The Goal of the Hustle Is Unattainable
The Life of Bernie Hamilton
By RJ Smith
Reading time 41 Minutes
PK Dwyer slow-rolled his 1949 Plymouth
PK Dwyer slow-rolled his 1949 Plymouth into a vast drive-in movie parking lot outside Seattle. It was 1971.
Hollywood was in his rear-view mirror. Just over a year before, in January of 1970, Dwyer and a buddy had landed in Los Angeles with the standard issue dreams.
“We were 19, 20 years old and came to be famous musicians” he says today. After a few weeks in town the money was running out, and he began considering his options.
“We started getting hungry, me and my friend, who played standup bass. Somebody told us you could put a guitar case out on the sidewalk and make money near UCLA, playing for movie theater lines.” Their first night they made fifty bucks, and they set up every night after that. One time a guy named Bill, maybe, came by, and said he was the music director for a movie in production. Their songs would be perfect for it, he told Dwyer. Were they interested in being in the movies?
Bill explained he couldn’t pay them, but he agreed to pay to fly a piano player they worked with in Seattle down for the recording session, and he’d help them copyright their music.
In the end, Dwyer made a professional recording of a half-dozen or so songs, and had a credit on the movie.
The film was Walk the Walk, and Dwyer chuckles when talking about it decades later. He didn’t get to know the cast of the film, but he did meet the director, Jac Zacha, three or four times. “He was a very well put together Italian person. Really nicely dressed, a small petite man in the middle of middle age.”
By the end of the year, Dwyer was back in Seattle, where he grew up. But a few months later, he saw a listing for Walk the Walk in the local paper, and he and some buddies jumped into the car to bask in the glory of movie celebrityhood.
“It was a real kick to hear your songs coming out of those little drive-in speakers,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted to tap on the windows of everybody’s cars and say, ‘Hey those are my songs!’”
What struck him about the film most was the opening and closing segments Zacha tacked on to the movie. At the start he looks into the camera and states that the film was inspired by his personal story of addiction. And once the film is complete, Zacha reappears, telling the audience that they have just seen his personal story of drug addiction. [Note: this prologue/epilogue is missing from the byNWR version as it not attached to the three prints known to exist.]
He was looking out at the film’s audience. Which, at drive-ins and grindhouses in the early-‘70s, surely included a curve-skewing percentage of young folks who were pretty high themselves.
“We just thought it was hysterical,” said Dwyer. "Jac Zacha, this white guy comes out and says, ‘This is my story,’ and then a black junkie is depicted once the movie starts. And then at the end, he came on again and says, ‘Thank you for watching my story. Good night!’ We just thought that was hilarious.”
“It was pretty exciting, but that’s the last time I remember hearing anything about the film.”
Walk the Walk is a curious entry in the history of indie films, a quintessential piece of outsider cinema. It is also a bizarre footnote to the amazing career of its lead actor, Bernie Hamilton. In a life of filmmaking, Hamilton appeared in movies alongside Frank Sinatra, Jean Seberg, Jackie Robinson and Burt Lancaster; he made a ground-breaking movie about an interracial marriage years before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? He worked with directors like Luis Bunuel, Sam Fuller and Don Siegel. Racking up more than 75 screen credits from the 1950s to the 1980s, he’s perhaps best known for his featured role as Captain Dobey in the TV series Starsky & Hutch.
That, however, doesn’t even begin to describe his life and times. For Bernie Hamilton was an entrepreneur who made his mark in whatever field he worked, whether it was with film, music, or Christmas trees. He was a talented artist in a time when being black and talented guaranteed you very little.
“I certainly get the impression that it was a real grind. says film historian Christopher Sieving, author of Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation. “In order for black actors to find work, they typically had to accept roles that they judged to be demeaning and degrading.”
This is the story of the star of Walk the Walk and the inventor of the Chocolate Snowman. A master of the Hollywood Shuffle, to quote Robert Townsend’s satire of black actors in Hollywood, an unsung star who never gave up.
