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An Interview with Mary Deese Hampton

Mary Deese Hampton is the widow of beloved actor James Hampton, whose long career touched millions of lives.

Deese-Hampton is not only the keeper of his flame but is a successful actress in her own right, appearing in a variety of films, television series, soap operas, commercials, and print advertising.

She first started acting in the early nineties and continues to work in the industry. Deese Hampton landed stints on high-profile shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, General Hospital, Bosch, and the Dallas reboot in 2012. Her most recent work includes co-starring roles on Netflix’s Blockbuster and TNT’s successful series Claws.

We spoke to the Texas native about her career, her husband and their book in advance of her appearance at the inaugural TV West Fest, which takes place March 16-19 in Tucson, Arizona.

Question: You had an established career in Texas and then you decided to enroll in Lou Diamond Phillips and Adam Roarke’s Film Actors Lab in Dallas. What made you want to do this?

Answer: Actually, I had not done any acting until after enrolling in Adam Roarke’s Film Actor’s Lab. I had always wanted to try it but never participated in drama classes in high school or college. Having said that, my parents encouraged me to try everything as a child – ballet, tap, jazz, piano and voice lessons. I enjoyed it. As an only child, being the center of attention was not foreign to me. So, I guess that helped me with my self-esteem and self-confidence when it came to performing in front of people. Fear of public speaking is not an issue with me! I was lucky to hit the jackpot with Adam and Lou. I studied with Lou the year before he got La Bamba. What a sweet, talented guy. And Adam Roarke, what can I say? He was my mentor for six years. I approached him first about the idea of moving out to Los Angeles and trying my hand in that arena. He was very encouraging but more importantly, gave me some “survival” tips for living out there. I spent two years preparing – mentally and financially – to make the move. He told me that he guessed that about 2% of the actors that came through his classes would make it in Los Angeles. The biggest factor, aside from talent, was the ability to support yourself without having to be tied to a 9-to-5 job. You had to be available for auditions and gigs, and if you weren’t, there was no point. I remember him telling me that so many talented people go out there but spent their time trying to contend with the difference in the cost of living – which is huge – and lose track of why they were there in the first place. He helped me tremendously. Adam passed away in 1994, but not before he saw me book my first sitcoms – Family Matters and Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I will always miss him.

Q: Some people think of acting as a vain profession, but I think it’s just the opposite. You really must be brave to bare your soul like that in class…so given this, what was it about acting that fulfilled your soul?

A: I know many actors who are quite shy in person. First and foremost, I think you need to have a “safe” environment in which to perform and study. A place where you are not being judged, but rather, encouraged to let yourself trust your instincts with a role. To try different interpretations of your character without fear of anything but constructive criticism.

Q: What finally pushed you off the cliff to take a chance and go to California?

A: I had recently divorced, had no children, had no mortgage and had no one dependent on me, except for me. I had the ability to continue my profession as a paralegal from home. Believe me, pre-COVID-19, it was tough, tough, tough to get anyone to let you work from home in 1993. I really had to push the idea that I could be just as productive and the companies would save money on an office, a secretary, and benefits. You see, I was right all along – so “ha!” to all of you naysayers who turned me down in 1993! In a nutshell, I was able to recognize a rare window of opportunity that many people miss or never had, and I jumped through it!

Q: Initially, what did you like and not like about the industry?

A: I am a naturally competitive person (not in a mean way), so it was a new type of challenge for me. It was also an opportunity to start on a new path in life. That was exciting. Hmmmn, what did I not like about the industry? It’s too competitive. Ha! I think with most professions, you have control over marketing yourself. What I mean is, pursuing a job that you want on your own. However, as an actor, unless you know someone in the business who can help you get an audition, then you are almost totally reliant on a third party (your talent agent) to procure your opportunities for employment. In other words, to submit you to casting directors for a role. Finding a good agent is not easy. When I arrived in L.A. in 1993, I was blessed to have a few connections and was able to get good classes with well-established actors. I was also able to meet with the former head of casting for Universal Studios, Mark Malis, who gave me some fantastic advice while I was looking for a talent agent. He told me to find an agent where I was the only one of my “type.” I was surprised because my thought was to find a talent agent who specialized in Asian actors. Mark said, “No, you don’t want competition from within your own agency. You want to be the only one that your agent sends out for all the auditions who are your type.” Smart man! I listened…

Q: Let’s discuss your reoccurring role as Kristy Koy on General Hospital. I’ve heard it said by many actors that soap operas are a good way to finesse your acting chops. What was that like for you and what was the most useful thing you came away from that experience?

