Harry Hamlin’s Secret Sauce: On Playing Tom Brokaw, Fighting the Paparazzi, and His Legendary Bolognese

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Astrid Stawiarz/Getty
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty

At the moment, Harry Hamlin is unexpectedly wet.

It was a bit of a drive-by soaking. He thought it would be nice on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon to take his phone interview outside in the yard of his and wife Lisa Rinna’s Italian villa-style mansion. You know the one—the gorgeous property with the lush garden where, in the most recent season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, a dinner party left the cast drooling over Hamlin’s signature bolognese sauce, as well as screaming about a notorious pair of “ugly leather pants.”

He was lounging in the sun when, simultaneously, the phone rang and the sprinklers came on, he explains as he seeks out dry land: “I just got inundated with water.” That meant a retreat from what he’s named “Bonnie’s Bench,” because Bonnie Raitt grew up in that house and used to sit outside and play her guitar on it. He’s kept it there for 35 years in her honor.

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Raitt’s father is actor John Raitt. Decades ago, for one of his milestone birthdays, she and her brothers took him back up to the house because, before he had to sell it, it was his favorite spot in the world. They walked the grounds and reminisced. At one point, she turned to Hamlin and Rinna and said to them, “Whatever you do, don’t have kids here.”

It turns out that Raitt and her siblings felt stranded there growing up. The house is located in the Santa Monica Mountains at the top of Mulholland Drive. You can’t really skateboard, or ride your bike anywhere. If you didn’t have a car—or, as a kid, couldn’t drive—you were essentially stuck there. So Raitt would come out and sit on what is now Bonnie’s Bench “and play her guitar and cry,” Hamlin says. “So I told her, ‘Well that kind of worked out for you, Bonnie…’”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Harry Hamlin as Tom Brokaw in <em>The Hot Zone: Anthrax</em></p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Peter Stranks/National Geographic</div>

Harry Hamlin as Tom Brokaw in The Hot Zone: Anthrax

Peter Stranks/National Geographic

Of course, Hamlin and Rinna did have two kids together, Delilah and Amelia, who both grew up there happily (the advent of Uber mitigated any transportation woes) and have become models and influencers. But the “would you believe this?” story drenched with Hollywood and celebrity lore is a fitting introduction to Hamlin at this point in his career—and at this “would you believe this?” time we’re living in, to boot.

Hamlin, who himself turned 70 this fall, grew up in Southern California and attended UC Berkeley, before transferring to Yale and graduating with dual degrees in drama and psychology. He worked on the stage, gaining notice for his fully nude performance in a production of Equus, before breaking out in Hollywood with the 1981 blockbuster Clash of the Titans. (This time, he was given a loin cloth.)

For much of the next two decades, he was one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men; quite literally, he was named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1987, while racking up a slew of Golden Globe Award nominations for his work in the hit legal drama L.A. Law.

His resume since then has been an intriguing mix of those things you might not expect a former Sexiest Man Alive and Hollywood superstar to do—he appeared on the third season of Dancing With the Stars all the way back in 2006 and made the leap into reality TV with Rinna, first with 2008’s Harry Loves Lisa and now Real Housewives—as well as critically acclaimed guest and supporting roles that indicate maybe Hamlin’s great strength has been as a character actor all along. After guest starring in Showtime’s Shameless, for example, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work in Mad Men in 2013. Along the way, he co-founded TAE, Inc., one of the largest privately funded clean energy fusion companies in the world.

“I like to do things I am not sure I can do,” Hamlin says. “I pass on things that I know I can do. And at this point in my life, I’m not being offered that many things that I don’t think I can do, so I don’t do that much stuff.”

That’s the philosophy behind agreeing to do Dancing With the Stars all those years ago—and, he says, he had to fire his agent to do it. It’s also why, after a year of hunkering down with his family during the pandemic (his last night out, believe it or not, was spent with Rita Wilson), he also said yes to playing legendary news anchor Tom Brokaw.

When the team behind The Hot Zone: Anthrax, the National Geographic limited series that premiered Sunday night, approached him about portraying Brokaw, he was a bit baffled. There are a lot of talented people in Hollywood who are known for being great imitators. He’s never been one of those people.