Hamilton was born on June 12, 1928, and grew up on what was called the Eastside, in the neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles that surrounded Central Avenue. The area was the entertainment and business backbone of African-American Los Angeles for much of the 20th Century. Today it is overwhelmingly Latino, but in Hamilton’s time, the Eastside was a tight-knit community where black pols, porters, actors, hepcats and hustlers all were connected.
His mother, Pearl Lee Gonzales Cooley Hamilton ran the cafeteria at a local high school; Jesse Hamilton, his father, was a railroad porter and then a waiter at the University Club, one of the ritziest white gentleman’s clubs of Southern California.
Bernie was one of six kids. He was not the only one with creative ambitions. His brother was the jazz drummer Foreststorn “Chico” Hamilton. In a 2009 interview Chico, who died in 2013, recalled their Depression childhood: “My mother was Mexican, Indian, German-Jew,” said Chico. “My father was Afro American and Scottish."
"What’s amazing, man, [Jesse] used to leave two dimes, 20 cents, on my mother’s dresser every morning and my mother used to take those two dimes and feed six kids, feed us, make fantastic meals, man. We didn’t have black-eyed peas. I didn’t know anything about black-eyed peas but we had tamales.”
The Hamilton kids grew up attending a Methodist church. “If you wanted to be a jazz musician or even play jazz, you were considered a sinner among all the church-going people. My family was Protestant, and we went to a Methodist church. The people there considered me a sinner,” Chico recalled.
But while some neighbors might have disapproved, the Hamiltons were nothing but supportive of the arts at home. Bernie went to the legendary Jefferson High School, burnishing his own growing legend in the neighborhood by standing on Jefferson’s front lawn and greeting students with recitations of Shakespeare and poetry.
“He was an avid reader,” says Bernie’s son, Raoul. “All of his other
brothers, Don, Tommy, Adair and his sister Jesselee took odd jobs to
bring income back to the fold. And there was Bernie on the couch,
reading. He used to get teased a lot by his brothers or sisters. And his
mom used to say, ‘Leave Bernard alone.’ He was her special child. ‘Let
When he was barely a teenager, Bernie got a job working on Central Avenue in the Lincoln Theater. The Lincoln was a West Coast outpost of the black theater circuit that supported dancers like the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, musicians like W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington and Andy Kirk, and countless actors and comics. The emcee was the slapstick comic Pigmeat Markham. It was Hamilton’s job to body slam the full-sized spotlight into place and shoot a beam wherever Markham stomped his big feet. He was in heaven.
“Can you imagine?” asks Marc Hamilton, a nephew of Bernie’s. “He saw ‘em all, man. But of all the performers, he said what made it all worthwhile and sweet was to have had the opportunity to hold the spotlight for Dorthy Dandridge when she took the stage. And these were his words –‘I was mesmerized by her beauty.’ This was Dorothy Dandridge in her prime, brother, one of the most beautiful women in the world.”
Sometime during his high school years, Bernie ran away from home, only to reappear in Oakland, where he attended Oakland Technical High School, and lived in somebody’s garage. He studied acting and received his high school diploma in Oakland, and then returned to Los Angeles.
Soon after, Hamilton married Maxine King, who had come to Los Angeles via Texas; “they were both really handsome people and so I bet they had an interesting spark,” says the couple's daughter, Candace. Hamilton took acting classes at Los Angeles City College, and made his film debut with a small part as a ballplayer in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred Robinson as himself and also featured a young Ruby Dee.
It’s hard to script a better metaphoric launch for a young African
American actor in the post-war era than this one: Jackie Robinson was
only three years into his baseball career, and still facing scalding
opposition from opponents and white fans as he broke the color line.
Robinson had come to Hollywood to star in his own story, but Hollywood
was in search of its own Jackie Robinson.
