A Chance Meeting With the Real Colonel Sanders Inspired George Hamilton’s Current Version

'You wouldn’t want to trust him with your mother or your girlfriend'

The veteran actor is one of 11 actors to play the role in just three years. Courtesy of KFC
Headshot of Robert Klara

George Hamilton is sitting by the Royalton Hotel’s rooftop pool wearing a crisp gray suit—it’s much too chilly for swimming—and sipping a pink cocktail. At an age when many actors of his generation have slipped into Hollywood’s pastures, Hamilton, 78, a veteran of over 100 roles, is still going strong and clearly enjoying the attention. And on this Park Avenue rooftop, he happens to be the center of it. As publicists mill about, cabana boys approach with trays of fried chicken sandwiches—a hint of what’s in the offing today.

Hamilton’s latest role is none other than Harland Sanders, better known as Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. If the role represents a swerve from the norm, Hamilton isn’t letting on.

“I’ve played all sorts of bizarre characters,” he shrugs.

The silver-screen veteran is actually one of 11 actors to play the role in just three years. Since the fast-food chain made the fateful decision to cast the Colonel in 2015, 35 years after Sanders’ death, a virtual who’s who of celebrities has donned that white polyester suit, including Ray Liotta, Rob Lowe and even Reba McEntire.

But Hamilton, notably, is the only actor to be asked back for a return engagement.

After debuting in 2016 as the Extra Crispy Colonel in four beachside spots from Wieden+Kennedy, Hamilton is starring in a new series of ads, this time on a KFC yacht and hawking (what else?) Crispy Colonel Sandwiches.

And why did the company ask Hamilton to return? To hear the brass tell it, Hamilton’s funny and somewhat leery rendition of the iconic Kentucky colonel was, well, memorable.

“George did such a fantastic job,” said Andrea Zahumensky, CMO of KFC U.S. “I’ll get in a taxi, and I’ll start talking to the driver about where I work—and the number of times they talk about the Extra Crispy Colonel! There are several [colonels], but he connected with America.”

Maybe it was the Colonel’s golden-brown tan, a self-effacing reference to Hamilton’s notorious love for the sun. Or perhaps it was the huckster-like bearing he brought to the role, a cross between bored bemusement and mild irritation.

Whatever it was, it leads to an obvious question: How did Hamilton, who’s played everyone from a disco-era Dracula to Michael Coroleone’s lawyer, come up with his Colonel character? How did he channel Harlan Sanders?

“I’m probably one of the only colonels that met him,” Hamilton said.

It was 40 years ago, maybe longer. Hamilton was part of a circuit troupe called the Henley Players, cast in a role he can’t recall. The Players were touring Ohio, and Hamilton got roped into doing some publicity on a morning radio show.

“I’ve forgotten whether it was Columbus or Dayton,” he said, “but I pull into a radio show to sell the play—and this guy walks in with a white suit on.”

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Hamilton didn’t know Harland Sanders, but he knew who he was. In those days, most every American did. As the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a brand Sanders franchised all over the country, the Colonel was one of the first corporate executives to appear in TV commercials for his own brand.

What few people knew was that Sanders had found success late in life. Having scraped his way along as everything from a streetcar conductor to an insurance salesman, Harland Sanders didn’t start selling chicken franchises until he was 62. Indeed, there was a rough-and-tumble quality to the man with the white Van Dyke and the skinny black tie. And Hamilton picked up on it.

“He had a little bit of a scamp quality to him,” Hamilton recalled. “There was—I can’t say a dark side, but there was something to him that was more interesting than what you saw on the surface.”

Fast forward four decades, and Hamilton is on soundstage set up as a beach, thinking about how he’ll play the Colonel. He didn’t need to think for very long.

Recalling his impressions from an Ohio radio station, Hamilton decided to throw in “a little bit of pratfall to the guy—a little bit of something off.”

As it turned out, Hamilton, due in for a hip operation, was limping. So he tossed that into the character, too. “I walked like he had a hitch in his getalong,” Hamilton said.

Courtesy of KFC

Most memorably, Hamilton affected a kind of hucksterism—like someone running a shell game, he explained—and a W.C. Fields-like irritation, especially with the kid in the spot.

And there he was: the Colonel of 2016 (and now), who comes off not only as extra crispy, but extra crusty.

“I thought at that moment you wouldn’t want to trust him with your mother or your girlfriend,” Hamilton said. “Now, maybe that’s not the way to do it, but an actor always has to have secrets.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.