Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let's Mark Hamel!

Today's featured actress faced several forks in her career path. Some of them turned out to be disastrous in more ways than one, yet others were incredibly fortuitous. The result was a thirty-five-year-long movie and television career that is likely by no means over yet. A more meteoric boost to her career was hers for the taking, but she preferred to approach things her own way. It ended up with not only popularity, but critical acclaim as well. Our lady of the day is model-turned-actress Veronica Hamel.

Born on November 20th, 1943 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Veronica was the child of a carpenter and his stay-at-home wife (what used to be called a housewife and not the kind Bravo promotes!) The pretty, brunette, green-eyed girl's striking looks won her a modeling contract with Eileen Ford's agency when she was only seventeen.
After a moderate, but steady, start in 1960, she progressed to major advertising, catalog and fashion layouts by the early-to-mid-'60s. The bottom two photos in the Sears catalog above are of her.
Blessed with luminous skin, bright eyes, a sleek, lean figure and a vaguely feline look, Hamel found herself the centerpiece of all sorts of ad campaigns and could be found in all sorts of magazines from the checkout-counter variety to the top fashion industry publications of the day. She began to earn a six-figure salary at a time when many women were lucky to gross $2,000 to $4,000 a year!
Many of her photos during this time betray the wild, experimental era that the 1960s were. (I love them all, of course!)
This picture, however, published in 1964, could have been taken yesterday, so timeless were her looks underneath all the wiglets, false eyelashes, and other heavy makeup.
Her career as a model allowed her to see the world and expand her horizons far beyond her Pennsylvania upbringing. She also put herself through school, earning a degree at Temple University, with her earnings, ensuring that she wouldn't become just another pretty face with nothing happening between her ears.
As the '70s prepared to dawn, cigarette ads were (as they still are now) a fundamental part of magazine marketing, but they were also part of television advertising. This was soon to be changed, however. TV ads for cigarettes were banned and at 11:59pm on January 1st, 1971, the final one aired. It was for Virginia Slims, featured a headscarf-wearing Hamel (similar to the look in this ad at left) and aired during The Tonight Show.

1971 was a key year for Hamel personally, too. She married stage actor Michael Irving (seen below several years later in one of his recurring appearances on Lou Grant.)
She also made her big-screen debut that year. In Klute, Jane Fonda's Oscar-winning mystery drama, she played – what else? - a model who is one of many attractive ladies at a cattle call audition attended by Fonda.

A resultant film career did not emerge, however, but she continued to model successfully. A few years later, though, she began to tire of the limiting industry in which she'd found such success and began to long for the challenges of an acting career. She began to make the rounds at various casting calls and landed a guest spot on Telly Savalas' Kojak in 1975. (Still new to the industry, her name was misspelled in the credits as “Hamil!”

Additional small parts continued to come her way on episodic TV. She popped up on Joe Forrester, Starsky and Hutch (shown here with some fluffy hair!), The Rockford Files (shown below), Switch and even an installment of The Bob Newhart Show. She also won a bit part in an obscure, low-budget movie filmed in New york City called Apple Pie in 1976.
The visibility of her face and her increased experience as an actress on the small screen helped win her a leading role in the Paul Bartel-directed road race flick Cannonball! (1976.) One of several films from the same basic time frame that concerned frantic coast-to-coast auto races (1976's The Gumball Rally and 1981's Cannonball Run being two others), she played David Carradine's parole officer, who winds up being dragged along for the ride.

1976 being a busy, key year in her career, she auditioned for an was offered the role of Kelly Garrett on the soon-to-be broadcast Aaron Spelling series Charlie's Angels. Though Angels went on to be a skyrocketing success, its stars becoming household names, Hamel recognized that the show was fluff that would only exploit her face and figure, offering few if any acting challenges. In fact, the series was dubbed “jiggle TV” in its freshman season by disapproving TV critics.

Though Jaclyn Smith won the role, staying with the show throughout its run, and became a beloved television personality, it was really after the series' cancellation, via TV-movies and miniseries, that she began to win any sort of acclaim for her acting. Hamel wanted to go a different route with her career and sought more serious parts, including a guest spot on Spelling's drama Family and another appearance on his show Starsky and Hutch.