By 1950, Nick and Edna Stewart
By 1950, Nick and Edna Stewart, an African-American acting couple, had already racked up experience in Jim Crow Hollywood. Nick was a talented comic, dancer and voice actor with parts in numerous films. Offered a part on the TV show version of the beloved radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, however, Stewart mulled over the possibilities. The downside was that the show, while enjoyed by both white and black audiences, was also clearly trafficking in offensive cultural stereotypes. The upside was the money, and the opportunity said money provided to open a theater the Stewarts had long envisioned: a regional playhouse to give black performers a chance to showcase their talents. A theater moreover intended to help dismantle the very stereotypical roles of maid, servant, porter and the like – all that was being offered to over-qualified black artists in Hollywood.
Bernie Hamilton would become a part of this Ebony Showcase Theatre circle, active both in its stage productions and then on its local TV show, which aired dramas in the early 1950s. Creative control over its productions, financial independence from those who would have disagreed with their racial barrier-breaking were hallmarks of the Ebony Showcase. “I’d rather play a maid than be one,” said actress Hattie McDaniel many times; she had won an Oscar in 1939 for her role as “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. Into the 1950s, such were the choices for black actors trying to get a foothold in Hollywood.
Hamilton’s fledgling career was interrupted when he was drafted in
the Army at the end of the Korean War. When he returned to civilian
life, he and Maxine moved to New York City in search of stage and TV
work. He was an understudy for a Broadway show, and worked in Johnny
Romero’s bar, a legendary Greenwich Village bohemian hang owned by an
African-American entrepreneur where races mingled with unusual freedom.
Over the next few years, there would be a flurry of TV appearances, and the occasional role in a movie, including what would be his biggest break to date, Luis Bunuel’s 1960 feature The Young One, in which Hamilton stars as a jazz musician fleeing a lynch mob after being falsely accused of a rape. "The production is related to what's happening in the South today," Hamilton said at the time. "And it's important for every negro to see it."
A year later, he starred with Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra and Grégoire Aslan in The Devil at Four O’Clock, playing an escaped convict who cheeses it to a Polynesian island. There, they discover a colony of children with leprosy bening endangered by a volcano, and at the film’s climax Hamilton sacrifices his life, holding up a bridge so that Sinatra and the children make it across to safety. (In 1986, after Sinatra collapsed onstage in New Jersey, Hamilton sent a telegram to his Rancho Mirage home: “Frank -- get well. I’m still holding up the bridge for you.”)
Two ambitious projects, diametrically opposed: an art house movie by a surrealist genius, and a disaster epic with earthquakes, lava, explosions. Neither is much remembered today, and when the dust settled on the collapsed bridge, Hamilton was still looking for a chance to really break through.
A serious opportunity came three years later, when he got a lead role as the husband in the interracial marriage drama One Potato, Two Potato. It was 1964, and the Civil Rights Act had just been passed, in the face of ongoing racial violence in the north and south. One Potato, Two Potato was director Larry Peerce’s first movie, and it was a project that meant a lot to him personally. He’d read a newspaper story about a white divorcee who lost custody of her child when she remarried a black man, and he could see the potential for a good drama. Raising money for it, however, proved a procession of sympathetic looks followed by slammed doors.
Eventually Peerce and a writing partner made the picture for $230,000, filming in a small Ohio town. Peerce remembers Hamilton vividly. “He was a charming, lovely, funny guy. Very hard-working, caring, very professional. Back then he was a very handsome fellow. Just quite a guy.”
Convinced they had something new and powerful, Peerce and his partner shopped the feature to distributors. There was a lot of double-talk – "‘it’s marvelous and we’re proud of you,’ all this baloney,” says Peerce. “And finally they would say, ‘we wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole’.”
Without invitation – the American committee had turned them down – they took it to Cannes, and pulled strings to get it screened, and the response was so good they were invited into the main part of the festival. In the end, Barbara Barrie, who played Hamilton’s wife, shared Cannes’ Best Actress award with Anne Bancroft.
