Maybe King Kong Lives Isn't the Greatest Movie Ever Made, but Don't Try to Palm It Off on Linda Hamilton

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When last seen in a major movie, 1984's The Terminator, Linda Hamilton was getting monster mashed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before that she was being strung up on a cross by religious fanatics in Stephen King's Children of the Corn. Now that she's starring opposite the title character in King Kong Lives, it might seem that she's about to solidify her reputation as the masochistic queen of the screen. But not quite. While Kong played rough with his previous co-stars, Fay Wray and Jessica Lange, he never lays a paw on Hamilton. He wouldn't dare. "If my character had been Kong's victim, I wouldn't have taken the role," insists Hamilton. "I'm tired of playing the victim."

Instead Hamilton plays a surgeon who implants an artificial heart the size of Rhode Island in Kong's chest. Turns out Kong wasn't dead or keeping a low profile at Betty Ford's; he'd been on a life-support system all this time. And even though Hamilton saves the big ape's life, he doesn't even suggest lunch. Rather, he runs off with Lady Kong, the gigantic gorilla that Hamilton brought to America to give blood transfusions to Kong.

If Hamilton, 30, has been rejected by her latest leading male, the emotional scars don't show. The brown-haired, gray-eyed actress lives happily with her husband of four years, actor Bruce (The Blue and the Gray) Abbott, 32, in Venice, Calif. "Heeere's Bruce-sky!" Hamilton cries out as Abbott enters the front door. He's bearing a Santa Claus figurine to add to her Saint Nick collection, which she keeps displayed year-round on a living room table not far from her Easter bunny collection.

Her life might seem sunny at the moment, but she's had her share of shadows, including a three-year coke habit. At her peak, she and a friend would buy an ounce and snort it until it was gone. "There are drugs that expand the soul, but cocaine is one that just closes the heart," says Hamilton. "It's a very alone, horrible sort of shrinking drug. I quit on my own, but there was a time when I feared I would have to go in for treatment. I really was in trouble." Hamilton says she's been drug free for three years, and that 14 months ago she and Bruce even quit smoking. "Now our drug is Captain Morgan spiced rum," says Bruce, "and only on Thursdays."

Hamilton's experience with hard luck dates back to her childhood in Salisbury, Md. Raised with a twin sister, Leslie, Linda suffered a lack of identity so traumatic that she cut off her hair and eyelashes at age 16 to distinguish herself. She ballooned up to 167 pounds, 50 more than she weighs now. "I wanted to be ugly," says Linda. "I became the intellectual, the thinker, as opposed to my sister the cheerleader. I was voted class snob." It wasn't until Linda took up drama at Maryland's Washington College that she found her identity.

Her sister decided on a more practical career, nursing. "I feel like kicking myself sometimes," says Leslie, a married mother of two who lives in Hainesport, N.J. "That could be me up there on the screen. But I wouldn't trade places with Linda. Nursing is very fulfilling. I just wish they paid me as handsomely." Without sounding bitter, she adds: "It's tough when I've had a day of sick children and snotty noses, and then Linda calls and her biggest trauma is choosing a gown for an event she has to attend."

In 1979, after studying acting in New York, Hamilton moved to L.A. and landed roles in two ephemeral TV series, Secret of Midland Heights and Kings Crossing. Money started to accumulate, but so did trouble. When Hamilton tried to make the down payment on her Venice home in 1982, she discovered that her business manager, Harvey Glass, had embezzled $107,000 of her earnings. Glass, who'd also been stealing from his other clients, was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. "It was a nightmare," says Hamilton. "I had to borrow the down payment." Now that her career is picking up, she can pay the bills while Abbott waits for work. "There's no reason he has to go out and spend his energy waiting on tables," says Hamilton.

Her strong feelings about marriage stem in part from the death of her father, a general practitioner, who was killed in an auto accident when she was 5. "To this day I'm afraid of people leaving me," she says, and her fear has cemented her relationship with Abbott. "This is my first and final marriage," she says firmly.

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