Harry Hamlin Interview: The Clash Behind ‘Titans’

By David Weiner

Ray Harryhausen’s cinematic swan song CLASH OF THE TITANS came out in the summer of 1981, and it’s hard now for many to believe that the acclaimed filmmaker was still practicing his patented stop-motion craft for a major studio release in the same time-frame that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK were released.

CLASH OF THE TITANS is fondly remembered by many to be the last hurrah of Harryhausen’s brand of fantasy, as modern special effects utilized by the likes of Industrial Light & Magic were rapidly bypassing Ray’s once-groundbreaking methods of integrating fantastical, stop-motion-animated creatures with live actors on celluloid. While nostalgia or whimsy may be the dominant feelings experienced by many fans and young newcomers watching this fantasy classic today, its star Harry Hamlin has a very different, insider’s perspective on the experience of making it. And as he tells it, some of the film’s most iconic moments that you remember would have either been radically different — or would not exist at all — had he not persisted with his own vision of the story and clashed against the film’s producers, Harryhausen and Charles Schneer.  

“The way it was pitched to me, the way I saw it, was I had just done my thesis a few years before on THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, and it was a hero movie with Laurence Olivier,” Hamlin says about jumping at the chance to do CLASH at the age of 28. “Even though I was a huge fan of Harryhausen, that wasn’t the main event for me. The main event for me was to play a hero and work with Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith and actors that I adored.”

Hamlin had been offered the role of Tristan in TRISTAN AND ISOLDE with Richard Burton and Kate Mulgrew, but hadn’t signed a deal for it when CLASH came along. “I went over to MGM and met with the director [Desmond Davis], they took some Polaroids of me, and that afternoon they called me back to the studio for wardrobe fittings. I mean, it was that fast. They offered me the thing instantly.” Hamlin barely had a chance to give the Beverley Cross script a thorough read before he agreed to do the project. For him, it was about working with Olivier, not Harryhausen. He explains, “I loved [Harryhausen] movies. They just grab you and they pull you right in. I mean, the Cyclops in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, are you kidding me? Crazy stuff. And beautifully done in those days, for that kind of stop-motion animation. … I always found them to be fascinating when I was ten. By the time I was in my twenties, I considered them pretty cheesy. They were fun to watch, but not anything that I wanted to be in as an actor. … I was kind of a snob when it came to that.”

When Hamlin finally had an opportunity to read the script, he says he was horrified: “As I began to really look at the script, I began to see how it mangled the mythology. I had written my thesis on mythology at Yale, my senior thesis, and I’d studied Joseph Campbell, and I’d used THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES as the template for my thesis, and I also had studied Greek mythology in the process of studying mythology in general. So I knew the myths, and I knew who Perseus was, and I knew what he did and what he didn’t do. And a lot of what he didn’t do is in the script. … As I read the words, I went, ‘Holy shit, what have I gotten myself into?’”

Determined to make his opinions known, Hamlin approached the producers before cameras rolled to discuss his concerns, starting with the cutesy mechanical owl Bubo: “Well, the first thing that I said to them was, ‘You can’t name this owl Bubo, because there’s only one definition for B-U-B-O in the English language.’ And I happened to know that because the year before I had read THE PLAGUE by Camus. A bubo is a bleeding pustule that appears under the armpits in the late stages of bubonic plague. I said, ‘If you name this cute little owl Bubo, you’re really just talking about a boil.’” Hamlin says the producers countered with, “Only doctors are going to know that, and not that many doctors are going to see this movie, so we’re going to call it Bubo anyway.”

Hamlin agrees that the inclusion of the cloying character was a ploy to capitalize on the huge popularity of R2-D2 with a similar type of sidekick. “I was not a fan of the owl,” deadpans Hamlin, conceding, “Most people remember the owl very fondly. But I just think of a boil every time.” He points out that his grievances about the script, whether it was about Perseus riding Pegasus (which doesn’t happen in the myth) or about the particular way they had him slaying Medusa, established an early friction with Harryhausen and Schneer that would flare up throughout the shoot.