1977 brought the plush, soapy miniseries Harold Robbins' 79 Park Avenue, in which Hamel worked with members of an all-star cast led by Lesley Ann Warren. That same year, she was part of the prestigious ensemble of the landmark Christmas telefilm The Gathering, a brilliantly un-sentimental, sentimental drama concerning the reunion of a fractured family.

She played the caring wife of Lawrence Pressman, a man estranged from his father Ed Asner and, to a lesser degree, his mother Maureen Stapleton. Bruce Davison, Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist were among the talented ensemble. Hamel's role was limited and decorative, but the project was a fine one and she acquitted herself admirably against some heavy-hitting thespians.

Far less tony was the cheapjack TV-movie Ski-Lift to Death (1978), which starred another model-turned-(almost) actress Deborah Raffin. Don Johnson and Charles Frank were the male eye candy in this one. At least Gail Strickland, who'd also been in The Gathering, was on-hand as well so that Hamel wasn't the only one going from the top to the bottom.

Having eschewed Charlie's Angels for being too shallow, it's surprising that her next move would be even more detrimental than the shabby Ski-Lift to Death (which, surprisingly enough, was not directed by Irwin Allen!) She signed a two-picture deal with the “Master of Disaster” Allen and proceeded to the big screen once again.

Allen had enjoyed tremendous success with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), but was beginning to wear thin by the end of the '70s. That didn't stop him, even slow him, as he continued to churn out films about any number of calamities. (Some of his TV-movies in this period include the creatively-titled Flood! In 1976 and Fire! In 1977.)

In 1979, he proceeded with the oft-delayed sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, with none of the original cast involved and not faithful to the novel written by Paul Gallico, who'd also penned the source novel for The Poseidon Adventure, but had augmented his own plot line in the second book to match the successful movie!

Beyond featured Michael Caine, Sally Field and Karl Malden as a trio seeking salvage on board the overturned cruise ship, the S.S. Poseidon. While navigating the decks of the beleaguered vessel, they come upon several survivors, one of who is Hamel, radiant even after having been nearly steamed to death during an explosion. As shown above, she was publicized alongside former child actress Angela Cartwright and newcomer Mark Harmon.

Also on the ship is a shifty-doctor played by Telly Savalas, the man whose TV series Kojak provided Hamel's first real acting gig. They share a connection in the (absurd) storyline. Even in this utter tripe, Miss Hamel not only looked gorgeous (it probably helps rather than hurts that her hair was damp instead of styled in the manner of the era), but manages to convey some compelling characterization.

She also provides some of the humor, with her sultry, breathless character deliberately over-dramatizing some of the escapades to get Caine's attention, much to Field's consternation. Her name in the film is Suzanne and Savalas' is Dr. Svevo, providing country-fried costar Slim Pickens the chance to deliver the uproarious lines, “Who's Svevo? As a matter 'a fact, who the devil's Suuzzzaaaiine ?”

Also in 1979, she took part in The Gathering, Part II, a cash-in on the original TV-movie that was neither as meaningful nor as engrossing as the original. Her role was even more peripheral this time out, but since most of the cast had agreed to reunite, she probably felt compelled to go along with it.

1980 brought her second Irwin Allen big-screen disaster, this one every bit as bad as the previous one, called When Time Ran Out... Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset and William Holden were the top-billed stars here. Hamel played the luminous wife of devious developer James Franciscus, who has built a luxury resort within (lava) spitting distance of an active volcano!

Her hair lightened to a rusty-auburn, she again made the most of her limited screen time, but there was no way anyone could make even the slightest career inroad within a turkey such as this. Critics savaged it and audiences failed to show up. Nearly a decade would pass before Veronica Hamel would again be seen in a theatrical feature film.

In the meantime, she made the 1980 TV-movie The Hustler of Muscle Beach, which isn't as sordid as the title suggests. It's about a guy (Richard Hatch) who is always looking for a money-making angle and decides to promote a body builder. Next came the hooty, fairly wretched miniseries Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, a tepid updating of the famously scorching book and campy 1967 movie Valley of the Dolls.

