Richard Chamberlain: Kildare To Hamlet
Richard Chamberlain's Cape Cod cottage stands high above Coldwater Canyon in the unfashionable upper reaches of Beverly Hills. Here, formal, carefully groomed streets give way to scrubby, winding roads, modest, sometimes rundown homes, and one instead of four-car garages. Chamberlain's house, like his clothes and his small group of friends, is completely against his star status. Though cynical critics have sometimes called him pretentious - citing his "British" accent, his extraordinarily ambitious range of starring roles, his appearance in highly artistic stage, screen and television productions - he is actually quite devoid of pretense. Subdued, shy, withdrawn, he is the most dedicated of young actors. Not for him the flamboyant emphasis on leather jackets, fast cars, deep-sea fishing, the machismo image of the all-male star, or stalking a heroine like big game. Instead, a sober and modest search for quality, a sense of the vocation of acting that is monastic in its single-mindedness. His dedication has given an austere purity of line to his performances of such disparate figures as Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, Richard II, Tchaikovsky, Lord Byron, Edward VIII and Scott Fitzgerald.
Chamberlain greets me at the door, dressed in a polka dotted royal blue casual shirt and jeans. His brown hair is still a mass of almost Harpo-ish ringlets and his moustache still curls with a cavalier braggadocio; he has just finished playing Cyrano de Bergerac at the Los Angeles Music Center. Extremely lean, with slender bones, he gives an impression of delicate, steely strength. His face is aquiline, the face of a natural aristocrat, with slightly slanting pale blue eyes, high hollow cheekbones, a carefully chiselled jawline. It is the face and body of a monk - a monk in a working order, dedicated to simple tasks. Chamberlain would be the perfect St. Francis of Assisi.
We walk together into the sunlit living room. A fire roaring healthily in the grate casts a welcoming glow over the British and American antiques, the polished wooden floor, and the over-stuffed chairs. The décor is agreeably rustic, a clutter of highly masculine, dark brown wooden furniture. Built in 1965 by an architect named Jerome Colcord, the house has been extensively remodelled by Chamberlain since he bought it from its first owners. Characteristically, he stripped all the paint off the wood, put in beautiful parquet floors, and is presently re-creating the whole front part of the building. He is making a stained glass window and will extend the rooms several feet so that they will overhang the garden. Chamberlain is putting the same enormous concentration into these reconstructions as he is putting into his acting.
He sits in a harp-back chair, kicks his shoes off, and props his feet on the table. Now and again he gets up to pour tea from a silver pot and to serve some delicious home-baked cookies from a large plate.
He begins by talking about his London apartment, on Bayswater Road, overlooking Hyde Park: "I've spent much too much money on it. It's a super flat, really nice. I have to rent it out when I'm not there, that's the only way I can afford it. My passion for fixing places up has really reached an extreme there. I converted one bedroom and hallway into a very large, scrubbed pine dining room. I put a huge skylight in the roof to light the upstairs sitting room. This has a wonderful view of the park; it was the old servants' quarters. The whole thing is done in ‘early clutter' but it's kind of homey, and nice. In England you can make things cosy and casual; nobody expects any particular style. Over here everything is ‘pure decorator.'" Chamberlain gives an almost imperceptible shudder. "How could anybody live in anybody else's selections?"
Aside from toiling on the environments he lives in so that they express his own pure, clear-cut cool personality, Chamberlain has to take the utmost care of that other house, his body - to permit the playing of his enormously taxing roles.
"I don't have a superabundance of energy. I have to focus myself. During Cyrano I literally couldn't do anything else. When I came home at night I was so ‘up' that I couldn't sleep until three or four in the morning. When I don't get enough rest I have to be especially careful of my health. When I do matinee I try to sleep in the theatre for half an hour before a show. If I go to parties during a run I find I'm giving less than my best to the performance, which drives me crazy. I hate that feeling of not having quite enough energy and concentration. I exercise very hard. When I get up in the morning I do dance movements, practicing like a ballet dancer at the barre. I stretch, bend, do callisthenics, push-ups, pull-ups. I have to train for my parts like an athlete."
