Richard Chamberlain Shares Stories Of Youth And His Acting Career
Like most actors, Richard Chamberlain, star of such classics as "The Thorn Birds," "Shogun" and "The Last Wave," has always seemed self-assured.
When he was the golden boy in "Dr. Kildare" in the early '60s, he could've ordered the world off its axis. But Chamberlain, who recently played Clyde on "Will & Grace," says it was all an act.
"I was 24 when 'Kildare' hit, but I was a very, very young 24. I'm a very slow bloomer," says the slender actor, seated in a leather wing chair in a hall of a hotel here in Pasadena, California.
Instead of being frazzled by the "Kildare" notoriety, Chamberlain, 72, says he was saved by his lack of confidence and the workload.
"I was in almost everything in 'Kildare' and we did 36 the first year and 34 the second. And they would put me in movies between seasons. I was one of the last contract players at MGM and I worked constantly, constantly, constantly. And there wasn't time to go crazy," he says.
"And I was SO determined to make it all work. I needed success so badly in terms of self-worth. I just had to have it, and my career was my life for decades."
When he emerged from the tidal surge of "Kildare" Chamberlain didn't bathe in the glory. He decided, instead, to learn to act.
He headed for England, where he studied and wagered his future by accepting the role of "Hamlet." The Brits were incensed. Who did this Yank think he was?
Well, Hamlet, as it turned out - and Richard II, Octavius, Tchaikovsky. Playing the bad guy marked another coup for Chamberlain, a gesture he'll revisit June 17 when he costars as the scheming colonial governor in the Hallmark Channel's rousing "Blackbeard."
"I liked doing the show so much and I had high hopes for it and wanted to be as helpful as I could be, so here I am," shrugs Chamberlain, explaining why he was willing to leave his paradise home in Hawaii to talk about "Blackbeard."
But it's more than the azure Pacific and flowering ginger that keeps him in Maui. Chamberlain is learning, he says, to enjoy the now. Or, as he puts it: "Just to be."
"I grew up not liking myself very much," he ventures. "It's hard to explain. It's just something that happens to some people. It's not unusual for actors to say, 'I was terribly shy' or, 'I was fat and ugly in school.' I was never fat and ugly, but I hated school. I had a group of friends - it's not that I had a horrible childhood - but I was very uncomfortable with myself. And the idea of being somebody else, and somebody writing the dialogue and being on stage and all that fascinated me."
Self-acceptance was slow.
"I did a lot of therapy and spiritual workshops. You know, in California you do all that stuff. I got Rolfed. But the actual ability to just 'be' is something that's come to me rather late in the game. To just be ..."
Four years ago he wrote his memoir, "Shattered Love," which eased onto the bestseller list and revealed, for the first time, that he is gay.
"It didn't start out about being gay at all, it started out being a philosophical treatise," he says. "It's about how we live our lives and how we might live our lives more fully, which mostly interests me. That's what I was writing about, and I've done a lot of work in that area, and I had some stuff to say. But my publisher and my partner both kept saying, 'It's got to be more personal. Otherwise they're not going to know what you're talking about.'
"It got more and more personal. It was scary at first, then it got more interesting. I've always - in therapy and stuff - I want to know what the trouble is. I don't want to gloss over it, don't want to avoid it. I want to know. If I'm paranoid schizophrenic, I want to know it," he laughs.
"So it was a moment in writing the book (that proved) I'd come a long way. To be gay in the '30s, '40s, '50s is not a good idea because, in my experience, it was generally considered to be the worst possible thing you could be. So I pretended not to be. I pretended to be somebody else. But I had a good time, too, and a creative time, too. It's not as if that were the only aspect of my life. But it's a heavy, heavy burden to be living in pretense all the time," he sighs.
While he was writing the book, he experienced a revelation.
"Oh, God, I can hardly talk about it," he says, his eyes misting over. "Something opened for me. It was almost like an angel put its hand on my head and said, 'It's over. This whole homophobic thing that you've ingested through osmosis is OVER.' It's a totally benign fact. It doesn't make you good. It doesn't make you bad. Being straight doesn't make you good, and it doesn't make you bad. It's totally benign. It's a life experience that your soul or whatever has chosen, totally benign, and also not even very interesting."
"That happened and two weeks later I was talking about it on television - my most deeply guarded secret, my deepest fear of being outed because my career depended on it not being, and I depended on it not being outed. And I was suddenly talking about it on national television with no fear at all. It was unbelievable. I would say that if grace exists, that was my moment of grace."
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