Hamel played Jennifer North, the part which Sharon Tate had essayed in the original movie. In this rendition, it is she rather than Anne Welles who does all the glossy beauty advertisements, as seen here. The program also starred Catherine Hicks as Ann Welles (no “e” on the end of Ann for some reason!) and Lisa Hartman as Neely O'Hara, along with David Birney, James Coburn, Bert Convy (as Hamel's singing husband), Carol Lawrence and, as Broadway dragon Helen Lawson, the comparatively pallid Jean Simmons. In this rendition, a lesbian relationship omitted from the '67 film (for obvious reasons) was reinstated. Camilla Sparv played Hamel's European lover.

At this rate, it might have looked as if turning down Charlie's Angels was a major-league blunder. She'd done some decent work in a host of sub-par projects and wasn't getting very far very fast. Or was she? Producer Steven Bochco was putting together a cutting edge police drama which would incorporate heretofore unusual aspects such as handheld camera-work, rapid-editing and continuing, rather than episode-contained, storylines.

Hamel auditioned for and won the role (over forty other aspirants) of a dedicated, but feisty attorney, in love with a police captain played by Daniel J. Travanti. The series was called Hill St. Blues. She was part of a sprawling ensemble cast, one which changed with some degree of regularity as the years wore on. Her character, Joyce Davenport, though, appeared in all but two episodes over the course of a six-season run. Many of the episodes took place over the course of a single day and concluded with shots of Hamel and Travanti in bed or even in the bathtub together.

The series was always a critics' darling, but was slow to gain viewers. After that first season, it was renewed for only ten episodes and even then was the lowest rated series ever to be renewed for network television. One thing that helped spur it on was another record, a whopping twenty-one Emmy nominations that first season!

Hamel was herself nominated five times for an Emmy as Leading Actress in a Drama Series from 1981 to 1985. The awards instead went to her costar Barbara Babcock, Michael Learned in Nurse, and then three times in a row to Tyne Daly in Cagney & Lacey.) The ladies of Hill St. Blues were no pert young chippies. The Amazonian Betty Thomas was the youngest on the outset at thirty-three and the others were up to a decade older than that!

For various events outside the series, she could still be called upon to supply some '80s glam, as shown here in 1984 with Hollywood makeup artist Brian Hamilton. Today, they talk about choosing the eyes or mouth to accentuate with makeup.  In the '80s, no feature was left unemphasized! Paint on!

Though her character tended to underplay the glamour, favoring neutral suits and hair pulled back demurely, occasionally she might still ratchet up the glitz a little on the actual show, such as in the 1981 season two episode Blood Money, in which she and Travanti had had a tiff and she went out with another man (played by her real-life husband, an unbilled Michael Irving!) As it stood, however, her decade-long marriage was on its last legs and the two parted for good in 1981. They were friendly despite having been separated for several years.

One bizarre blip in their married life occurred while remodeling their newly acquired Brentwood home in 1972. The house had belonged to Marilyn Monroe and when the contractors were ripping apart the old roof and redoing walls, they discovered incredibly extensive, once state-of-the-art telephone tapping and bugging devices that could only have been the property of the FBI at the time they were installed.

Still eager to pursue meaty parts during her hiatus from Hill St., Hamel turned down a few glossy TV-movie offers that first year and instead took on the gutsy, highly demanding part of Annie Sullivan in a St. Louis stage production of The Miracle Worker. Other projects she worked on during breaks from Hill St. include Sessions (1983), all about a high-priced call girl (Hamel) living a double life and examining her issues in therapy sessions. She also was part of the miniseries Kane & Abel, which starred Peter Strauss and Sam Neill (whose wife she portrayed.)

After the cancellation of Hill St. in 1987, Hamel made a return to cinema screens in the comedy-drama A New Life (1988), which was written by, directed by and starred Alan Alda. He and Ann-Margret played a married couple who decide to see other people and Hamel was the lady he dallied with. (John Shea played A-M's new squeeze.)