"I go to bed at eleven and rise at seven even when I'm not working. But there still isn't enough time for everything, and that's frustrating. I keep my social life to an absolute minimum. I envy people like Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris who apparently can just ‘play' all the time, and work too. I gave up smoking halfway through playing Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers because I found that cigarettes made my voice kind of raw. I had given up while doing ‘Dr. Kildare' and then started again. It's much harder to quit the second time around. I drink very rarely. I'll admit I do occasionally enjoy a ‘wet weekend.' But not when I'm in a play. I can't drink before or after a performance." Food? "I'm heavy on protein. This morning I made a fabulous drink with protein powder and fruit juice. I believe in eggs, steak - when I'm on a film I have a steak for breakfast - and I like my steak quite rare. I don't believe in vegetarianism or macrobiotic diets - not for me, anyway. I'm excited by the idea of cottonseed, however. I've heard that it's 78% protein. They've discovered how to remove a chemical from it which used to interfere with digestion. It'll be a wonderful thing for people to eat once it's purified. Of course, I'll use it all the time."
Born on March 21, 1934, the son of a manufacturer of supermarkets fixtures, Chamberlain grew up like a typical California boy: rebellious, unscholarly, fond of the sun and the outdoors. He loved tennis, surfing, football. He cannot remember exactly when his lifelong passion for romantic literature and drama really began.
"I wasn't a reader as a child at all. I was a very petulant, horrible child and wouldn't learn anything. I hated the imposition of being made to learn, by ghastly, horrible women teachers at Beverly Hills High School. Everything was imposed as a painful, necessary discipline. Nobody ever said, ‘Look, wow! If you learn these words it will open up a whole treasure chest of incredible, wonderful things!' I dreaded Shakespeare. It wasn't until years later that I decoded the secret, that I learned the excitement of Shakespeare and other great writers."
"I was so bored with everything as a child I wouldn't even learn to tie my shoes! It wasn't until I got to Pomona College that I learned the pleasure of study. To this day I hate having discipline imposed on me from the outside. I love to impose discipline on myself. I'll take direction easily, but it has to be a give and take situation."
Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning, which Chamberlain recently played at the Chichester Festival in England, had provided his first great experience of drama. "In the early 1950's we got the records at college and prepared a reading. I was enthralled by Fry's poetry and by the great performance of Pamela Brown. I fell in love at the outset with romantic poetry, romantic literature."
It was some time before Chamberlain could express this passion in a memorable series of romantic roles. Once out of college, he seemed to have no visible direction: he worked sporadically in little theatre, as a box boy in supermarkets, as a chauffeur for a crippled woman, and even served time as a G.I. in Korea. He landed, miraculously, a contract with MGM, and then got tossed away on the shoals of Secret of the Purple Reef. But, wasted though he was, he never stopped training his instruments: his mind, his voice, his body. He took singing and dancing lessons, toiling for months at ballet class.
When he landed the title role of "Dr. Kildare," which made him famous, he already had the basic attributes of a great actor: perfect diction, grace in motion, a profound, searching intelligence in interpretation.
"Kildare," Chamberlain feels, was a fine experience for an actor, though ultimately limiting. "It was like repertory training. I learned to discipline my movements to the confines of sets of large and small offices. I learned every day about film technique. How to look in a camera angle, how the eyes were all important as guides to feeling in a scene, and, incidentally, in those gruelling long days, something of what it meant to be a doctor."
"We worked forty-seven weeks a year, and I had classes every night. After the third year I tried to make the producers let Kildare ‘grow up' a bit more, become less belligerent and childish, but they wouldn't change him, and of course they were right. I tried to play the lines differently, and I couldn't. Then I knew I had to get out."
Once released from the high-paying jail sentence of "Kildare," Chamberlain was dangerously adrift. He played summer stock, appeared in the catastrophic musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's with Mary Tyler Moore, which closed after four previews on Broadway, and had a role in the financial failure Petulia, in which he sensitively played an angry, sexually impotent husband. Just when it looked as though he was going to sink without a trace, Chamberlain decided to break with everything and go to England. It was the single most important act of his life, and at first he was terrified. "I had to break the mold, though. The image of ‘Kildare' was so fixed. Americans didn't want me to change, ever. I brooded over it for months. Finally, I had a hunch: ‘Go!' And the matter was settled when Eamonn Andrews, who had a show on British TV, offered to pay my fare if I'd go on his programme as a guest. I accepted, and I've never looked back."