CLASH OF THE TITANS began production on February 22, 1979, shooting at exotic locales in and around England, Spain, Italy, and Malta. Of his character’s classical Greek look, Hamlin muses that he rejected the curls that they wanted him to sport, and did his own hair (the out-of-the-shower, towel-dried look) for the entire shoot. As for the skin he bared running around in a period tunic, he recalls, “They had like a gallon jug of baby oil all the time, and they would slather me with the baby oil every day. That was to make you look more heroic, I guess.” 

Of some of the more remote, rocky filming locales, the actor shares, “To get to the locations in Spain, we had to go by horseback. There were no roads into these locations and they helicoptered some of the equipment in, but a lot of it went on burro, and we came in on horseback. … And yet they had these long tables set up with white tablecloths, and the servers at lunch had the napkins draped over the arms, and they were all dressed up. In Spain, that’s the way it was done. You had this huge feast. … I was amazed that in the middle of nowhere, we stop to lunch and here we’re sitting down at tables with white tablecloths and they’re walking around serving wine and we’re being served all of our food with silverware and everything.”

Interestingly, when the CLASH production went to shoot in Ostia Antica, the harbor city of Ancient Rome, they had to create an elaborate ruse to get permission to use their location. “We were shooting a Greek movie in Italy, and the Italian film board declined to give us a permit to shoot a Greek film about a Greek myth in a Roman amphitheater, and it really threw us for a loop,” explains Hamlin. “We had to shoot this [over eight days] in Ostia. The schedule was tight. So they came up with a plan to change the title of the movie to CONSTANTINE THE GREAT. And they provided CONSTANTINE THE GREAT script covers for all of our scripts. They changed the name on all the trucks to CONSTANTINE THE GREAT. All of the chair backs had CONSTANTINE THE GREAT on them. They got a permit to shoot CONSTANTINE THE GREAT in the amphitheater, and we were all told on the days we were shooting there that if anybody asked us what we were doing, we were shooting CONSTANTINE THE GREAT! … We were shooting a completely different movie while we were out in Ostia Antica.”

Hamlin describes CLASH director Desmond Davis as “a perfectly nice guy, and he seemed to know what he was doing, but Ray and Charles really were sort of directing it.” The actor recalls that Davis always carried a copy of PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN in his back pocket, and says that things got a little strange half-way through the shoot: “He got a crush on the makeup lady, but was convinced I was having it off with her, and he and I didn’t speak because he thought that I was having an affair with [her] … He had totally fantasized the entire thing. … He would go so far as to get a hotel room on the same floor with me, next to my hotel room, and leave his door open to see if he could see her coming and going from my room. And it developed into this really bizarre relationship between me and the director. I don’t know what happened. He went off the rails during that time and for that reason.”

It was clear to Hamlin anyway that Harryhausen was really running the show, along with longtime producing partner Schneer, from behind the director’s chair. “Whenever we were doing any of the stuff with the stop-motion, Ray was doing the directing. … I remember him being there all the time. I have lots of pictures from the set and he’s in all of the pictures. He was right there whenever we were doing any of the sequences that involved me fighting the air. And we had some fights over that, too.” For the scene in which Perseus battles giant, stop-motion scorpions, Harryhausen had the melee mapped out quite meticulously in his head, with no room for improvisation. On the day of the shoot, Hamlin suggested adding an action moment in which he catches the arachnid’s moving tail and slices off its stinger. “[Harryhausen] goes, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to do that. That’s not going to work. You can’t touch the thing. It’s not going to happen.’ Well, of course, since the camera’s rolling and I’m there, all these wind machine are going, I can do whatever I want because I’m out there, so I put my hand up as though I was catching the tail, and I sliced it off, and they yelled, ‘Cut! Cut! Cut! You’re not supposed to do that! I told you that’s not part of the deal. You’re just supposed to stab the thing and swipe at it.’ And I said, ‘Ray, I’m so sorry, but I just couldn’t help myself. I just imagined that this thing was coming down.’ And we kind of fought about that for a while. But if you see the movie, it’s in there.”

For the most part, filming and location work went smoothly and few hiccups threatened the production. But it was the behind-the-scenes disagreement over the climax of the battle in Medusa’s lair, a bravura sequence that is arguably Harryhausen’s crowning achievement alongside the skeleton fight in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, that almost brought the CLASH OF THE TITANS production to its knees.