The Cannes success helped get them distribution; ultimately, One Potato, Two Potato was even shown in some theaters in the south. It was a profound theme told in a matter-of-fact fashion, and presented at a time when such a gentle call for integration was met with indifference. “I couldn’t get a job after that,” laughs Peerce today. “It took my agents a year to get me another job.”
Three years later, the US Supreme Court would strike down anti-miscegenation laws. Another daring film about interracial marriage came out a few months after the Supreme Court ruling. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, starring Sidney Portier as a black husband, would be a box office hit. As for Hamilton, he was no better off than before he made One Potato, Two Potato. “There were very few roles. It was a tough field and a tough time,” says Peerce. “Bernie was one of the first to break through, when they made him the lieutenant on Starsky and Hutch. He was very lucky. But it took a long time. He had a hell of a hard time.”
It would be years before he would get another important film role.
Marc Hamilton, Bernie’s nephew, heard the story from his dad. A piece of family lore, a pivotal moment in Bernie’s relationship with Hollywood. “Bernie was quite strident. He was very outspoken,” says Marc.
He can’t remember which studio lot Bernie was working on, but one day the head of the studio was walking across the lot. Bernie happened to spot him while on a break.
“He took it upon himself to stop the studio head and he gave him an earful, saying that he thought that it was very unfair, very unbalanced that black actors and actresses had so little work. And he asked why there weren’t better scripts and roles and substantive projects to showcase their talents.”
The result of the confrontation, says Hamilton, “was that my uncle was essentially blackballed.”
Joseph Blocker, Hamilton’s friend, puts it more bluntly. “He didn’t kowtow to that Hollywood bullshit, and eventually if you don’t kiss that ass you ain’t getting that pussy.” It cost him work, but Blocker says it was the kind of thing that defined who he was. “He was his own man until the day he died.”
Besides parts on TV shows, Hamilton had an overlay of income sources to keep his family afloat. Since the late ‘50s he’d sold Christmas trees, first in the Crenshaw district and then on Sunset. His lot “was a 24-7 operation,” recalls Raoul. “All the artists, the pimps, the hookers, dope dealers and the users, it was a mecca for people to come out.”
Hamilton was a close friend of actor Tony Franciosa, pianist Dorothy Donegan, and Venice beat figure Bill Riola. Hamilton knew how to talk to you whether you were a junkman or a cultural attache. He knew what he wanted you to hear. “My dad had a thousand stories – but he didn’t tell a lot of them to me,” says Raoul. “He was humble and with that is a lot of stoicism, too – that whole alone thing,” says his daughter Candace. “As an actor you have to embrace solitude, you have got to be cool with that. So there was a lot of spaces within him.”
Though nobody can explain exactly how it happened, at some point in the mid-1960s Hamilton was a guest of François Duvalier, or Papa Doc, as the despotic president of Haiti was called. He spent some months there. “It was some sort of cultural mission,” says Raoul.
How did he meet Papa Doc? “I have no idea. My father had a knack for meeting unusual people,” says his son.
Hamilton read up on Haitian history and, once he returned to Los Angeles, became obsessed with writing a script about the Haitian Revolution of the late-18th century. Led by the charismatic Toussaint L'Ouverture, the revolution was the only successful anti-slavery, anti-colonial rebellion in the western hemisphere. The nation of Haiti was formed by slaves who threw off their oppression: it would make a hell of a movie.
Hamilton brought back books, masks, and art from the island. He wanted to build something to memorialize his time there, a cultural intersection where the drums would be loud. Hamilton knew of a former Buick dealership on Sunset Boulevard; he’d sold Christmas trees next to it for years. He made the owner an offer, carted away the trash inside, and began painting wild, colorful designs on the walls. The Citadel d’Haiti was located at 6666 Sunset, and quickly became a black bohemian enclave.
Hamilton built a kitchen, bar, and stage. The Citadel d’Haiti became a place for poetry readings, community events, and music. When the Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti made his first trip to the United States, driving his fledgling band of musicians from New York to the West Coast in August, 1969, they were unknowns soaking up American sounds and black radical politics. Los Angeles was the last stop on what had become a disappointing tour. Instead, they settled into the Citadel and it helped Fela figure out who he was.
