‘Clash of the Titans’ at 40: Harry Hamlin reveals the story behind his on-set romance with Ursula Andress

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the 1981 action movie, Clash of the Titans. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

To hear Harry Hamlin tell it, Clash of the Titans accurately describes what happened onscreen and on the set of the special-effects heavy fantasy film, which opened in theaters 40 years ago, on June 12, 1981. 

Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the actor — who played demigod hero Perseus — recalls a number of “contentious moments” in which he found himself at odds with the film’s director, Desmond Davis, and its legendary visual-effects artist, Ray Harryhausen. “I said at the time, ‘This is never going to work,'” Hamlin remembers with a chuckle. “‘This is a paycheck for me. I’ll go home, and the movie will never see the light of day.'” 

But against the odds, Clash of the Titans clicked with young moviegoers, as well as the young-at-heart audiences who grew up during Harryhausen’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. To this day, the movie remains a nostalgic favorite precisely because of its dated special effects and campy dialogue. And it’s a personal movie for Hamlin, because he found love amid those behind-the-scenes clashes, kindling a romance with his co-star — and international sex symbol — Ursula Andress. Their high-profile relationship lasted for four years and produced a son, Dimitri Hamlin. 

American actor Harry Hamlin and Swiss actress and a sex symbol Ursula Andress attend the 1979 Deauville American Film Festival. (Photo by © Caterine Milinaire/Sygma via Getty Images)

Harry Hamlin and Ursula Andress attend the 1979 Deauville American Film Festival. (Photo by © Caterine Milinaire/Sygma via Getty Images)

While Hamlin hadn’t met Andress prior to Clash of the Titans, in a way he’d already known her for years. Born in 1951, the actor was 12 years old when he saw her breakout performance in Dr. No, the inaugural entry in the James Bond franchise. The then-26 year old Andress made an impressionable entrance as the first-ever Bond Girl, Honey Ryder. Roles in popular movies like What’s New Pussycat?, Once Before I Die and the 1967 Bond spoof, Casino Royale, soon followed. Andress was 43 — 15 years older than Hamlin — when she arrived on the Clash of the Titans in 1979, appropriately cast as Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.

“Not only had I seen Dr. No, but for some unknown reason my parents gave me a five-year subscription to Playboy for Christmas when I was 12,” Hamlin says now. “I never knew why they did that. Now that I have kids, I think, ‘That’s an odd thing to do!’ But Ursula was featured in one of those Playboys, and I remember that very well. I don’t think I’d told her that when we first met. I’m not sure I said, ‘By the way, Ursula, I loved your layout in Playboy when I was 13!'” 

Hamlin notably doesn’t share any scenes with Andress in Clash of the Titans. While Perseus is fighting all manner of mythological creatures on Earth, Aphrodite remains in Olympus alongside a bevy of other famous European acting icons, including Laurence Olivier as Zeus and Maggie Smith as Thetis. “I think they liked the paycheck,” Hamlin says of how those titans of the British stage and screen ended up in Clash. “Laurence Olivier wrote me a letter, which I still have framed upstairs, where he apologized for being in the movie! He knew I revered him and basically said, ‘You must understand — I have so many mouths to feed.'” 

Hamlin and Andress’s fateful first meeting happened at a cast dinner in London organized by the movie’s producer, Charles Schneer. “Everyone came, and they sat me next to Ursula,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to say to her exactly, but somehow the subject of flea markets came up, and I said that I’d been to a flea market the week before I flew over to London. When we got to Rome to start filming there, she called me at the hotel one day and said, “I’m only five houses down from the hotel, and there’s a flea market tomorrow on the Porta Portese. Do you want to go?’ So that’s how that happened!” 

Ursula Andress and Harry Hamlin at the 54th Academy Awards in 1982. The couple met on the set of the 1981 film 'Clash of the Titans' (Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Ursula Andress and Harry Hamlin at the 54th Academy Awards in 1982. The couple met on the set of the 1981 film Clash of the Titans. (Photo by Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Hamlin and Andress didn’t try to keep their love connection a secret from the Clash crew. But the actor remembers that Davis came to believe he was carrying on more than one on-set affair. “He thought I was having it off with someone from the makeup department, and he was also enamored with that person,” Hamlin says. “He was totally jealous of me the whole time! He would stay on the same floor as me in the hotel to keep his door open and see whether or not I was running off into the makeup woman’s room. I would say to him, ‘Desmond, I don’t know her. She just does my makeup!’ But he was fixated on that the whole time; it was very odd.” 