Going back to before a frame of the film was shot, Hamlin had disagreed with the way Perseus kills Medusa in the screenplay, and of course shared his point of view with the producers. “I knew the myth of Perseus quite well, and I knew about the sword and the mirror — he couldn’t look at Medusa, and he had to cut her head off, and once he cut her head off using the mirror, he was able to go and freeze the Kraken,” says Hamlin. “So I’m reading the script and go, ‘Wait a minute. What is this?’ The way it’s written in the script, and the way the storyboard goes, I take my shield and I throw it against the wall like a Frisbee. It bounces off the wall and inadvertently cuts off Medusa’s head. So I said to them when I first took the movie, ‘Look, guys, I love the idea of this, this is great, I want to work with Olivier, I want to do this, but here’s the thing: I will not cut her head off that way. I’ve got to cut her head off with the sword.’ And they said, ‘Oh, well, yeah, you know, I’ve got a feeling we can work on that.’ They promised me that that would happen, right? So we get to Malta where we’re shooting this sequence, and I go out to the set, and they said, ‘Oops, Harry, I know you wanted to cut her head off with the sword, but we got a telex last night from London and they insist that her head gets cut off with the shield like a Frisbee, because if you cut her head off with a sword, it’ll get an X-rating for violence in England and we could lose millions of dollars.’ And I said, ‘Really? OK. If that’s the way you want to cut her head off, you’re just going to have to find another guy to do it, because I’m not going to do it.’ And they said, ‘What?!?’ And I said, ‘No. If you insist on that, I’m going home! You talked to me about this at the beginning. You said this would work out, and you’re going back on your word. I’m quitting.’ And I quit the movie.”

Tempers flared, lawsuits were threatened, the producers yanked what was left of their hair out, and Hamlin locked himself in his trailer. “It had an air conditioner and it was a really hot day involved, and they unplugged the electricity to the trailer; they tried to smoke me out,” says Hamlin with a laugh. “And over the course of the next two or three hours, they would send people in to try to convince me to come out and shoot the scene. But everybody that they sent in, I then convinced that I should shoot it the other way.” With time running out on the day and the location, the producers finally relented and let Hamlin have his way. There was only enough time to do a single set-up and train the camera on Hamlin’s face as he waits for his moment to strike, and audiences unanimously agree that the result is breathtaking. “I remember seeing that the way the tension built up to the moment of cutting her head off was actually kind of brilliant,” says Hamlin, “and it was all just because they didn’t have time to do anything else.”

After Perseus completes this crucial task, there is that iconic moment outside the temple in which the weary demigod son of Zeus holds up the Gorgon’s head in victory. That wasn’t supposed to happen either. Early on, when Hamlin was prepping for the role, he taped a picture of Cellini’s classic statue of Perseus holding up the head of Medusa to the first page of his script. The actor told the producers, “Somewhere in the movie, we’ve got to get this moment where Perseus looks up at the sky and he’s got Medusa’s head in his left hand and his sword is out. I said, ‘Please, let’s just copy this Cellini statue. It’s just so iconic. Why wouldn’t we do that?’ And they said, ‘No, no, we’re not going to do that. We’re never going to do that.’ So we were at Paestum, Italy, which is the big Greek temple, and we finished our work there that day and it was cloudy. It was starting to sprinkle. We were just walking out, I was still in costume, and the cameraman was taking the camera out and it was on [a tripod] … and I said, ‘Wait! Don’t tell anybody, but just put the camera down, and as I’m standing here, I want to hit the Cellini pose.’ The director had already gone to the parking lot. I said, ‘Just roll some film. Just put the camera down, because the sky’s really pretty right now and the light’s really great.’ So we did this whole thing in like five minutes. I had Medusa’s head, I had my sword, I had everything. And I lifted up the head and I looked up to the sky and I held the sword exactly as it was in the Cellini statue, and they rolled about 30 seconds of film on it, and then they just left. We all left. Well, if you look in the movie, it made it in. They were dead set against it. Dead set. So they found it, obviously, when they saw the dailies and ended up using it in the movie.”