This was something that, if he agreed to do it, he could blow entirely. He compared it to “walking a tightrope without a net.” And because of all that, of course he took the job. (Alternate headline for this piece: How Competing on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Convinced Harry Hamlin to Play Tom Brokaw.)

The Hot Zone: Anthrax takes place just after 9/11, when letters containing anthrax spores that could cause lethal infections and illness were mailed to several Democratic senators as well as five news media organizations. At a time when the country was already in a state of panic, a bio-attack being conducted through the postal service amplified the sense of trauma and unease. In the end, five people died and 17 others were infected, and the FBI investigation into how this happened ranked among the largest and most complex in history.

One of those letters was addressed to Brokaw, who at the time anchored NBC Nightly News. While Brokaw was never exposed, the NBC staff member who opened the mail and his personal assistant both contracted anthrax poisoning. The broadcaster was suddenly thrust to the forefront of the story, and played a major role in getting law enforcement to be transparent with the public about the risk.

Growing up in Southern California, Hamlin estimates he was one of the first people to ever see Brokaw in a news broadcast. Brokaw’s big break was helming the 11 p.m. news for the local KNBC Los Angeles affiliate in 1966. “I respect him so much,” Hamlin says. “When I was like 12, I’ll never forget saying to my mother one day, ‘Look at this guy. This guy’s really got something. He’s really interesting.’ And this was when I was 12 years old!”

To know Brokaw—and to know him for all those years—is to know Brokaw’s voice. That is precisely what concerned Hamlin.

While Hamlin’s baritone speaking voice has a rich, honeyed timbre that manages to both command authority and telegraph a certain, general bemusement, Brokaw’s is even deeper than that. After first wondering if he could do his own interpretation of the part, assuming that a younger generation might not have the indelible voice drilled into them in quite the same way, he decided that wouldn’t be the right approach.

Luckily, Brokaw has written a plethora of books, most of which he narrated himself. Between those and online clips of his broadcasts, he was able to nail not only the manner of speaking, but the way it differed between Brokaw’s “anchor mode” and when he was just being himself.

Still, it was a risky and private process. The first time anyone heard him do the voice was about halfway through his 14-day quarantine in Toronto, where The Hot Zone: Anthrax was filmed. Producers started to get nervous that, outside of the mirror in Hamlin’s bathroom, nobody had any idea what he was going to sound like. They put him on a Zoom with a voice coach and after a few scenes, they ended the session. He had nailed it. “I will never do it again, by the way,” he cautions. “I’m sure that people will ask me to do it. But I will never do it again.”

The Hot Zone: Anthrax comes two years after National Geographic’s original Hot Zone series, which recounted 1989’s Ebola crisis in the U.S. Both series arrived with canny, though unplanned timing. It would be only months after the first Hot Zone aired that the world would shut down amidst a global pandemic. Who knew scenes chronicling meticulous sanitizing and hand-washing protocols would be so prescient? And the Anthrax iteration, airing during that pandemic, seems all the more urgent given current circumstances.

Recall for example, that it took public figures Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson contracting the coronavirus for Americans to really stop in their tracks and take the threat seriously. The same could be said of Brokaw’s involvement with the anthrax scare. In their respective cases, Hanks and Brokaw shouldered the burden of becoming the celebrity face of a potentially catastrophic event.

“There’s a lot of resonance there,” Hamlin says, launching into another “would you believe this?” story.

It turns out that, one of the nights right before it was announced that Hanks and his wife, who were on set in Australia, had contracted COVID, Hamlin had hugged Wilson at an event in Los Angeles. “She left right after the event, got on a night plane, and flew to Australia,” he says. “I was like, holy shit, I was at the center of the storm without knowing it.”

He didn’t get it. But it was his last event in Los Angeles before the world shut down.

Hamlin estimates that he and his family weathered the pandemic as well as anyone. Channeling Raitt, he learned to play guitar. He started to grow his own vegetables. The family installed a pool, though not the kind you’d expect at a sprawling Beverly Hills mansion. It was an above-ground reservoir, meant for sustainability and fire safety.