“We played there for about five months, six nights in a week,” Kuti's drummer Tony Allen told writer Jay Babcock in his authoritative 1999 account of Kuti’s time in Los Angeles (which appeared in Arthur magazine). “Bernie gave us a house and we played in his club. It was grooving, you know.”
“Anyone that was anybody – Jim Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, H.B. Barnum, Esther Phillips – came to see Fela,” said Sandra Smith, an African American activist with connections to the Black Panthers. “It was all word of mouth.”
The whole scene survived on word of mouth. There were masks, dayglo paint and lots of dark corners. Bernie dragged in couches he’d found on the street, there were old bicycles, horns; a car that was left in the showroom was cut in half and suspended from the ceiling. The actual Citadel in Nord, Haiti was a mountaintop fortress built by one of the leaders of the rebellion. On the wall of Hamilton’s fortress a mural depicting the Citadel peered down over the dancefloor. “It was exotic, and not like a Hollywood nightclub,” says Raoul. “It was pretty spooky, actually.
He stops for a minute, and then he recalls family gossip. “I remember hearing about my Dad investing in some movie, something he started and shot at the Citadel. But it never got released…”
That movie is pretty clearly is Walk the Walk, a film full of scenes shot in a place that fits the description of the Citadel d’Haiti. It’s a picture all but unknown, even to followers of Hamilton’s career.
It was the labor of love of director Jac Zacha. He’s even less known to us than Hamilton: a statement he wrote for the pressbook to Walk the Walk describes a rough upbringing in Cincinnati and a gradual descent into addiction. Zacha called himself “a rehabilitated dope fiend” and “a loose Catholic who believes in staying loose – in not being rigid in thinking or believing.”
Zacha had bottomed out in the 1960s and was living under the Venice pier, he said, piecing together a career in Hollywood by working in costume departments and writing. Mostly, he wanted to share his tale of overcoming addiction with the world, and began developing Walk the Walk independently.
While driving through the Southern California desert scouting locations for his film, a chance encounter with a clairvoyant in the small town of Yucaipa showed him the way forward. She told Zacha to change the lead in his picture from a white character to an African American one. And she suggested several ways he might raise money to fund his dream. Walk the Walk indicates he took her advice to heart.
Walk the Walk came and went quickly for Bernie Hamilton
Walk the Walk came and went quickly for Bernie Hamilton. Brief TV appearances (Sanford and Son, That’s My Mama, The Six Million Dollar Man) kept the lights on into the mid-’70s. The blaxploitation genre, a low-budget genre targeting an African American film audience Hollywood wasn’t interested in, helped too, and Hamilton appeared alongside the great William Marshall in Scream Blacula Scream (1973; original title was Blacula is Beautiful) and teamed up with Fred Williamson and Pam Grier in Bucktown (1975; both made by American International Pictures).
Blaxploitation’s box office success startled Hollywood with the realization that African Americans liked seeing themselves on screens big and small – and that many whites did, too. The genre quickly had an impact on movies and television. A TV program seeking to project any kind of urban grit was likely to give a recurring role to a black actor. So when the buddy cop show Starsky & Hutch was launched in 1975, it featured two meaty roles for black actors: Antonio Fargas played the blaxploitation staple figure of the comic snitch. Hamilton’s part was far more of a breakthrough: his police Captain Harold Dobey was the officer the two streetwise white cops reported to. They had the license to bend the rules on the mean streets of Bay City, but the hard working black cop overseeing them was, by necessity, by-the-book, reigning in their excesses while always having their back.
Between 1975 and the summer of 1979, Bernie Hamilton was a TV star, appearing in American homes every week. His nephew Marc Hamilton recalls a special day Bernie planned out for his family. First, they watched him shoot on the 20th Century Fox lot, and when the show broke for lunch Bernie gave a personal tour of the lot.
