This trail-blazing classic TV actor grew up flying planes with her dad
She also successfully defended herself in court against litigious press agents after her own lawyer said she "didn’t have a chance."
Not many TV Guide interviews start with discussions of going to the moon, but Kim Hamilton’s 1963 profile makes sure to mention her high-flying ambitions right away. Outer space wasn’t as lofty a goal for Hamilton as it would be for most women in 1963. After all, she had already mastered flying planes.
“I like to be up high,” she told the magazine. “That’s why I learned to fly—so I could fly a missile to the moon when the time came. I’ve given up the moon, but my first solo flight in a plane, when I was up there by myself, was the freest moment I’ve ever known.”
Hamilton’s father was a flight instructor, and she was determined to learn everything she could from him to be able to soar above the clouds.
One of ten children, Hamilton married while still in high school, had two children of her own and got divorced by the time she was 19. Her son had spinal meningitis and died at just two years old. “I was in the hospital for five months after that with what we thought was a heart condition. It turned out to be all psychosomatic.”
Her tragic experiences informed her acting with a nuance and depth that few other performers had at her age. Her time in the hospital “was the experience I drew on for the part in Ben Casey,” she said. In the dramatic and unflinching Sixties medical drama, Hamilton played a woman with schizophrenia, a part originally written for a white actor.
Hamilton won many other trailblazing roles, playing the mother of a child with high hopes for a boxer in the Twilight Zone episode “The Big Tall Wish” and Helen Robinson, wife of Atticus Finch’s client Tom Robinson, in To Kill a Mockingbird. She also starred with Harry Belafonte in the 1959 noir Odds Against Tomorrow and was the only African-American actor to appear in a speaking role on Leave it to Beaver.
While still in the early years of her career, Hamilton’s former press agents took her to court, alleging she owed $75 – hundreds of dollars in today’s money. “My own lawyer said I didn’t have a chance,” she recalled. But having considered law school before going into show business, Hamilton decided to represent herself.
She learned what she needed to from law books and felt confident in court. As she told TV Guiode, “I decided to use my experience as an actor and improvise.” Her three-hour testimony won the case.
Hamilton’s career continued for decades, stretching into the 2000s before her death in 2013. Though she never broke out as a household name or made it to the moon, she blazed a trail – both in the air and on the ground.