Chamberlain The Man Who Would Be 'King'
Richard Chamberlain, the king of 1980s television miniseries, sits in his dressing room backstage at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, reflecting on another king who is fueling his multipronged show-biz career.
At 72, the slender, sandy-haired, 6-foot-1 Chamberlain - star of "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," frequent stage headliner and TV series guest star, and author who confronted his demons by coming out about his sexual orientation - is still logging firsts.
He makes his Island stage debut tonight as the king of Siam in the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "The King and I," produced by Hawaii Opera Theatre. It's his first brush with the role, though he's headlined tours of "The Sound of Music" (Capt. Von Trapp) and "My Fair Lady" (Prof. Henry Higgins) in the past.
"Yes, I'm very excited," Chamberlain said in a soft, gentle voice. He's feeling a bit regal a week before opening, though plagued with an ear infection.
"It's so wonderful to work at home ... though people are always surprised that I can sing. In this one, I only have one song, and it's an acting song, not a singer's song, and I'm quite happy with that. I've never been terribly secure as a singer."
But Chamberlain had a Top 10 hit, "Theme from 'Dr. Kildare' (Three Stars Will Shine Tonight)," in 1962. With a recording chapter in his past, Chamberlain said he still gets a jolt of "energy from the orchestra" whenever he takes part in a theatrical musical.
"I love 'The King and I,' " he said. "It's such a wonderful love story that's not quite consummated. The music is so beautiful and the young lovers (referring to the subplot that involves Tuptim and Lun Tha) make this a terrific story."
ANCIENT TO MODERN
He is very much aware that he was not the first choice to be the king.
"I was the last choice," he said, smiling. "They wanted an Asian actor so badly, partly because this is Honolulu and the king is an Asian guy, and while they had Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, he was signed to another movie and couldn't do it.
"There were other wonderful people (like Jason Scott Lee, who played the part in London), but they were too busy. And it was rather late by then to get into casting, so they pulled me from the bottom drawer. But I don't mind; I love doing this and I love the guy."
Through the miracles of makeup - his eyes are lined and almond-shaped to hint at the character's heritage - Chamberlain passes muster in his brocaded costume, curly-toed shoes (size 10 1/2), and a faux emerald ring on a finger.
He sees the king "as a spoiled brat in the beginning. He had an interesting history; he was a monk for some time and his brother usurped the throne till he was fortysomething, so he didn't start (being kingly) till late.
"He's torn apart, really, with one-and-a-half feet in ancient time, which means he has to be absolutely kinglike, absolutely godlike; and he has half a foot in modern times. He doesn't really understand what this entails, especially on a personal, emotional basis.
"Anna, of course, really gets to him, from the beginning. I think he's curiously attracted to her and the love grows. He falls for her. But he has 300 wives," Chamberlain said, laughing wildly, "and that's not going to work out."
HIGH PRAISE FOR CAST
Anna Leonowens, the British school teacher who teaches the king's children and ultimately erases the beast that lives in his soul, is portrayed by Jan Maxwell, a Tony-nominated actress who previously worked with Chamberlain.
"She played the baroness when I was the captain in 'The Sound of Music,' " Chamberlain said. "She was brilliant, just brilliant, and we also worked together in Stockbridge (Mass.) in a play called 'Shadow of Greatness,' and she was brilliant in that, too."
Generous with praise, he said of Maxwell: "She has such an honesty, she can't put a dishonest foot forward. On the other hand, she can go over the top - and I benefit from her honesty. We know and trust each other, so it's a real treat for me."
It's also been a joy working with the ensemble of youngsters. "The kids are going to steal the show," Chamberlain said. "It can't be otherwise. ... These kids are so adorable. There are some little bitty ones, who are really good - absolutely follow orders, very content, they play together. I don't care - they can steal the show."
LIBERATION FROM FEAR
Chamberlain made headlines when his confessional memoir, "Shattered Love," was published in 2003. "The book hasn't been about being gay," he said. "That was a side issue; the book really was about love. Big-time love. But the gay part got the attention, and, idiotically, became an issue."
He said the hubbub was largely a domestic thing. "Not in Europe - who cares? In America, (there's) a deep, deep, deep trough of prejudice and outright dislike, and I had absorbed that as a child. I was terrified of being outed, but things loosened up, and as I was writing the book, I recalled a conversation whether or not I would talk about being gay ... because I knew that would get all the attention.
"There was a moment, sitting in this little room in this house we had in Ma'ili, and it was as if an angel or something, you know, put his or her hand on my head and said, 'Enough of this, enough of this ...,' my own fear.
"It was the most benign issue that ever happened. You tell me you're straight, and what does that tell me about you? I tell you I'm gay, it tells you almost nothing; it's rather an uninteresting fact, really, and who cares?"
Completing the book, Chamberlain said, brought him "a sudden release of my own self-dislike and fear of the subject. So I was selling this book on national television ... totally free, totally fearless. It was like a miracle."
After the book's publication, he'd be at the airport and, he said, "people would tell me, 'Good for you,' and just walk off. It was amazing."
HOME IN THE ISLANDS
Chamberlain, who lives on Maui, is committed to his Island life - for several reasons.
"First, it's not Los Angeles, where I grew up, so I'm at liberty to say that. Second, it is so beautiful. Third, it's non-showbizzy. And fourthly, the people - most of them - are so nice. We lived in Wai'anae for a long time. By chance, we found a house by the sea. It (the area) had a terrible reputation, so the tourists never went out there, so it was great."
Sounding like the Hawai'i Visitors and Convention Bureau, Chamberlain further waxed eloquent about the Islands: "The people are sweet, the air is sweet, the trees and the blossoms are sweet. It's a beautiful place to live and I'm heartbroken this is being covered over by high-rises and freeways and developments.
"You know, in five years, you're not going to be able to see the ocean, even from the mountain. I lived on Makiki Heights; you cannot see the ocean (because) here's this huge wall of high-rises. Pretty soon, only the rich people who occasionally come here and populate these condos will see the ocean. The rest of us might as well be in Chicago. I cannot understand (he gasps) why we allow this to happen."
In 1989, Chamberlain starred in "Island Son," a Hawai'i-based TV series on CBS.
Asked what sentiments he has about the show, he sighed and paused for about half a minute.
"I foolishly (in retrospect) said I'd be this doctor; I was supposed to be a hanai member of an old Hawaiian family and my hanai father was a huge kahuna. They noticed I had talent in that direction (medicine) and they noticed (Hawai'i) was getting more modern; the community gathered together and sent me to Stanford Medical School, so I could come back to the Islands and have one foot in the ancient and one foot in the modern. We thought this was such an idea; we wanted it to be about the Hawai'i we were so fascinated with.
"And the people back in Hollywood said, 'Hawaiian? What culture?' and they wanted 'Dr. Kildare Goes Hawaiian.' I gave ground in the early stages; my agent said you gotta do it, and like an idiot, I did."
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