Andress gave birth to Dimitri in 1980, one year before Clash of the Titans finally arrived in theaters. She and Hamlin eventually parted ways in 1983, and the break-up made international headlines. (Hamlin has since been married three times, wedding his current wife, Lisa Rinna, in 1997.) But the two remain close, reuniting for Andress’s 70th birthday in 2006 alongside their grown son. And like a lot of ’80s kids, Hamlin says that Dimitri watched Clash of the Titans over and over again growing up. “Perseus loses his magic helmet in a swamp in the film, so every time we would drive by anything that looked like a swamp, he would say, ‘Dad, maybe the helmet is in there. Stop the car!” 

Edinburgh, UNITED KINGDOM:  Swiss Hollywood film star Ursula Andress (C) arrives with her son Dimitri Hamlin (L) and former partner Harry Hamlin at The Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh, Scotland, 18th May 2006, to take part in a special party to celebrate her 70th birthday. Andress was the original 'Bond Girl' having become famous for her role as Honey Rider in the James Bond film, Dr. No.  AFP PHOTO/GORDON JACK  (Photo credit should read GORDON JACK/AFP via Getty Images)

From left to right: Dimitri Hamlin, Ursula Andress and Harry Hamlin celebrate her 70th birthday in 2006. (Photo credit should read GORDON JACK/AFP via Getty Images)

For the 40th anniversary of Clash of the Titans, we spoke with Hamlin about his own background in mythology, his feelings about the 2010 remake and Harryhausen’s unique working methods. 

Yahoo Entertainment: I understand that you studied mythology in college, so you actually knew a lot about the Greek myths that inspired Clash of Titans.

Harry Hamlin: Yes, I studied mythology at Yale and got my degree in Jungian mythology. So when I read the script, I thought it was pretty thin. It was this kind of hybrid Greek mythology: you know, Bellerophon had actually flown Pegasus, not Perseus. And they felt they had to get a love story in there, so they invented the one between Perseus and Andromeda [played by Judi Bowker]. So it wasn’t the actual myths, but the story still made sense in a way. I think the love story is actually one of the things that made the first one work, and it was the thing that didn’t really work in the remake. In that one, Perseus [played by Sam Worthington] was in love with a goddess who was going to live forever. And I was like, “How does that work?” 

Do you remember if you were up against any other actors for the role?

I was actually in another movie at the exact same time called Tristan and Isolde with Kate Mulgrew and Richard Burton. Kate and I worked on that for a couple of weeks, and then I was called into MGM to meet on Clash of the Titans. It was a case where I was like, “Do I do a movie with Laurence Olivier where the script isn’t very good, or do I do a movie with Richard Burton?” And I decided that I really wanted to meet Laurence Olivier! It later turned out that Nicholas Clay, the actor who ended up playing Tristan, had also been up for Clash and really wanted the role. [Tristan and Isolde was released in December 1981 under the title Lovespell.]

Hamlin, Sian Phillips and Judi Bowker in 'Clash of the Titans' (Photo: MGM/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

Hamlin, Sian Phillips and Judi Bowker in Clash of the Titans. (Photo: MGM/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)

The film opened the same weekend as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which seems incredible to think now.

Yes, and neither Charles Schneer nor Ray Harryhausen spoke to me for years after the movie came out because they thought we would have killed Raiders at the box office if I had gone along with the world publicity tour they had set up. The tour was underwritten by the city of Johannesburg, and I was on an apartheid committee in Los Angeles. They came to me, and said: “We’re going to go to 20 countries, and it’s going to make this film the biggest hit of the summer.” 

I said, “I can do every other country but South Africa.” And they said, “Well, South Africa is underwriting the whole tour, so if you can’t go, we can’t do the tour.” We ended up not doing the tour and they believed they lost millions of dollars from that. Charles never spoke to me again, but Ray called me up 25 years later and asked me to join him for a retrospective he was doing in L.A. [Schneer died in 2009; Harryhausen died in 2013.]

You’ve mentioned before that Harryhausen wasn’t the easiest person to work with.

He had his fixed ways of doing things. There’s that scene in the movie where I’m fighting with the giant scorpions. I said to him, “Hey, Ray, why don’t I imagine that the scorpion’s tail is coming down to sting me, and then I’ll put my left hand up and catch the tail and then the cut it off with my sword?” And he said, “Absolutely not. I don’t want that to be in the movie.” 

