Article 114

The Lover Who Lives Forever

Casanova was a con man. He even persuaded the Pope to grant him a special dispensation to eat meat on Friday. He was also lover, spy, sparetime diplomat, trainee priest, scientist, playwright and businessman. "Pleasure is my career," he was once heard to say.

There were other less polite descriptions. When he was on trial in 18th-century Venice he was called 'a notorious loose-liver and a corrupter of public morals'.

The story of Casanova is eternally fascinating, particularly because of his effect on women: the very name is synonymous with seduction. Since he wrote about his affairs at laborious length in 12 volumes of memoirs (an early example of kiss and tell) he was also obviously no gentleman.

His tale is being retold in a £4 million two-part television movie with Richard Chamberlain as Casanova and Faye Dunaway, Sylvia Kristel, Ornella Muti and Sophie Ward as some of the assorted females who fall for his charm. Not one of them is English because when Casanova came to London he found that women here did not fall so easily for his customary line: he was reduced to advertising in The Times for female companionship: 'Wanted a young lady. Apply...' There was only one answer.

For the new film version Casanova is having to work considerably harder to prove his prowess. Since American prime-time audiences are considered to be more prim than English, most of the love scenes are being shot twice. Once fully-clothed for the American version and then again, revealing rather more flesh, for the European, although both are being filmed with a certain restraint.

"Serious sex and comedy don't mix," said the English director Simon Langton, "and we concentrate on the fun of the chase rather than the actual event."

Richard Chamberlain believes that Casanova lives forever. "You could meet parts of him on the street today, but only Venice of the 18th century could produce the whole man," he said on location on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. "Unlike many men now who claim to have 100 notches on their belt making conquests, Casanova genuinely loved women."

"The closest to him today are pop stars who publicly boast of the numbers of women they have had. But there is something slightly ruthless and low-down about the pop star which isn't Casanova. He did it all with much more delicacy and took a lot more time. Women with him felt loved, seen and listened to - that was his most devastating quality. Many men now who try to be macho in their dealings with women fail to understand that. They go through hundreds of women because, really, they don't like women: they conquer them and leave them."

"Just sit in a restaurant and watch any couple; so often the man isn't seeing the woman he is with - let alone listening to her. Making a woman feel loved, seen and listened to are the key qualities in understanding and appreciating a woman. They are certainly the ones I apply myself."

Richard Chamberlain, at 51, is essentially a romantic actor. He was the dashing Doctor Kildare. The priest in love in The Thorn Birds. The sympathetic but strong hero of Shogun. Yet in real life, like Casanova himself, he is unmarried. Did he consider himself as romantic as Casanova? "Yes I am," he said without hesitation. "I think that is one reason why I never got married: I am almost too romantic for marriage."

"I am not a confirmed bachelor but a persistent one. The main reason isn't lack of romance but, rather that I am married to my work. There isn't enough of me to spare. My romanticism manifests itself through travel, work and an appreciation of beautiful women and courtesy to them."

"When my romances break down, I can't handle them easily as Casanova could. It takes a lot out of me. I fear that marriage with me would inevitably end in divorce because it is so tricky, this gypsy life of an actor."

"It is very difficult for an actor to marry an actress because you have two careers to deal with - or a given-up career by a woman which is worse. And it is difficult to marry someone who is non-showbusiness because they do not have any idea of what is going on: what the problems of the day were. She would have to be either a saint or a psychologist - or both."

He is undoubtedly attractive to women. He is 6ft 1 1/4 inch with blue-grey eyes, a casual, unforced charm and good manners, no matter how trying the circumstances. His weight is a steady 12 stone 2 pounds and his body is ideally suited to wearing period clothes: there is a fine line to the leg, revealed in a gondola when he was wearing a blue square-cut velvet riding coat lined with gold moiré teamed with suede gaiters.

On the canal bridge that night, a very attractive Venetian woman, who had come out to see the romantic hero duelling with Frank Finlay, looked directly at Chamberlain and made him catch her eye. Later, sitting in the launch which was his floating dressing-room, he commented on that glance. "She looked at me with what appeared to be a total love and it was a wonderful expression," he said. "But I thought: she isn't seeing me but her imagination of me… something she picked up from The Thorn Birds or Shogun. She wasn't looking at me so much as her mental image of me. That happens every day and I am more and more aware of it and less comfortable with it."

But why? "Because all of us want to be appreciated not for what we do or how we look but just because of us. So if women faint at the sight of me, I say it is just Richard Chamberlain you are looking at - not any of the parts he has played. Look at the real me."

Asked when he realised that he did not require to be seen around in public with beautiful women on one arm or on both, the answer was "When I found I needed my life to be private. I love a certain amount of partying and being recognised or appearing in front of an audience in the theatre. But I also need a considerable amount of solitude or semi-solitude and having life my way and not someone else's."

"I need to be at my beck and call at times. If I found the right person who could swing along with me, it might be all right. But I haven't."

So who is the real Richard Chamberlain that he would like others to see?

This turned out to be more difficult to answer. "It depends, and varies from moment to moment," he said at first. "The problem is that actors have less consistency in their personalities than a lot of people. Some days I wake up feeling strong and happy. On others I am anxious and vague."

"What determines the mood I don't know. But whoever I am that morning, I have learned to respect and whatever the mood I have learned not to fight it or ask what it is all about. I am not the reverse of what people perceive me to be, but there is a darker side to Richard Chamberlain as there is to everybody and I am aware of it. We are just moments away from being animals. We all have ambitions and hatreds and ferocities and I am no exception."

So Richard Chamberlain works and travels and when he is at home he lives in Los Angeles or, preferably when he can get to it, Hawaii. There the big event of the day "is watching the sun go down. Within 45 minutes of arrival, I can drop straight into bliss."

What he discovered, five years ago, was that real living meant living on the edge - taking risks. "I have been trying to move closer to the edge in my work and in my life ever since," he said. "The danger heightens perception."

"I trade on and rely on my face but I don't dwell on what will happen when the lines of age show. I assume there will always be something else on which to rely. What I'd like to be at all times is authentically myself because it is the only thing I can be. The process of self-discovery is still going on."

"I know myself very well now but not like a book or a recording: it is not crystallised. If we knew ourselves completely, we'd die."