A: I developed a newfound respect for soap opera actors. They have to learn on a daily basis what actors in sitcoms, series and films have a week to flesh out. Upwards of 30 pages of dialogue for the “Lukes and Lauras” of the soap opera world. It was a terrific experience. My husband, Jimmy, played a drug dealing, murdering reverend on Days of Our Lives for about six months. He would agree with my opinion. I also have to add that soap opera fans have got to be the most devout – sometimes to the extreme. Jimmy told me that he would receive letters addressed to “Reverend Saul,” condemning his “behavior” as a man of the cloth. Other actors would receive letters from fans telling them things like their husband was cheating on them, etc. You gotta love it! Working on General Hospital was hugely exciting for me. I remember watching Luke and Laura’s wedding in 1981. Nearly 20 years later, there I was working alongside of them!

Q: I really liked your role on Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which showcased your comedic acting chops. Was that scene as fun as it looked?

A: What a crazy movie! I got to be funny and get paid for it! A story I like to tell is when Ed Helms, Clyde Katsatsu and I were in the van on the way to set the morning shot in the interrogation scene. That set was in an old Purina dog chow factory. You can imagine the lingering smell. Anyway, Ed was going through his lines and realized, to his horror, that he was actually going to have to speak Korean. In a panic, he asked Clyde if he could help him with his lines to which Clyde replied, “Hey man, I’m Japanese!” Ed’s pleading eyes then turned to me. I shrugged and told him that I really didn’t speak much Korean but demonstrated how to enunciate the words (drag out the last syllable of each word) based on my recollection of my mother’s conversations with my Korean relatives. The result was what you saw on the screen. Ed was very funny. I never worked with John Cho or Kal Penn, but they were on set with me and as nice as could be. So were the co-directors.

Q: When and how did you meet James, and what was it about him that was special?

A: Funny, but true. In 1994, about six months after I moved out to California, we met in a bar, but neither of us drinks. An actress friend of mine, Laura, who worked at this little dive country and western bar in Burbank – Jack’s Cinnamon Cinder – introduced us. We took an acting class together and she was always inviting me to come to the bar she worked at for dinner. I was adamant that I was not going to sit at a bar by myself, so I kept saying no. Anyway, Laura called me one day when I had a friend visiting from out of town and I thought it would be a good opportunity since I had a pal with me. Jimmy was there with some other people learning how to line dance. Remember those days? We were both Texans and hit it off right away. And what was special about Jimmy? He was incredibly smart and hilariously funny! Of course, I recognized him from numerous TV and movie appearances I had watched growing up. We ended up meeting at Jack’s every Tuesday night. And while others drank and danced, we teamed up to play a trivia game as “The Texas Tornados.” You rented a keyboard from the bar and played against other bar and restaurant patrons across the country via a TV screen. At one point, we were No. 3 in the country. Jimmy said it was because he knew everything that happened before 1975 and I knew everything that happened after 1975! Our 25 year age difference worked for us. Ha!

Q: I’m assuming your career as an actress helped you to bond with your husband, who pretty much stole every scene he was in.

A: He did, didn’t he? I think the biggest thing we had in common was our sense of humor. He always said, “You got me. You just get me.” What he meant by that was that I got his jokes.

Q: One of his gifts was that he was such a natural actor and he made it look easy. What was James’ philosophy on acting?

A: Jimmy said he always gave them the best Jimmy Hampton he had. He also said that you “couldn’t teach talent.” You either had it or you didn’t, but that not having it didn’t mean you wouldn’t work. Truth. There are a lot of talented people waiting tables and a lot of people with no talent on our screens. Go figure.

Q: Because James seemed so affable in whatever he did, I’m assuming he got stopped for autographed or was approached a lot. How did he react to those situations?

A: He absolutely loved his fans and was always kind and accommodating. Sometimes, he was recognized for his voice. I guess it was very distinctive. Jim did a heck of a lot of voiceover work. This is a true story. As you know, Jim starred in both Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too as the same character – Harold Howard. His agent called him one day and told him that a Teen Wolf cartoon series was in the works. Jim was very excited and asked when he’d start on the project. “Wellllllll…” said his agent, “you’re going to have to audition.” What the what? He did, and, of course, booked the role. But really????

Q: He made a lot of film and television roles. What were the ones that were special to him and what did he say about those projects?

A: Jimmy was often asked what his favorite role was. He would also say that he was lucky. Most actors are blessed to have been in one good series or one good film, but he was in many. He always came back around to F-Troop as being his favorite working environment. He said it was like going to a party with your best friends every day. He, Ken, Larry and Melody stayed good friends for the rest of their lives.

Q: What was your favorite role of his and why?

A: That’s a hard one! I remember seeing Jimmy in so many TV shows and commercials growing up. I have to confess, however, that I did not watch F-Troop until much later in life, but we watched The Doris Day Show at my house growing up and I definitely remember that cute handyman, Leroy B. Simpson!

Q: I think one of the greatest things you did for your husband was to not only get him to write an autobiography but helped him do it. What was special about that experience?

