He ran the gamut. From male model, to silent screen star to top leading man, to supporting player, then doing bits at poverty row studios, to being resurrected by television and introduced to a whole new audience.
He could be remembered as the hardest working supporting actor you’ve never heard of. James Neil Hamilton was born in 1899 in Lynne, Mass., the product of a devoutly Roman Catholic household.
Before he died in 1984 at age 85 from complications of severe asthma, Hamilton had appeared in (by one count) some 270 films (including silents) opposite such leading figures as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett, Ann Sothern and Jean Arthur.
He parleyed his rugged good looks at the start as a male model, sporting spiffy shirts in magazine ads. He appeared on a 1918 Thanksgiving Day cover of the Saturday Evening Post posing with a turkey. He landed his first film role the same year, and received an early career push by none other than D. W. Griffith in 1923’s The White Rose.
By the late 1920’s, Hamilton emerged as a popular leading at Paramount, and a steady employee at virtually ever big Hollywood studio (including low-budget factory, PRC) over the years.
His career stalled severely in the mid-1940’s, which led to a severe depression and thoughts of suicide. Supposedly, Hamilton’s faith saved him. A consultation with an understanding priest led to a nine-day prayer marathon that preceded a Universal Pictures hire and an extension of an already weighty career.
Noteworthy is the fact that Hamilton was the first actor to appear as Nick Carraway, the next door neighbor of the title character (played by Warner Baxter) in the 1926 silent adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The film is considered lost although trailers and short snippets of it survive. (Hamilton is pictured in character below.)
Hamilton, who aged gracefully, is probably best remembered today as Police Commissioner Gordon in the 1966 Batman tv series. (There he is seated below.) He befriended Adam West, who played the title character, and he appeared in every single episode of the series which was an ABC prime time hit, running for two years.
Hamilton was a hard working actor to the last.