Chamberlain's agent managed to get him the role of the consumptive, romantic hero of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady in a BBC television serial. He played it brilliantly, displaying the same touchy, neurotic, hypersensitive quality with which he had invested his role in Petulia.
"The producer ruled me out completely at first, but I was determined to get the part. I sat down to lunch with him in a very Victorian outfit, and with my most ‘British' accent, even though the character was American, I talked him into it."
As a result of his appearance in Portrait of a Lady, Chamberlain was offered a chance to play, of all things, Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. "Peter Dews, the director, saw me in the series and turned to his wife, saying ‘That's Hamlet.' She thought he was insane, and so did everybody else. Kildare as Hamlet! Peter pushed it through his board of directors. He took it on as a challenge. The preparations were an astounding ordeal. I began working with him in New York, where he was directing Hadrian VII, and then I went back to his home in Whitstable, England, where I worked in a neighbour's garage. You never heard such screaming, yelling and pounding! My problem was getting up sufficient power to carry the role. We Americans have no real vocal sustaining force. I learned from Dews the inner tension of the lines, the rhythm. I'll be eternally grateful."
"Things went very badly once we got to Birmingham. I was whispering my way through the lines. I was playing it very, very safe and Peter was in despair. Finally he called me up to his office and said, 'I just don't think you can do it.' I said, 'I think I can. I think it will come. I don't know how or when or why. Give me a little longer.' And then I worked with him in his office after rehearsals. Finally I got the part in 'run-throughs.'"
"I've never been so panicked in my life as I was on the first night. I was catatonic with fear. I can remember myself screeching because I had no voice. Almost unable to move, I forgot my lines in the very first scene, and then I was so frightened I became psychosomatically deaf and I couldn't hear people giving me the cues. The feeling of tension in the audience was awful. I was like a piano wire. I felt everyone was saying 'Gawblimey, it's D. Kildare!' Somehow I got through, the notices were fair, and I went on."
Chamberlain achieved more stardom in The Music Lovers, Ken Russell's extravagantly romantic film biography of Tchaikovsky. The composer was an enormously demanding part for an actor, calling for a virtually complete mastery of the piano, an ability to dance - many scenes were balletically mimed - and a range which extended from innocent bucolic rapture to agonized despair, nervous breakdown, and the agony of death from typhus.
"Ken Russell is a mad, inspiring genius. Mad and bad and very, very dangerous. A little boy. Wild and fantastic. I first met him in my agent's office, with his sandals and his long, grey hair, and his pudgy chest covered in a grubby T-shirt. He told me about Tchaikovsk and he blew my mind. I had always thought Tchaikovsk was some sweet, delicate creature who wrote pretty little tunes. I had no idea he was a homosexual, self-destructive, dangerous. That he was adopted by a patroness, Madame von Meck, whom he never actually met, but who was so passionately in love with his music that she would go into rooms after he had left them and taste the food he had left behind. And that at the end he deliberately drank typhus-infected water because he wanted to die the same way his mother had."
"I was mesmerized, thrilled by Russell's description of him and I said yes immediately. I just threw myself into the picture. It was pointless trying to rehearse, the whole mood was too abandoned, too passionate. I started piano lessons the moment I signed the contract. I had to match my fingering to the pianist who dubbed the track. It was enormously difficult. Then I had to play on a mute piano for the actual scenes. That was weird. The greatest problem was the dialogue. It was awful, painful dialogue, full of formal expositions of the plot. Ken's genius emerged in the non-dialogue scenes, the scene where the girl runs through the rain to mail the letter, matched exactly to the 'Letter Song' in Eugene Onegin, the journey of Tchaikovsk and his brother Modeste through the burning harvest fields."
