Lois Fern Hamilton, the doyenne of community theater in Greenwich known to "mother" her acting charges, died Friday at the Tandet Center for Continuing Care in Stamford. She was 77.
Her daughter, Melissa Hamilton of Greenwich, said her mother died from complications after suffering a broken hip in January. The founder of town community theater groups, most recently The Acting Company of Greenwich, fell from the wheelchair she used in recent years because of disabilities caused by a near-fatal car accident in Bruce Park in 1983, her daughter said.
"It was a peaceful death; time for her to be relieved from the pain," Melissa Hamilton said.
Despite the pain, Ms. Hamilton would get on stage to show an actor exactly what she expected, said Laurie Newkirk, who met Ms. Hamilton in 1997 when she enrolled in one of her acting classes.
"Lois had a very hard time walking when I met her," Newkirk recalled yesterday. "When working with an actor, she would get up out of her chair, walk with her cane, get on stage and show them how to do it, no matter how much pain she was in.
"She had passion, knowledge and such a gentleness that everyone called her 'Mother,' that she was the mother of the group," said Newkirk, who left the corporate marketing world to direct community theater after taking acting lessons from Ms. Hamilton. "And it did feel that she did give birth to us through the creative process. She was so nurturing."
Her disabilities did not prevent Ms. Hamilton from continuing her own acting and directing career, which started with community and college productions.
Born in Saginaw, Mich., Ms. Hamilton followed her love of the stage to Broadway, where she landed bit parts and character actress roles, according to an Acting Company of Greenwich program.
After six years of plying the boards on Broadway, Hollywood beckoned, and Ms. Hamilton moved there in 1955. She was cast in small parts, with credits that included "Les Girls," a 1957 musical film with Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Jacques Bergerac and "The Deep Six," a 1958 movie with Alan Ladd, Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore and Joey Bishop.
In the 1950s, Ms. Hamilton appeared in several commercial films, as well as live commercials for Kraft Cheese, Schick Razor, Duz Soap and Revlon products for the Bob Hope, Ernie Kovacs, Dinah Shore, Philco, Bob Cummings and Wally Cox television shows.
Being an actress in Hollywood meant friendships with Hollywood actors and more.
"She told me she used to date Steve McQueen," Melissa Hamilton said. "They used to race cars together. He had cars, she had an old MG -- that was their common interest."
She also said her mother was engaged at one time to actor Rod Steiger.
But in 1957, Ms. Hamilton married television script writer Christopher Hamilton. After he suffered a fatal heart attack four years later, Ms. Hamilton returned East with her daughter, eventually settling in Greenwich.
Ms. Hamilton founded the Cameo Theatre group in Old Greenwich in 1975 and served as its artistic director until 1987. The group's productions were at the First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich, where the Acting Company of Greenwich -- the group Ms. Hamilton founded in 1990 -- now produces its plays.
Ms. Hamilton was a firm believer in producing professional-level theater for the community. In a 2002 interview with Greenwich Time, she said, "There's this notion of 'Oh, if we want to go to the theater, we can just go to New York,' but that's a lot of you know what. There are people who either can't afford to or don't want to go to New York."
She produced top-shelf shows, assuming the duties of publicist, set designer, costume designer as well as acting coach. On opening nights, Ms. Hamilton would arrive in her wheelchair wearing her trademark gold lamé jacket, Newkirk recalled.
Students who took the acting classes she gave at various venues in Greenwich and the actors cast in her productions said Ms. Hamilton exacted performances filled with "passion."
"She had the ability to be the role, to make it incredibly believable," said Greenwich native Ted Yudain, who is now chairman of the Curtain Call theater group in Stamford. "As a director, in my humble opinion, she was flawless. She was able to get actors to do their best."
Ms. Hamilton's theatrical work in Greenwich coincided with the tenure of long-time Greenwich Time arts editor Dorothy Friedman.
"Lois was soft-spoken, but her directing was dynamic," Friedman said. "Her productions for Cameo Theatre and The Acting Company were usually low-budgeted with minimal props; but her audiences always saw first-class theater, very often the classics of serious playwrights. Those fortunate to be in her casts or in her acting classes received solid dramatic training that would last them a lifetime."
Most recently, Ms. Hamilton turned her energies to helping found the Performers with Disabilities Task Force, a New York City-based group affiliated with Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. The group tries to prompt film, stage and television producers and directors to hire handicapped actors for roles rather than hire able-bodied actors to play the disabled.
"She respected everybody regardless of what the disability was. Her and I were on the same mindset to educate the industry," said Ed Jupp, a wheelchair-bound actor in New York who worked with Ms. Hamilton on the task force.
Her long-time friend and neighbor Norma Mathis described Hamilton's passing.
"It's like losing a sister. She was a wonderful person and friend," said Mathis who frequently accompanied Ms. Hamilton to appointments and rehearsals around town.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Hamilton is survived by a sister, Charlotte Cooney of New York City.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 5 at the First Congregational Church, 108 Sound Beach Ave., Old Greenwich.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Acting Company of Greenwich, PO Box 7574, Greenwich, CT 06836.
Published in GreenwichTime on May 12, 2005