Actor Hamilton dies after NYC surgery

The Foreman native whose given name foretold a life on stage and who fulfilled that destiny - Lawrence Olivier Hamilton - died Thursday after an operation at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was 59.

Hamilton had an aortic stent in place for several years because of an aneurysm, said close friend Chip Murphy, who had Hamilton’s consent to receive information about his health after he was admitted to Lenox Hill.The surgery Thursday was related to the aneurysm. After the operation, Hamilton’s heartbeat became irregular and then stopped.Hospital personnel spent several minutes trying to revive him.

“He was somebody I thought had enormous talent,” said Gov. Mike Beebe,“and somebody who cared about us and our state and our people. He never forgot where he came from.”

According to friends, Hamilton kept residences in Little Rock and Brooklyn, N.Y., until a couple of years ago, when he began mostly living in New York City.

Forever optimistic that his next big role was on the horizon, Hamilton spoke a few days ago with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, Robert Hupp, about reviving Looking Over the President’s Shoulder for a New York audience, Hupp said.

The one-man play by James Still highlights the life of the first black chief butler at the White House, and Hamilton staged it in Little Rock in 2009.

Hamilton had been inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.

He grew up among five siblings in southwest Arkansas, the son of high school Principal Oscar Hamilton and his wife, Mae Dell. A piano his parents purchased early in his life led to music lessons.

“He learned to play in second grade,” recalled his sister, the Rev. Phyllis Hamilton, “and in a small house, the piano is where? In the living room. And in a small house, the TV is where? In the living room. Guess who got [his way]? That meant we didn’t watch television at that time, but he was a joy.”

That practice led to a music scholarship to Henderson State University in 1972. He received his degree in piano and voice four years later.

His first “acting” job was at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where he was leader of an ensemble called Kids of the Kingdom. Singing and acting came naturally, but he discovered that dancing would prove a deal-breaker and began lessons.

“I was in a class with little girls, 3, 4, 5 years old, and I’m looking at them to see what they are doing,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for a High Profile cover story in 1999. “I didn’t know what any of that was.”

An agent spotted him at the theme park and urged him to give Broadway a shot. He auditioned before actor and director Geoffrey Holder and was immediately cast in 1978’s Tony award-winning Timbuktu.

In early 1999, at the time of the Democrat-Gazette’s story, Hamilton was working in a production of Ragtime at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in New York, his 10th Broadway show. Other stage credits included Play On, Purlie, Dreamgirls, Big River, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie, Twist, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hot Mikado, Porgy and Bess, Jelly’s Last Jam, Sophisticated Ladies and Black Nativity, which had an audience before Pope John Paul II.

At that time Hamilton revealed some desire to be closer to home, and in the 2000s he did spend more time in Little Rock, notably as director of choral activities (later director of cultural affairs) for Philander Smith College.

His first one-man show took place in 2005, Souvenir: An Evening With Lawrence Hamilton; his second, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, in 2009. He directed Crowns in 2006, acted in Fences in 2007, and put on concerts on campus and at Robinson Center Music Hall.

During this period, Hamilton volunteered at a summer theater camp at the Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church for several summers in a row, said the Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder, who became a close friend.

“He was very encouraging to young people about the arts, and he stayed in touch with a lot of those kids … you know, he loved people. Even if something bad happened or someone mistreated him … he didn’t dwell on it. He was an optimistic person. That’s what I think led him back to New York.”

In 2007, Hamilton played piano and sang “Arkansas, You Run Deep In Me” at the morning service after Beebe’s inauguration on the steps of the Capitol. That performance and an aerial salute of four F-16 fighters were the two really unexpectedly tender moments that day, the governor said.

Beebe said he frequently imposed on Hamilton at various balls and parties to sing the song, “to the point he might have gotten irritated with it.”

“If it was a gala that involved honoring a woman, he would sing to that woman as if she was the only person in the room.”

That immediate, almost intimate connection with strangers is what made Looking Over the President’s Shoulder special, Hupp said.

“One-man shows are notoriously difficult to promote and sell, but … his work in that production was so stellar that it brought people to the theater [by] word of mouth.”

Hamilton’s last turn on the stage took place in Fayetteville, N.C., over a three-weekend run in March of The Piano Lesson at the Cape Fear Regional Theater, where on closing night, March 23, he took a moment after curtain call and “spoke to the actors and audience about his love of his time with this company of actors and his 20-plus years on our stage, saying, ‘What a great time it’s been,’” according to a post on the theater’s Facebook page Friday morning.

He then sat down at the piano and sang “For All We Know.”

The refrain goes, “So love me, love me tonight/Tomorrow was made for some/Tomorrow may never come/For all we know, we know.”

Arkansas, Pages 9 on 04/05/2014