Well, he rolled the camera, and I did it anyway. I figured he could cut it out of the movie if he doesn’t like it. He was so mad at me. He said, “Cut, cut — I told you not to do that.” But if you look at the movie, he ended up using it!

The Medusa sequence still holds up beautifully. I think that’s up there with the best of Harryhausen’s work.

Well, of course, Medusa was not there when we shot it! [Laughs] I remember that I was locked in my trailer for most of that day, because they wouldn’t acquiesce to my demands to let me cut her head off with my sword. They were afraid of getting an X-rating, so that was a tense day. They had all these camera angles worked out for the killing of Medusa, but since we only had an hour left to shoot, they just put the camera down and shot some footage, then kept moving it closer, and that’s the way they build the tension. It’s very streamlined, and I think the scene works because they had to shoot it so fast. If we’d had all day, there would have been more angles and less tension.  

Since there was no Medusa on set, what were you interacting with?

My mind’s eye! [Laughs]. I didn’t even know what Medusa was going to look like, or how big she was going to be. Ray’s process was that you would do the performance, and then he would build the monsters according to what I’d done on set. So he built Medusa after principal photography. I remember visiting him at Pinewood Studios in England when he was doing the stop-motion, and that was fascinating because it was just Ray alone on this big soundstage. He’d have a chair and a little stool next to the chair, with a bottle of Cynar, and a small glass. 

Ray Harryhausen working on the Medusa monster seen in 'Clash of the Titans' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

Ray Harryhausen working on the Medusa monster seen in Clash of the Titans. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

He had this cord that came from the camera, and he would push a button to take a frame. Then he would get up walk over to the monster, manipulate it and move the lens just a fraction of an inch in all directions. Then he would walk back to his chair, have a drink of Cynar and push the button again. He would repeat the process all day long. He was probably tanked by the end of the day! 

I understand that you weren’t a fan of Perseus’s sidekick in the movie — the mechanical owl, Bubo.

I had read The Plague by Albert Camus, so I knew what a “bubo” was. I told the producers, “You can’t name the owl Bubo, because that’s a bleeding pustule!” And they said, “Only doctors will know that, and that’s not our audience.” So they named the owl Bubo! [Laughs] It’s good to have a little sidekick, I suppose. That’s the one reference to the original that’s in the remake. Sam Worthington walks by a shelf, sees the owl and throws it in the trash! 

They wanted Bubo to have motion on set, but they could never get it to work. I remember we’d have to stop filming, so someone would futz with it and try to get the eyes to move. So most of the motion was put in after the fact. They also had a hell of a time trying to get the snakes to move on the head of Medusa! They actually had two heads: one that had all the mechanics stuff in it so it weighed about maybe 30 pounds, and one that was just rubber that hardly weighed anything at all. 

During the big climax, when we had to throw the head at the Kraken, we were shooting in these big water tanks in Malta. The water in there was so horrible; if I fell in, they’d have to spray me down instantly with noxious compounds that would kill all the bugs. So I was throwing the rubber head, and they lost it! It was at the bottom of the tank somewhere. 

Finally, they said, “You’re going to have to throw the one that has all the mechanics in it.” The dang thing weighed as much as a bowling ball! In the film, I think I’m throwing it with my left arm, because I threw my right arm out. And then they lost that head, too, so both heads were missing at the bottom of the tank, and they couldn’t find a diver who was willing to go into that noxious water. Eventually they cut the two takes together, and that’s what’s in the movie.  

I appreciate the way you’re both baffled and pleased by the enduring popularity of Clash of the Titans. What’s the legacy of the movie for you?

Like you said, I’m kind of baffled by it! [Laughs] I think it’s mainly luck. Certainly, the script didn’t have a lot of depth to it, the dialogue isn’t exactly fluid and the effects are totally dated. But there’s something about the chemistry of the love story, and the creepiness of Harryhausen’s special effects that make it work. It’s much more creepy, oddly enough, than watching those computer-generated monsters they had in the remake. If you can look at the movie as a bouillabaisse, there’s somehow just the right amount of shellfish, the right amount of fish stock, the right amount of saffron, and the right amount of rice. It just worked. 

Clash of the Titans is available to rent or purchase on most VOD platforms including Amazon and Vudu.

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