The cast was rounded out with Hal Linden and Mary Kay Place. The movie made no significant box office ripple (most of the attention went to Ann-Margret's sizeable hairdo or to Alda's poodle-perm and scruffy, salt 'n pepper beard) and I dare say few people even recall it now, despite it's featuring a cult favorite like A-M.

She next worked on the miniseries Twist of Fate (1989) about a reluctant Nazi (Bruce Greenwood) who has to pose as a Jew after attempting to assassinate Hitler and winds up in a concentration camp. (And was based on a true story!) Another film came her way, but it was the negligible James Belushi-Charles Grodin comedy Taking Care of Business (1990), shown here.

That same year, she was the host of one installment of a Lifetime Television public awareness program concerning breast cancer called Your Family Matters. She'd come 180-degrees from her earlier days as a glossy, vacant mannequin whose face had been used to push cigarettes in print and television ads.

From this point, Hamel became a TV-movie and miniseries staple, working on project after project, occasionally in ones she produced herself such as Deadly Medicine (1991) and Baby Snatcher (1992), as shown here. She Said No (1990) had her again playing an attorney, but this time being raped by Judd Hirsch and represented in the trial by Lee Grant. Stop at Nothing (1991) cast her as the mother of a daughter being molested. Yes, this was the era of the infamously melodramatic and issue-oriented “Lifetime Movies.”
The Conviction of Kitty Dodds (1993) had her playing a prison escapee competing with Kevin Dobson for the world's worst hair.
Secrets (1995) had her playing a turn of the century doctor's wife who becomes embroiled in a romantic triangle when her husband (Richard Kiley) impregnates a young girl. Barren Hamel determines that she wants the baby for her own.
A change of pace was the TV-movie (and potential pilot) update Here Come the Munsters (1995) in which she took over Yvonne de Carlo's old part of Lily Munster. Edward Herrmann was (ironically enough) Herman Munster while Robert Morse played Grandpa Munster.
Contrary to what it may look like, this next one is not of Hamel in “The Cher Story,” but is actually from In the Blink of an Eye (1996) in which she played a woman attempting to exonerate a female friend of hers who is in prison.
And so it went, year after year, the topical telefilms of varying quality being turned out as if on a conveyer belt (but being lapped up by female fans of The Lifetime Network and other like programming.)
Having endured and perhaps even enjoyed the character makeup of Lily Munster, she went that route once more in the lesser-known film The Last Leprechaun, camping it up wildly as an evil sorceress.
Over the last decade, she has continued to work. Hill St. Blues producer Steven Bochco hired her five times to play a judge on his short-lived series Philly (which starred Kim Delaney and Tom Everett Scott), she popped up a few times on Third Watch and, perhaps more notably, appeared on the hit series Lost a few times as Matthew Fox's mother.

With that series' cancellation in 2010, she hasn't worked on television since, but surely isn't finished. Currently sixty-nine, she has held to her decision to seek out a wide variety of roles that do not rely on her on once-staggering looks. Now that she's older, she ought to be even more free to pursue character parts. She's applauded most heartily in The Underworld, however, for her stunning modeling work and her appearances in the two big-screen stinkers she'd probably love to forget, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and When Time Ran Out...!


NotFelixUnger said...

Shocker ahead! I was never a big Hamel fan while in my teens. I couldn't stand Hill Street Blues. Most of it was over my head, but even when I understood most of the storyline, I was the type that thought all stories ended in a happy ending if you wished it hard enough. Of course, now I realize why it was called "Hill Street BLUES."

Something happened in my mid to late 20s. I became hooked on the LifeTime Channel. Call me "fickle" but I learned to love this girl. Throughout my 30s she was always there with a great storyline and made it convincing. LifeTime has not been the same in years!

One thing I'll always treasure about Hamel, we had the same hair. And we did! All the way up till mine started falling out. Oh well, I still got the face!

Merry Christmas! Someone's on a roll! I'll be gone for a week or two. First a cruise and then France for New Years!


Poseidon3 said...

