. What are your feelings about that?

Well, there's so much attention to cultural appropriation now that I wonder whether a straight man can even play a gay man anymore without getting hammered for adopting and appropriating someone else's cultural status. For example, I couldn't play anything outside of my ethnic group, and I'm not sure whether or not that extends to sexuality. I would imagine that it does in some circles. Within that community, there's probably people who would insist that if somebody's playing gay, they should be gay.

Both screenwriters were openly gay. Did they have mixed feelings about writing for straight actors?

No, because there was nobody who would admit to being gay. Rock Hudson hadn't come out. So they knew that if they were going to get anybody to play these characters, they were going to be straight actors. A gay actor wouldn't have wanted to be out at the time, because that would've definitely been the end of their career. No one was going to accept an out actor at that time.

But I think Making Love had a much larger impact than has been recognized given the number of people who come up to me and thank me for the movie. For the first 20 or 30 years, it was constant — everywhere I went, people came up to me. It's not so much anymore, at least not every week like it used to be. I think it was a spark that lit a flame, and led to a pathway to acceptance that wasn't there before we made this movie. Maybe I'm biased, but I think the film has had a significant impact.

Making Love is currently not available to stream, but can be found on DVD