“This is classic Bernie,” says Marc Hamilton. “He loved history – he was not only a student of the craft of movie making, he loved everything about the whole experience. So he knew what was shot on the lot at 20th Century Fox.”
He made the whole day look casual, but Marc figures Bernie had every moment planned, and he pointed out the London train station used by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Just as they were heading for the commissary, they turned a corner just in time to see, driving onto the lot in his classic Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, none other than Benny Carter, the great jazz musician, who was also a shrewd businessman and one of the few African Americans who, as a composer and arranger, had made it big in Hollywood back in the 1930s. Carter joined the family group, and he and Hamilton shared war stories as the nieces and nephews eagerly ate it up.
But even during his TV reign, Hamilton kept the side-gigs simmering. He owned assorted rental properties, and took care of their maintenance himself. It was possible in the late 1970s, to watch him one night on a top rated TV show, and see him the next morning, pulling up in his Sanford and Son-style truck, to cut a renter’s lawn. He worked.
The success of Starsky & Hutch could have set Hamilton up for other roles, but roles for black actors were disappearing by decade’s end, says film historian Christopher Sieving. “Many of the black actors who worked steadily throughout the later '60s and early '70s saw that work dry up at the end of the '70s, once the Blaxploitation cycle had run its course. There was still work to be had on television, but probably not enough to compensate for the stark decline in available movie jobs,” says Sieving.
“It would take another decade, and the simultaneous rise of Spike Lee and the ‘hood film’ cycle, before Hollywood showed interest in making movies with mostly black actors.”
Instead, Hamilton took his TV money and invested it in a new interest: the music biz. His brother Chico had become one of the best-paid jazz musicians in the world, a drummer and band leader who had made both commercially and critically-lauded music for decades. Now Bernie wanted a recording career of his own.
He started working with Joseph Blocker. As a 17-year old Southern Californian interested in record-making, Blocker sought out legendary black rock and roll producer Tom Wilson (he recorded Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Mothers of Invention) soaking up many a lesson. As an up and coming player in his twenties, Blocker went to London, befriended Sex Pistol Glen Matlock and produced early recordings by Neneh Cherry, the Slits, and others. He invested his money in a studio in Compton, and by the early 1980s, Hamilton was investing in him, working with Blocker on a label Hamilton named Inculcation. He recorded R&B pianist Floyd Dixon and blues singer Arthur Adams, and even local hip-hop talent. And Hamilton made his own singing debut: Captain Dobey Blows His Cover.
In an interview with Billboard, Hamilton announced he would follow it up with a country music release: Captain Dobey is Captain Country. “Music is a challenge for me,” he said. “I have been around it practically all my life and I decided I wanted to be totally involved.”
Here was a project that he had control over, work that ran on his schedule. After decades of being at the mercy of the other man, here was a business of his own, one that nobody could tell him to do any other way than the way he wanted.
He had good inside advisors: Chico was making suggestions, as was Chico’s son, Forrest, a player on the west coast music scene. He’d helped Bill Withers get his first record deal, and managed acts like the Dramatics. Forest was also West Coast rep for Stax Records and a producer of the influential 1973 music documentary Wattstax: Forest hired his uncle Bernie to shoot scenes in the black community for the film.
Bernie liked to explain to people how the dictionary defined the word “inculcation”: it was presenting knowledge to the uneducated, and he definitely was presenting his knowledge his way in the recording studio. And, enjoying himself too. Chico and his son explained how through putting together a demo record, assembling a promotional package together and hawking your new discovery, you then might maybe get that major label money.
“Bernie said fuck that, I got my own money and I’m gonna put it out myself,” says his son, Raoul Hamilton. “But in the interim he’d run through his own money.”
“If he had gotten more acting work instead of getting so into music he could have become a really incredible character actor in the mold of someone like Burgess Meredith,” says Candice. “His chops were constantly honing and yet he stopped acting, and that was not the best. [He was] just getting drunk on the music yet not having it bring him as much fame or monetary benefit as acting did, and that may have in fact depressed him,” she says. “He wasn’t the healthiest.”
