As Captain Harold Dobey in Starsky & Hutch in the 1970s, Bernie Hamilton was one of the very first African-American authority figures on American television. He passed away last week at the age of 80. I got to know Hamilton a little back then while he was dating one of my roommates in a large collective household on California Street in San Francisco. Hamilton was smart, kind, funny, generous, spontaneous – “Hey, Lizzie, let’s go to Egypt for the weekend!” – a little sensitive that his brother, jazzman Chico Hamilton, was more famous & successful than he was, and totally frustrated at whites who didn’t think African-Americans could excel at whatever they set their sights on. He’d been a volunteer driver for Paul Robeson during the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign & revered Robeson. As the son of a cop, I remember being surprised at how progressive Hamilton was.
Once Hamilton decided to take our whole household out for a Sunday brunch at some swank place just off Union Square. With a 40-something black man leading a gaggle of seven hippies, we must have looked like the Symbionese Liberation Army as we walked into the place. In any event, the maitre d’ didn’t recognize Hamilton & officiously told us that this was a very expensive place, with a prix fixe of $24 a person. Without blinking, Hamilton reached into his billfold, pulled off a hundred dollar bill & gave it to the man, growling “Give us the best table.” Which he did.
I still have one minor vice I can directly blame on Hamilton. He swore that everybody he knew in “the business” was hot for this new show that was going to appear on NBC and that it would be the hippest thing in the history of television. That show was, and is, Saturday Night Live.