After The Music Lovers Chamberlain made an even more romantic movie, Lady Caroline Lamb, directed by Robert Bolt, in which he played an even more romantic figure: George Gordon, Lord Byron, poet and lover of Lady Caroline. "I felt much closer to him than to Tchaikovsk. Byron could be a most dazzling charmer, warm and witty and wonderful gregarious and jovial. But he could also be narcissistic, ruthless, cold. I remember I was sitting here in my kitchen at the house when Bolt called me from London and asked me if I'd play the part. I said yes at once."
"Bolt told me, 'Byron has a touch of genius, but he's also a bit cheap. He was the first pop star.' I went to England. I started the role, as I do all others, at complete zero. Naked, very insecure, with no reserves at all. And suddenly Robert Bolt got cold feet. He said, 'I want him insolent and hard and cold. Why don't you play William Lamb, Caroline Lamb's husband, instead?' I told him, 'I must do Byron.' He said, 'All right.' And gradually I got the savagery, the cruelty Bolt wanted. It wasn't easy."
On television, Chamberlain has done "The Woman I Love," the story of the duke and Duchess of Windsor, with Faye Dunaway as Wallis Windsor, and "The Last of the Belles," in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald, with Blythe Danner as Zelda Fitzgerald. Of the two, he found "The Woman I Love" more rewarding. "The Duke was still alive when I did it, so that was a major problem. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to him and to everyone who knew him. I looked at him on newsreels and read his autobiography, and warmed to him far more that I would have thought possible. Of course I had always been dazzled by the image of the two of them. But what I hadn't understood was that the giving up of a kingdom wasn't romantic so much as an expression of discontent with being a king anyway. It seemed so unreal to believe he would give up a kingdom for a love affair. But even when I did understand him, I realized that there was an immense problem in embodying a myth. That may have made my playing a little too tense and stiff. And on top of that we had a very tense TV crew, and the schedules were very tough for me in Hollywood after the slow pace and endless tea breaks of filmmaking in England."
For Richard Chamberlain, the most taxing roles have been Richard II in Jonathan Miller's production at the Los Angeles Music Center, and his Cyrano de Bergerac under the direction of Joseph Hardy at the same location. "We did Richard II first in Seattle - a warm, sympathetic treatment. When we got to Los Angeles Jonathan Miller, who is very brilliant, took over as director, and everything was changed. It was exciting but disconcerting: Jonathan had Richard not as a beautiful, tragic figurebut as a kind of petulant child. I felt that sort of unsympathetic treatment wasn't really fair to the character or the play in the long run. I think it's far more deeply and convincingly tragic to have a man who's defeated from the outset."
Cyrano de Bergerac, on the other hand, was an exalting experience. Chamberlain loved the thrust, the passion, the wildness of the Rostand play. "The play is Cyrano. A wonderful, fascinating, complex character - immensely lovable. I saw him as a man absolutely bursting with life, with humour, with love. But thwarted because he was so conscious of his huge nose. He could have won Roxane in a second. But he was so terrified of rejection he lost out. He was immensely sexual, not in the modern, horrible, pornographic way, but in a total sense a man. I'm crazy about him."
Most recently Chamberlain has played another dashing - if lesser - figure: Aramis in Richard Lester's new film version of The Three Musketeers. "the new version follows the book very closely, with some added humour. Aramis is fascinating - the ultimate hypocrite, the smoothest operator at court, rather like a French nineteenth-century Milo Minderbinder. I've known people like that. He was having an affair with the Queen's sister, and perfectly happy to pick up money from her despite a religious façade. Whenever things go wrong he just becomes a priest for a while, then comes back. I'm fascinated by people who are dangerous under a foppish exterior, who aren't quite what they seem. 'Operating' is one of the things I can't do; I'm completely open, I'm not slick. Instead, I have a tortoise's determination."
Plans for the future? "Well, by the time people read this, I may - at the speed I've been working lately - have made four more pictures! But seriously, I'd love to do Dorian Gray."
Richard Chamberlain, looking extremely young, stands up and looks out across the sweeping browns and greens of Coldwater Canyon. "But they'll have to hurry. Meanwhile, I'm learning, studying every day. Disciplining myself, training myself.. When the next part comes along I'll be a complete blank. Naked, trained, waiting like an athlete at the start of a race. And then the adventure begins."