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December 21, 1986|Tom Shales | From the Washington Post

Only an actor as serious as Harry Hamlin could sit in the Shirley Temple Room of the 20th Century Fox commissary and talk seriously about acting. "It's been years since I kept up with her career," he says sarcastically of Shirley as he sits down at a corner table near nobody as famous as he.

"I'm going through something of an existential crisis here," Hamlin had confided earlier, welcoming a visitor to the sprawling set of "L.A. Law" on a cavernous sound stage near the commissary. He meant the character he plays: young, cunning, hungry and conscientious lawyer Michael Kuzak, power partner at the fictitious firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak.

From here, the 18th floor of a make-believe high-rise, Kuzak and fellow attorneys go forth to do battle for their clients, or just stay and do battle among themselves. Hamlin has that righteous glow TV actors get when they're in a prestige production. "L.A. Law" is spun gold, the best new prime-time series of the year.

An actor this serious has to have had doubts about making the big five-year commitment (if it's renewed) to a mere television series. And a TV buff he ain't. He thinks he's only seen "Hill Street Blues" maybe "a couple of times" and has never seen "The Cosby Show" because he and his wife keep forgetting what time it's on.

"When I first started in the theater, I said I was never going to do a movie, and when I first did a movie, I said I was never going to do television, and after I first did a miniseries, I said I'd never do a series, and here I am," Hamlin says, gouging open a Mexican chicken dish. "I think the reason I'm doing it is because this is a very interesting piece of work that will allow me to stretch in a lot of subtle and introverted ways.

"And as a learning process," he goes on, "learning the craft and fine-tuning the craft. I can't think of a better way to do it than with a character like this and with these issues to play with and with these other great actors to play with and with these great writers writing the script and with the great crew."

Gee, Harry, you left out the guy who brings you your cheese danish.

Actually, Hamlin isn't that grim all the time. He does seem to have a sense of humor there somewhere (he looks down at the disemboweled taco on his plate and says, "It looks like a Ridley Scott picture").

Who is Kuzak as Hamlin sees him? "He's right at the point in his life when he's finally achieved success in his profession and has just closed Chapter 1 of his professional life." Hamlin has further suspicions. "I made some choices for him. For example, something that will never appear in a script, and yet something I think about in terms of the character a lot, is that his favorite cartoon character is Crusader Rabbit. Much of his early moral code was formed by that show."

It was the persuasive Steven Bochco, the series' co-creator, who talked Hamlin, 35, into taking the plunge into episodic television (Hamlin had done "Studs Lonigan" and a couple other miniseries roles), but the part first discussed for Hamlin was that of office stud Arnold Becker.

"I couldn't envision being locked into that guy for five years," Hamlin says. Corbin Bernsen got the part. Kuzak as originally conceived was "a 44-year-old ex-football player," and much like Capt. Furillo on "Hill Street." The part was rewritten in Hamlinesque terms.

Hamlin's wife, of two years, is Laura Johnson, a former actress on "Falcon Crest" who is now, he says, an agent. But it was another adventure that earned Hamlin a large amount of transitory tabloid notoriety. He and Ursula Andress, who clicked while making "Clash of the Titans," had a child together but did not marry.

Although Bernsen plays the showy, splashy sexual roustabout on "L.A. Law," Hamlin's quieter, more cerebral approach flips some women's lids. He seems surprised to hear this. "But I haven't done that much that's lustful on the show," he protests.

But what about his own sex appeal? "In my life, I was the guy who would serenade at midnight the woman who wanted nothing to do with me. I'm not kidding. I think I was a late bloomer. No, I don't think I ever bloomed, as a matter of fact. And now I'm very happily married."

Asked what it said under his picture in the high-school yearbook, he says he doesn't remember. He went to a stuffy private boys' school in the East, he says, and from there to Berkeley, "so it was out of the frying pan, into the fire." He was graduated from Yale in 1974.

Hamlin seems comfortably in touch with his own instincts--more intelligent than most actors, if a bit on the pretentious side. He imagines loftily that "L.A. Law" might "educate people about the law" and that "maybe if we really got lucky we could fill up some of the loopholes in the system itself and . . . ."

Whoa there, Harry! One breakthrough at a time.

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