Before you get the idea that the CLASH production was a more-often-than-not miserable experience for Hamlin, the star clarifies that he has many fond memories and there was plenty of fun to be had on the set. “All in all, the experience was wonderful,” he says. “Being out on the set with [Burgess Meredith, whose nickname was] Buzz (who played Ammon) and having him tell me about his escapades with all these actresses — Claudette Colbert, in particular — he had a lot of really funny stories. They are unrepeatable. … I got to know Tim Pigott-Smith (who played Thallo), who I’m still in touch with. … The lunches on the set were always amazing with Maggie Smith (who played the goddess Thetis). She would hold court. We couldn’t get our food down because we were laughing so hard at the table. It was non-stop one-liner after one-liner after one-liner. That was pretty amazing to see. I was completely intimidated by her unbelievable mind.”

He adds, “I met Ursula [Andress] (who played the goddess Aphrodite) doing [the film]. I have a fabulous son, who’s 35, who came out of that relationship with Ursula during that shooting of it, and the experience was actually really fun. The fact that the director was jealous of me only kind of made it more interesting, and more spicy. It really was quite a wonderful experience.”

Ironically, Hamlin never got to film directly with Olivier (who played the god Zeus) due to the way the story was constructed, but he did get to spend some time with the legendary actor in London. “We had dinner with him a couple of times and we talked on the set,” remembers Hamlin. “I, of course, wanted to pick his brain about acting, and that’s probably the last thing he wanted to talk about. He was really very gracious. … He wrote me a really nice letter, which I have framed still, in which he apologizes for being in the movie, knowing that I revered him so much and revered his work so much. And the ironic thing is that he was apologizing for being in a movie that I was starring in.”

Hamlin remains in awe of Ray Harryhausen’s amazing artistry, and shares rare insight into the late master’s stop-motion process: “I actually went to Ray’s studio during his post-production on CLASH and I saw him manipulating the little things. He did it all alone. There was nobody else in the soundstage. Big soundstage. It was his soundstage at Pinewood. And he had the same cameras that he had used making THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. The exact same cameras. They were big black Aeroflexes that were chained to the floor. And then he had a chair and a little table next to the chair. On the table was a bottle of Cynar and a little glass. And there was also a wire coming out of the camera with a little button on it. And he’d sit there and he’d study the little model that was about 20 feet away, look at it, and then he’d take a drink of his Cynar. Then he’d push the button and then he’d get up and he’d saunter over to the little model and he’d move it just a little tiny bit. All the little bits and pieces of it. Then he’d come back, sit down in his chair, look at the thing, if it was right, he’d click the button, take a drink of Cynar, get up, walk over, and did that all day long, every day, for like two years.”

Then there were the toys: Perhaps inspired by the STAR WARS merchandising blitz, the producers of CLASH went all out, licensing their film to everything from action figures and creatures (like that awesome, giant Mattel Kraken) to puzzles and an inflatable Pegasus. So which collectibles does the star of the movie still have? Hamlin says, “I have the lunch box. [And] somebody sent me a Perseus figurine a couple years ago, which I have at my home in Canada, but I didn’t hold onto it myself. I actually made more money from the merchandising than I did from the film itself. … I do remember that my lawyer was very big on the merchandising, and it took a while to nail that down. He was smart, because the merchandising for that movie was actually pretty big.” He adds with a laugh, “But then, also, that lets you know how much I was paid to do the movie.”

Looking back at the CLASH experience as a whole, Hamlin says, “I still really admire Ray and I admire what he did and how he did it.” But the actor remains candid when sharing his thoughts on the final cut of the film: “I was a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. I hadn’t studied for seven years and classically trained and all of that to be in a movie like that. But then it kind of had a life of its own. It became a cult classic, as did all the other Harryhausen movies. They all seem to have these really long legs. I can remember as a kid, if I walked into a room and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD happened to be on TV, no matter what I was doing or how exciting it was, I stopped everything I was doing and I watched that movie. And I think a lot of people responded the same way to CLASH OF THE TITANS.”

He concludes, “I really appreciate it now, because I see that generations of kids have grown up with CLASH and they still come up to me. Every week someone comes up to me and goes, ‘Oh my God, that movie changed my life,’ or, ‘Oh my God, my favorite movie of all time!’ … I definitely see that it has its place in sort of the lexicon of fantastical hero movies.”


(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #285 for the film’s 35th anniversary)

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