I've never even seen ONE episode of Hill St. Blues! I'm even worse because I was such a lover of soap and glamour in the '80s that such a gritty show wasn't on my radar at ALL! I loved Veronica from her disaster stuff and had no inclination to see her in that show. I probably would like it if I watched it now. I also haven't seen most of her TV movies, but the ones I have, I thought she did very well in. Have a great holiday. What a decadent way you're spending it!!! I'm only working six days out of a sixteen day stretch and so probably won't have too many posts in the near future. I'm gonna try!

joel65913 said...

Interesting article and those 60's glamour shots are amazing!

I was an intermittent viewer of Hill Street, it was a good show but in those pre-DVR days it was on the wrong night for me.
Veronica Hamel's one of those actresses who I am indifferent too, I can't say I'm a big fan but neither do I change the channel if she's in something.

I've seen both When Time Ran Out, a dreadful piece of junk, which I believe my beloved Jacqueline Bisset did simply to work with Paul Newman. They both should have known better and it's sad to see William Holden once so dynamic dissipated and with most of his spark extinguished so close to the end of his life. And of course the utterly heinous Beyond the Poseidon Adventure in my opinion the absolute worst of the Irwin Allen films. Badly shot, with no real sense that the characters, most of whom are unlikable or stupid, are in any real danger plus it looks like a clean up crew came through and washed all the grime away from the first film. I know Sally Field was talked into it by her agent at the time because after Norma Rae he thought she should do something commercial! I don't think he was her agent much longer after this and she is loath to speak of this disaster today and who can blame her.

I haven't seen many of her TV films but I did see the remake of Valley of the Dolls. It was years ago but I do remember that Catherine Hicks came off best, not that topping the wooden Barbara Parkins would be difficult. Lisa Hartman was horrible, not even horrendous in a fun way as Patty Duke was just plain bad. As much as I love Jean Simmons and she acquitted herself with dignity she didn't have the coruscating, ball busting grit that Susan Hayward effortless infused her Helen Lawson with. As far as Veronica, she was intelligent and capable but nowhere near as touching as Sharon Tate in the original, nor did she shimmer with Sharon's star power. Still it wasn't a bad mini but didn't have the original's train wreck aspect.

Have a good holiday! Look forward to many great pieces in the new year!

NotFelixUnger said...

If it's any consolation, I would rather stay home with my children: Toby, Harley, Walley, Endora, Theo and Gypsy Rose Lilly. (3 dogs, 3 cats) Then there are all the birds and stray animals I take care of in the neighborhood. What the heck, it makes Jeff happy once a year. After 10 years, this is the trip I said "yes" to this year. He's the decadent one in the family. If he's got a set of Louis Vuitton luggage [with the hat box!] he's ready to go on safari at any moment. This year he got a "Ricardo steamer trunk" for travel. With my being Cuban and all he thought that was "cute."

Anyway, believe it or not, this girl [Hamel] became an idol. Once I caught on to her on LifeTime she was not only credible but understandable in her roles. I loved her. Even when she stole babies! LOL

Keep 'em comming. Here's a wish list for ya...

Aldo Ray
Judy Holiday
Peter Lupus
Lyle Waggoner
Elizabeth Montgomery
Lee Montgomery [only about 50 right now!]
Greg Evigan [my first and only true love!]

Scooter said...

Great post. Never knew that Hamel could have been an Angel. Two things: I was intrigued by the advertisement for Sardo. At first I thought it was some kind of feminine hygiene product necesary because you "live" with a man. I was so disaapointed when it was only skin lotion. Secondly, love 80's glamour - big hair and everything accented!

Poseidon3 said...

And, Scooter, did you notice how much older the man was in the Sardo ad? '70s sexism at its finest! ha!

Oh, and Joel, I remember watching "When Time Ran Out..." and thinking, "WHY is William Holden riding in an SUV (then called Blazers, I think) with two skanky stuntwomen/"actresses"?? Is this what it's come to?!?" LOL They were horrible and I didn't care what happened to them or to Sheila Allen who had, by now, hogged a ton of screen time since marrying Irwin....