A: As you man know, Jimmy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s back in 2014. He was still pretty active for a few years afterwards and had been piecing together what turned out to be his autobiography for several years. When we stopped traveling, we began to put it together in earnest. Fortunately, it was recommended to Jimmy by our good friend, television writer, author and now director, Adriana Trigiani, to simply “tell his stories” instead of what we would typically think of as an autobiography. In other words, the first part of the book are stories from his experiences in Hollywood, the different actors he worked with, auditions, working experiences, etc. A journalist once called Jimmy “the Kevin Bacon of his era.” Another journalist said he was “one of the last living bridges between old and new Hollywood.” Both of those statements are pretty accurate. Just take a look at Jimmy’s resume – he worked with Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Rock Hudson and so many others. But he also worked with Michael J. Fox, Jason Bateman, Billy Bob Thornton and John Ritter.

Q: What’s the story behind the title, What? And Give Up Show Business?

A: Jimmy actually came up with the title of the book long before he wrote it. The idea came from an old comic strip he had seen. The strip went something like this: a circus parade makes its way down a street line with an excited crowd. First, the ring master leads the way with various acts following him. Then come the acrobats, the juggling clowns, the lion tamer with his lions and finally, the elephants. Behind them all, a janitor is in the rear sweeping up trash and animal poop. Someone from the crowd says to the janitor, “Gosh, can’t you get a better job than that?” The janitor replies, “What? And give up show business?”

Q: Are there any funny stories that didn’t make the book?

A: Oh, there are soooooo many! Let me say this: Jimmy wouldn’t say anything bad about anybody in his book. I, on the other hand, well…Okay, here’s a tame one: Jimmy and I were watching an old Humphrey Bogart movie one night and he turned to me and said, “Lauren Bacall scrambled my eggs once.” Startled, I asked, “What? When?” Then he told me the story: Jimmy had been good friends with James Garner’s brother, Jack, for years prior to his appearance on The Rockford Files but became friends with James after meeting him on the set. They often played golf and backgammon together. Incidentally, James Garner has a dynamite autobiography that is a must read. Anyway, Jimmy, Jack and Jim were scheduled to play an early round and Jimmy was to pick Jim up and meet Jack at the golf course. Jimmy arrived at Jim’s apartment (Jim was separated from his wife at the time and lived in an apartment in the Valley) and rapped at the door. Jim, obviously not ready to go, flustered, answered the door in his bathrobe and said, “I’m running a little late this morning, Jimmy. Why don’t you come in and have some breakfast while I finish getting ready?” Jimmy said he walked in the door and made his way to the kitchen where Lauren Bacall stood at the stove, scrambling eggs!

Q: What was the experience like for the two of you as you wrote the book? And did you like the writing process?

A: At the urging of friends, Jimmy had been telling stories of his life in Hollywood and the folks he worked with over the years at dinner parties, etc. Once he was unable to play in golf tournaments and appear at festivals due to his Parkinson’s, he began to work more diligently on writing these stories down. Eventually, I began to type for him as he dictated. This project kept us laughing, which was a blessing.

Q: I understand Jim was also a talented writer and wrote some scripts. Can you discuss some of those projects and what will become of them?

A: Oh, yes! His first paid writing gig was some of the “blackouts” for Love, American Style. I think he said they paid him $25 per piece. He also wrote a lot of material for Burt Reynolds. There’s a great story in the book about Burt’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson right after he posed as the first male centerfold for Cosmopolitan magazine. Remember that? Eventually, Jimmy wrote for television on Evening Shade. He said that, at the time, he believed he was the oldest television writer at 54! I have a movie script that Jimmy co-wrote with friend James Vaughn and his son, Steve, and I have been revising it. It’s called Maple Park and is a coming-of-age story about three boys growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Dallas in the 1950s. It’s so good! I think I might get it produced this year. I want to do that for Jimmy. I really do. Say a prayer!

Q: I’m assuming you started doing collectors shows with James. What was that experience like for the two of you?

A: It was fantastic! Jimmy was reluctant at first. He said, “Mary, no one is going to know who I am!” I said, “Jimmy, everyone is going to know who you are!” I remember at the first few times we appeared at a celebrity convention, he turned to me and said that the experience was like “delayed applause.” What he meant was that, unlike being on stage where you connect with your audience and they respond to your work immediately, it’s different when you work in film and television. You don’t know how your performance may have affected your audience. When we attended these conventions, people told him how they enjoyed his performance, what it may have meant to them at the time, or even how it may have affected their lives. Sometimes their stories would bring him to tears. For instance, a young man told him that he didn’t see his dad much because he worked all the time. But that Tuesday nights were F-Troop night, and he could always count on that special time watching the show with his dad. Other young people would tell Jimmy how they “wished they could have a dad like him” on Teen Wolf. Very touching.

Q: March 16-19, you’ll be appearing at the TV West Fest on March 16-19 in Tucson, Arizona. What are you looking forward to the most?

A: I always enjoy seeing Jimmy’s fans and celebrity friends at these types of events. I am particularly excited about the fact that this is a new show and am honored to have been asked to participate in its first year.

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