Written by: 
Jessica DeLeón

James Hampton's ('57) life has been one adventure after another.

After spending 50 years in Hollywood, he could easily regale dinner party audiences and celebrity autograph shows with his anecdotes.

He's best known as Bugler Private Hannibal Shirley Dobbs in F Troop, the military sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1967. His career includes a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer for The Longest Yard, a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for Sling Blade, 32 appearances on The Tonight Show, and other numerous acting and directing credits.

His memories are compiled in the book What? And Give Up Show Business?, written with his wife Mary Deese Hampton. The couple now lives in Trophy Club.

But Hampton, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at 78, can now only say short phrases like "thanks" or "you bet." The book was written mostly before his diagnosis, with his wife later gathering the individual stories James had written and then putting it all together with over 150 photos and some of his favorite recipes.

"He had been encouraged by friends and colleagues for years to do this," Mary says. "He has so many stories."

College days
James Hampton in Much Ado About Nothing
James Hampton in Much Ado About Nothing

The road to Hollywood began in Denton.

"His college days warranted an entire chapter," Mary says.

Hampton, who grew up in Dallas, came to North Texas with his brother, Blake ('54), an art student whose work appeared on the cover of the 1955 Yucca yearbook.

Blake, who passed away last year, went on to work for The New Yorker and Esquire. James knew he didn't have that kind of talent.

"I didn't think there was room for two artists," he'd tell friends. "And the speech and drama department had all the pretty girls."

Hampton joined the College Players and performed on the 'Fessor Floyd Graham's Saturday Night Shows, as well as several plays. His teacher, Mary McCormic, was a famous opera singer in Europe and encouraged Hampton to pursue acting as a career -- leading him to act at Casa Manana in Fort Worth.

His antics weren't limited to the stage.

"Jim was kind of a rascal," Mary says.

On several occasions, he and his friend Bob Porter would driver over to Fort Worth down U.S. Highway 377 in Bob's convertible to get some alcohol since Denton was a dry county.

"On this particular evening, Jim was already a little loaded," Mary Hampton says, "and he thought it would be a hilarious idea to throw beer cans at the police station."

They were pulled over in short order. Bob Porter told the officer he was the culprit. But Hampton said, "They could tell it was me. I was totally guilty looking."

He was taken directly to the Justice of the Peace who asked, "Hampton, how much money do you have?"

Hampton said $11. He was told the fine was the $11 plus community service -- mowing the cemetery on Eagle Drive.

But Hampton didn't want his Kappa Alpha Order frat brothers seeing him, so he decided to mow the lawn at night under the cover of darkness.

His very first night at the cemetery, he arrived around 11:30.  Shortly thereafter, the police pulled up.

As the officer shined the flashlight on Jim, he asked, "What in the heck are you doing out here Hampton?"

"I'm doing my community service, Sir."

After a few beats, the officer, stifling a giggle, explained that a woman who lived across the street from the cemetery had called the police station.

"There's a ghost in the cemetery," she said. "You'll never guess what it's doing!"

Hampton says he still owes Denton 99 hours of community service.

A long, lucky career
James Hampton in Slingblade
James Hampton in Slingblade

Hampton landed his first movie role in an unusual way. He traded making the sets (inside the director's garage) for the lead role in a 1962 short film called The Cliff Dwellers.

The film was subsequently nominated for an Oscar, and Hampton attended the 1963 ceremonies, where Best Actor winner Gregory Peck stepped on his foot at an afterparty. Hampton didn't mind.

"Mr. Peck, you were wonderful in To Kill a Mockingbird," he told him.

"I enjoyed your film too young man," Peck replied.

Hampton then headed to Hollywood to pursue a career in show business -- with his Kappa Alpha fraternity brother Pat Boone providing him a room at his guest house for auditions.

James Hampton in F Troop
James Hampton in F Troop

He got an auspicious start. His first role was for Gunsmoke, which had been the most-watched series for more than a decade. Through the years, James appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, with F Troop airing in the 1960s, The China Syndrome in 1979 and Teen Wolf in 1985. He eventually turned to directing, helming TV shows such as Sister Sister, Boston Common, Grace Under Fire, Evening Shade and Hearts Afire. While directing Hearts Afire, Billy Bob Thornton, a co-star on the show, told him he was working on a little film called Sling Blade, and he wanted Hampton to play the nervous hospital administrator.

When he read the script, James's wife, Mary, says, "He said he couldn't put it down. It was just THAT good."

The film eventually won an Oscar for Thornton and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for the actors in the Best Ensemble Cast category.

But if Hampton had to pick a favorite show, F Troop would be the one.

"When Jim talks about how much fun he had on a show, it was F Troop," Mary Hampton says. "He said it wasn't like going to work. It was like going to a party every day with your best friends."

But either way, he was grateful to have such a long career in Hollywood.

"He'll tell you himself that he's a super lucky guy," Mary Hampton says.

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