By the late 1980s or early 1990s, Hamilton had taken it all the way back to the streets. He was selling Christmas trees on a lot on Crenshaw Boulevard in the winter and selling barbecue there the rest of the year. Once, somebody broke into the building where he stored his barbecue supplies and set it on fire. He arrived to survey the damage, and walked over to the supermarket across the street. He bought a couple of hams and put them in the barbecue pit and started selling barbecue ham sandwiches. “He was an old school, unpretentious, no-shame-in-his-head man,” says Raoul.
In this period Hamilton hatched one final, great scheme, a project he never let go of. He called it the Chocolate Snowman. Perhaps this creation has some deep subterranean connection to research African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted as part of the NAACP’s argument before the Supreme Court in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education. This landmark 1954 case declared public school segregation to be illegal.
The Clarks showed various black children four different dolls, with dark to light complexions, and asked them which doll was the best. Testimony that the lighter dolls were the most desirable ones spoke to the poor self-esteem of African American children, and became a crucial argument used by those who fought against racial segregation.
The Chocolate Snowman was just that, a black snowman doll, and its own way it too was all about generating positive self-esteem among black children of the 1980s.
“It was a crazy, crazy venture,” Raoul declares, saying his father easily spent hundreds of thousands of dollars researching why a black snowman would matter to black kids, travelling to Korea to meet with doll makers, and shipping thousands of the manufactured products back. There were even Chocolate Snowman coloring books and greeting cards. Hamilton liked to note that Valentine’s Day was the biggest chocolate sales day of the year, and saw that as a potential marketing strategy. “He wrote a Chocolate Snowman opera and wrote a TV treatment for Chocolate Snowman shows,” adds Raoul. There were spinoff characters, too. Chocolate Snowman had a group of friends, and a girlfriend. Her name was Girlfriend.
He had a deal with Toys “R” Us. But then, Raoul says, the company set up a regional launch, and Hamilton became angry at the amount of shelf space being given to his creation. His do-it-yourself impulse kicked in again, and he decided to put it out himself. That was, more or less, that last time anybody heard of the Chocolate Snowman.
Anybody except for Joseph Blocker, who lives in a house Hamilton once owned. And Raoul Hamilton’s son, both of whom see boxes of the Snowman, thousands of them, whenever they care to look.
So does Raoul’s son, Ramone. He is following in his grandfather’s footsteps as an actor--though he works in a very different cultural moment. The pay is far better today, though the parts still aren’t all that they should be for black actors. Ramone was in the cast of last year’s The Grinch alongside Rashida Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch; he’s appeared in numerous TV shows and his film career is just getting started. If his luck holds up the 12-year-old actor will never have to hawk a Chocolate Snowman.
Bernie Hamilton died December 30, 2008, of cardiac arrest. The obituaries led with his groundbreaking role in Starsky & Hutch, and mentioned his performance in One Potato, Two Potato. None mentioned Walk the Walk.
“Bernie was a very smart man, a very personable guy,” says Joseph Blocker. “He was a hustler, he was gonna get that money. He liked people and people liked him.” Blocker calls Hamilton “a strategist deep in his heart.” But was he strategizing for the sake of his art, or was the hustle in fact the artwork?
“Here’s what I found,” explains Blocker. “Seventy five to eighty five percent of the time the thrill of the hunt outweighs capturing the game.” He thinks for a moment and then picks up the beat. “It’s like chasing the horizon. You can sail for 36 hours and when you wake up the horizon is just as far away as before.
“The goal of the hustle is unattainable,” he finishes. “Unattainable.”
RJ Smith is a journalist based in Los Angeles. His books include American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo, 2017) and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). His work has appeared in GQ, Spin, The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and Yeti. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry.
thanks to Chris Poggiali, templeofschlock.blogspot.com.