The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Linda Hamilton
By Mother Brain
The world knows her best as Sarah Connor in the first two installments of the Terminator film franchise. Yet, many people are unaware of Linda Hamilton’s body of work outside the multibillion dollar series. While she embraced a role full of physical and mental strength, she was also not afraid to tackle roles where her characters deal with more real world hardships and personal tragedy. Most of all, it was the struggles in her personal life that drove her performances on the big screen.
A native of Salisbury, Maryland, Hamilton was born in 1956 as half a twin alongside her sister Leslie as they were two out of four siblings in their household. Her father died in a car accident at age five and soon thereafter her mother remarried to a police chief. To break out of the boring upbringing she had, Hamilton read countless books and eventually found an interest in acting. After high school, Hamilton attended Washington College for two years where she studied acting; however, her inexperience at the time caused her acting professor to discourage her into entering the business and making a living. This only fueled Hamilton’s fire as she quit school to move to New York City and study at the Lee Strasberg Institute.
Hamilton started out in television roles. Her debut was a guest spot on the short lived Shirley Jones dramedy, Shirley, in 1980 followed by a regular role on a prime-time soap called Secrets of Midland Heights that same year. In 1982, Hamilton made her big screen debut in Nick Castle’s comedy-thriller, Tag: The Assassination Game. She played Susan Swayze, a college student taking part in a campus dart gun game where students are assigned to “kill” each other until one of them takes it one step too far. The killer in the film was played by actor Bruce Abbott who would later marry Hamilton in real life. The film was not a box office hit. But it got Hamilton noticed as Theatre World editor, John A. Willis, named her one of the “Promising New Actors of 1982.” Her next major film role was Vicky Baxter in Children of the Corn which was a bit of a career setback considering its terrible sequels. Though for Hamilton in 1984, luck was about to change.
When James Cameron wrote The Terminator, the role of Sarah Connor was a 19 year old girl who was “flawed, yet accessible.” Hamilton beat out Rosanna Arquette for the role which had to be adjusted for her as she was 27 when cast. The Terminator was unquestionably a diamond in the rough: A director with only one credit (Piranha 2: The Spawning), a bodybuilder whose casting in the title role was in doubt (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and two unknown leads (Hamilton and Michael Biehn). But Cameron had a relentless dark vision that pushed the limits of his cast and crew to create what would become a sci-fi classic. Hamilton felt the toll of the production when she sprained her ankle before production and some could say she used the physical pain to add to her chaotic chase scenes throughout the film. While Terminator succeeded on a technical level as well as Schwarzengger’s subtle but dangerous performance, it also succeeded as a narrative. Hamilton clearly fit her character’s arc from the typical girl next door to a determined woman accepting her destiny.
Terminator didn’t necessarily make Hamilton an A-list movie star as it had done for Schwarzenegger; however, it raised her profile in Hollywood. She landed a 4 episode arc as a sexually assaulted woman on Hill Street Blues, a futuristic car thief in Black Moon Rising opposite Tommy Lee Jones, and King Kong’s professional surgeon in the megaflop, King Kong Lives.
In 1987, Hamilton was cast opposite Ron Perlman in the CBS series, Beauty and the Beast. Unlike the fairy tale with the same title, this new take on it has Hamilton playing a New York attorney who gets attacked in Central Park only to be rescued and cared for by the lion-faced Vincent. The show focused on the characters’ budding romance along with the adventures they have both in New York and the underworld where Vincent came from. Hamilton won praise for her work on the show, earning multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. She would leave the show early in its third year to focus on motherhood, effectively killing her character and eventually the show all together. Other roles she played during the run of the series included Go Towards the Light (A made-for-TV movie about a couple dealing with their son diagnosed with AIDS) and Jim Belushi’s love interest in Mr. Destiny.
Hamilton reprised Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991. Now she was playing a fully realized version of her character as promised at the end of the original: Tough, determined, and militant. She underwent a serious regimen and physical training to make Sarah Connor into the ultimate female warrior. She also brought family to the project when she had Cameron hired her sister, Leslie, to double for her for stunts as well as when the T-1000 shapes shifts into her near the end. No one knew about this until the behind the scenes video was released a year later. Perhaps the one major aspect of Hamilton’s performance that was praised was her ability to turn Sarah into a much colder character who was devoid of emotion in protecting her son, John Connor. The scene where she attempts to kill Miles Dyson in a Terminator-like fashion only to break down to her vulnerable state in front of John was one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Hamilton just had a way of morphing and evolving her character in different emotional states, sometimes all in one shot.
T2 brought greater fame to Hamilton who some felt had the potential to be the next big female action star apart from Sigourney Weaver. Hamilton felt during this period that most scripts offered to her were causing her to get typecast and as a result, she lost out on potential roles in Batman Forever, Star Trek: Voyager, and A Few Good Men. Few could see her as anybody except Sarah Connor which was why after the T2 attraction at Universal Studios theme parks she declined reprising the role in T3 and only accepted a voiceover cameo in Terminator Salvation.
As her marriage to Bruce Abbott ended and a new one began with James Cameron, Hamilton found ways to play against type. She again played a mother with a son diagnosed with AIDS in A Mother’s Prayer which won her a CableACE Award. In 1997, she starred as a town mayor opposite Pierce Brosnan in the volcano flick, Dante’s Peak, and a journalist opposite Charlie Sheen in Shadow Conspiracy. The rest of her credits afterwords were mostly a variety of television movies for Lifetime and guest spots on shows such as Frasier, Weeds, and Chuck where she played the title character’s long lost mother. She also reunited with Ron Perlman in the independent post-Vietnam film, Missing in America.
Hamilton’s true struggle had nothing to do with killer cyborgs but had to do with her battle with bipolar disorder. She revealed on Larry King Live in 2005 that the illness was the reason for her failed marriages with Abbott and Cameron. She also had a brief addiction to cocaine. Having underwent treatment and special medication, Hamilton has bounced back and has devoted most of her time to children and less to her career. Still though, Hamilton’s performances have been considered an inspiration for many actresses associated in the action film genre from Carrie-Anne Moss to Mila Jovovich. Even fans of The Expendables movies have lobbied for Hamilton to headline an all-female spin-off of the hit franchise. While the Sarah Connor role has been passed on to other actresses from Lena Headey (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to Emilia Clarke (Terminator: Genesis), Hamilton will always be a tough act to follow.