John Hammond Isn't Just Whistling Dixie: His Role in the Blue and the Gray May Turn His Career into Gold

updated 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 01:00AM

John Hammond was sitting in the chill of an Arkansas morning during the filming of The Blue and The Gray last fall when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. "I was kind of daydreaming," he recalls, "and I looked up and there's Gregory Peck dressed as Abraham Lincoln asking me if I minded reading over a few lines with him. I'd never worked with movie stars before, and suddenly here's Peck asking me to read with him. I was overwhelmed."

An understandable reaction from an obscure 27-year-old actor who, after six years of regional stage, commercials and a few parts in fast-forgotten TV movies, suddenly found himself starring in the sweeping CBS mini-series as John Geyser, a Virginia farm-boy turned artist for Harper's Weekly during the Civil War. Hammond not only got to work with Peck; he also entered into a close off-set confederacy with co-star Stacy Keach, 41. "He just made an effort to be friends with me," says Hammond. "I was all by myself. I couldn't have approached him, and I think he knew it. He made the first move and made a real effort to include me. I'd love to work with him again. He's an actor's actor."

In a business where many a career is quickly gone with the wind, Hammond has high ambitions. "I don't want to become a flash-in-the-pan, James Dean-type actor," he says. "I'd rather become a Spencer Tracy, one who endures over the long haul." His current project, a film called The Prodigal, may be a form of repentance for what he calls "the ungodly sum of money" he earned for The Blue and The Gray. The movie was produced by World Wide Pictures, a subsidiary of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and stars Hammond as a wayward son who gets involved with a loose woman and drug dealing before deciding that Christ is the answer. "It's a kind of Ordinary People story with a happy ending," he says. "The Billy Graham aspect bothers me a little, but I liked the role so I took it."

Hammond had a "typically upper-middle-class, very happy" upbringing in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his father is a prominent corporate attorney. John was a varsity letterman in football and wrestling in high school, but at 57" and 135 pounds, he was too small for sports at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. So, John says, "I started doing plays for something to do." After graduating with a degree in communication arts in 1976, he hit the Midwest regional theater circuit. He had moderate success and in 1978 moved to a seedy flat in New York's Hell's Kitchen, bartending to pay the rent while he looked for acting jobs. "It was a struggle," he recalls. "Then one day for no apparent reason I got a couple of commercials and it started to snowball." He appeared in 1979-80 in the ABC soap One Life to Live and then moved to L.A., "the modern-day equivalent of running away to the circus."

Hammond recently moved to a pleasant two-bedroom apartment in suburban L.A., where he spends his spare time running, swimming, reading William Faulkner, composing songs on his old Martin guitar, and writing screenplays ("Stacy Keach has one of my scripts and likes it"). He spends much of his time with his steady girlfriend, Ruth Anne McCoy, whom he met in 1979 at a New York restaurant when he was a struggling actor and she was a struggling dancer. "We've come a long way together," Hammond says. "She's an enormously important part of my life." Right now the hardest thing for Hammond is to maintain a sense of balance as his career blossoms. "I've picked up a touch of tunnel vision in L.A.," he says. "You live in perpetual anticipation of the next job interview. I talked to my folks the other day, and all they wanted to know was if I'd be home for Christmas, whether I was eating okay and how was my cold. That keeps it in perspective for me. My good friends become more and more important to me every day."

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