It's amazing. Richard Chamberlain has featured in dozens of films, some more, others less successful. But he has never become a big box-office attraction or super-star on the cinema screen. However, on the small screen, after the successful series Shogun and The Thorn Birds, he became the best paid male star on television. "The leading leading man on TV" is what he is called in Hollywood.
On television is where is career also began, and indeed with a bang. He was twenty-five when, fresh from acting-school, he tested for the role of the new TV series hero, Dr. Kildare. He was the 36th candidate that day and had no great hopes of getting it. "At the time, I was hopelessly shy and had absolutely no self confidence", he says now, "I think I must have been terrible." Obviously he wasn't, because he got the part. He exactly matched the picture the producers had imagined of their TV doctor. He was the type of clean, good-looking American boy next-door, a type all the girls in the neighbourhood dreamed of.
The producers chose right. Straight after broadcasting the first episode a whirlwind broke over the unsuspecting Richard Chamberlain. He received 12,000 glowing letters per week, mostly from female admirers - that is more than even a super-star like Clarke Gable ever received at the height of his career.
Nowadays he almost blushes when he thinks back to that period: "I read the first letters, then I gave it up. It was unbelievable what women wrote to me about. The most harmless were the ones offering to marry me. But most of them simply wanted sex - and they described in full detail what they would undertake to do with me."
So, Richard Chamberlain became the first male sex symbol of American television. A role he did not at all feel suited to: "At that time, I was terribly unsure and didn't know what I really wanted. When I think back to that period, I am glad I've got it behind me. I was very unhappy then."
Richard Chamberlain was a kind of idol already in his youth. He comes from a rich family in Beverly Hills and a fellow school pupil remembers: "He was always the best looking boy in the class, the best dressed, the most sporty, the most intelligent, the most liked - and he went out only with the best girls. Richard was already almost too perfect."
And, although in interviews Richard Chamberlain always likes to say that in his youth he was against everything, - school, parents, his elder brother - another fellow pupil paints a very different picture of him: "He was a very good boy, a child all parents wish to have. He was a scout and sang in the church choir - and in fact alto."
After high school he was conscripted into the army and went to Korea for two years. On returning he immediately went to Jeff Corey's acting school in Los Angeles. "When I was five years old, I had already made the decision to become an actor," the star remembers, "I think I was fairly dissatisfied with the real world even then, and so with a few neighbourhood friends I created a fantasy world. We acted little plays which we improvised."
Even during acting school, an agent, a friend of his parents took him under his wing. "For a whole year, he sent me for tests to all the people possible. I never got a part, because I was simply dreadful. I was always much too nervous, got muddled up and was sweating blood. But these experiences were good for me. Gradually I lost my nervousness, but it never went completely away."
At the test for Dr. Kildare he must have had a good day. He threw himself into the work with great gusto. But the gigantic success of the series, which at first raised him high, soon became a burden. "I couldn't go out publicly any more, for within seconds dozens of fans rushed at me; it was grim."
Therefore, when the series was discontinued after five years, he was very relieved.
"It sounds ungrateful when I say that this period was the worst of my life - however, I owe my first TV series a great deal. But from year to year I became more and more dissatisfied with my role. I slowly became aware that basically the series demanded absolutely nothing of me as an actor, only my outward appearance. I needed only to look good and decent, then producers and public were satisfied."
Richard was thinking of higher things. In the final analysis, he wanted to find recognition as an actor, not just as a pretty face. Then an offer came from Broadway. He was to co-star with Mary Tyler Moore in the musical version of Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's (in the later film version these roles were taken by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard). Delighted, he accepted the offer.
The whole thing became a huge fiasco.
The musical didn't last out over the four previews - those are the performances before the actual premiere, at which public reaction is supposed to be tested. "It was dreadful. The audience laughed in the wrong places, called things out, mostly in the middle of the performances. Moreover, I became aware that my voice was not suited to a musical. Mary wept continuously in the intervals."
The star lived through a completely new experience. "On account of the TV series, for five years success was taken for granted. Now, I knew it can also be quite different."
After this traumatic experience, Richard Chamberlain flew for the first time to England. "I knew that now I had to work at it to be an actor," he explains, "And London was the ideal place. There, they have the best television, and the best English-speaking theatre."
The decision turned out right. In England, Dr. Kildare had also run with enormous success in fact, nevertheless show business did not tie him down to this type. There, Richard Chamberlain received all the offers, for which he had been waiting in vain at home. The film Petulia with Julie Christie, director Richard Lester; on television Portrait Of A Lady from the Henry James novel - and even on the stage, with the renowned Birmingham Repertory Company he played Hamlet - the dream of every actor! After John Barrymore, he was the second American "allowed" by the English to play this illustrious role on a British stage.
In England, it was rumoured, love is supposed to have struck twice. Richard's Ophelia in Birmingham was Gemma Jones, and the two are supposed to have harmonised not just on stage. The second selection was Taryn Power, daughter of the Hollywood star Tyrone Power.
The English experience allowed him to return to America in 1970 with strengthened self-confidence. Here they had indeed also heard of his success as Hamlet - but, nevertheless, film offers remained absent. They came again from Europe. Ken Russell gave him the role of Tchaikovsky in his film The Music Lovers; in The Madwoman Of Chaillot, he played at the side of Katherine Hepburn. And then came the roles which were to be his hallmark for a long time - in the cloak and dagger films. He fought his way through films like The Three Musketeers, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Man In The Iron Mask, and The Four Musketeers.
On the whole, they were fairly successful films. But Richard Chamberlain was, nevertheless, not satisfied. "It was shortly before my 40th birthday," he recalls, "that I fell into pretty considerable depressions. I suddenly realised that I had not yet achieved my professional goal really. I had come to a stop and even had thoughts of suicide."
In this state of mind, Richard turned to Dr. Brugh Joy who was recommended to him by friends. Dr. Joy uses meditation, yoga and far eastern philosophy to cure psychic defects. "Through his treatment, I have got a completely different and positive set-up in life," he says. "I am more relaxed and feel much better altogether." Even today, he regularly meets with his doctor for meditation, the doctor whom he meanwhile describes as a close friend.
At a stroke his professional life developed positively as well. He got the leading role in the mini-series Shogun, for which he had been fighting for almost a year. "They had actually earmarked Sean Connery, but he had refused it. So I got the part - and I put on 12lbs of muscle weight in the first few months in a fitness studio with weight-lifting. Finally, I also wanted to match somehow the picture the producers had of the role."
Shogun was a sensation throughout half the world. And the next mini-series offered him accounted for even more headlines: The Thorn Birds, an Australian family saga. Everywhere throughout the world handkerchiefs were out, when, each evening, the unhappy love-story of the priest and the beauty flickered on the small screen.
In this series, his erotic partner was the pretty English girl, Rachel Ward. Richard confesses that while filming he fell in love with her a bit. "And it must have been so on her side too, otherwise our love scenes would not have been so intense and believable." But Rachel's feelings don't seem to have been quite so intense, for she was courting another of her co-stars at the time, Bryon Brown, who would later become her husband.