“Certainly, we didn’t go out anywhere,” Hamlin says. “And then we got sued by the paparazzi for posting our pictures on our Instagram.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Amelia Hamlin, Harry Hamlin, Delilah Belle and Lisa Rinna attend Delilah Belle x Boohoo.com Premium at Bootsy Bellows on May 21, 2019, in West Hollywood, California.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Jerritt Clark/Getty</div>

Amelia Hamlin, Harry Hamlin, Delilah Belle and Lisa Rinna attend Delilah Belle x Boohoo.com Premium at Bootsy Bellows on May 21, 2019, in West Hollywood, California.

Jerritt Clark/Getty

In June, a federal lawsuit was filed against Rinna by Backgrid, an agency that represents paparazzi, arguing that by posting eight different photos of herself and her daughters, Delilah and Amelia, on her Instagram, she had violated copyright infringement. Damages sought: a whopping $1.2 million.

“I’ve been nice,” Rinna told the Los Angeles Times about her relationship with the paparazzi. “I’ve never fought with them, I’ve never run from them. My kids grew up with them jumping out of the bushes in Malibu. We’ve had a very good relationship with the press and the paparazzi. That’s why this is so shocking to me.”

Hamlin estimates that these agencies and photographers weren’t making as much money during the pandemic because celebrities weren’t leaving their houses and, when they did, they were unrecognizable under their masks. As far as he’s concerned, these lawsuits are a new revenue stream for them, which he calls, “Nutso.”

“There’s something wrong with this picture. That’s a picture of me that was in the Daily Mail and I’m posting it on my Instagram, and you’re suing me for a million dollars? That’s wrong. I’m sorry.”

“We’re gonna put a stop to that, because we’re going to fight it,” he says. “Everybody else settles. We’re not going to.”

That this stage of Rinna and Hamlin’s dealing with the trials and tribulations of being celebrities involves their adult daughters, who have become public figures of interest in their own right, is new territory for the family. While pointing out that both girls pursued their careers in the business on their own without any influence from their parents, Hamlin says he admires how they’ve handled their newfound fame and its accompanying scrutiny.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Lisa Rinna, Amelia Hamlin and Harry Hamlin attend the Nat Geo's <em>The Hot Zone: Anthrax</em> New York Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 22, 2021, in New York City. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Jamie McCarthy/Getty</div>

Lisa Rinna, Amelia Hamlin and Harry Hamlin attend the Nat Geo's The Hot Zone: Anthrax New York Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on November 22, 2021, in New York City.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Amelia has been candid about her eating disorder and what it’s been like to overcome and live with it. After accidentally overdosing on prescription medication, Delilah published a tearful video explaining what happened and revealed that she had been battling several illnesses, including Lyme disease, Epstein-Barr virus, encephalitis, and Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS).

That honesty and transparency, given their platforms, has been praised for destigmatizing these issues and helping countless people. Then there’s the other side of the coin when it comes to celebrity attention, such as when 20-year-old Amelia began her very public relationship with 38-year-old Scott Disick, the ex of Kourtney Kardashian. (They’ve since broken up.)

“It’s a bumpy road,” Hamlin says. “It’s not always a flat surface.”

“I’m so proud of them because they face their own challenges and they have come out and they have discussed those online and they have helped a lot of people,” he continues. “The internet and social media can be a minefield for kids. I didn’t have to contend with that when I was growing up. There was no way for me to know who I was other than to have my friends or my family mirror back to me who I was. Now you have kids who have millions of followers who mirror back who they think that person is every day. The mirroring that’s going on is this really cracked mirror.”

At this point, our time is running out at Bonnie’s Bench. Playing Tom Brokaw, raising two girls with good heads on their shoulders, making his house sustainable, surviving the pandemic—we’ve touched on most of Hamlin’s accomplishments save one glaring omission: The bolognese sauce.

On the most recent, explosive season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, aside from the maelstrom of drama surrounding Erika Jayne’s legal battles, few things drew as much airtime as Harry Hamlin’s bolognese sauce. Which begs the question: Harry Hamlin, when can we taste this sauce?

“Somebody has said that I should bottle and sell it and donate all the profits to charity like Paul Newman did, which I’d be happy to do.” He chuckles, flattered by the suggestion and maybe a bit embarrassed by the attention. “It’s an old Italian recipe that I cooked up while living in Italy.” You can almost hear the humble shrug through the phone: “People seem to like it.”

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