23 Years After Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain's Back In Practice
Thirteen miles northwest of Honolulu, where the sky isn't entirely obscured by high-rises, is Pearl City, a place that rampant civilization has filled with fast-foods, truck and U-Haul rentals and a Nabisco warehouse. If Michelin published The Guide to Blue-Collar Hawaii, you could find Pearl City on any page. With this exception: just a few blocks off the Moanalua Freeway, on Oihana Place, commerce has been converted into art - sort of. What was Timber Town, a 40,000-square-foot home-improvement mart, is now home to Island Son, the new CBS series starring Richard Chamberlain - TV's Dr. Kildare from 1961 to 1966 - as the dashing-but-caring Dr. Daniel Kulani, who can mend a broken psyche with as much dexterity as he would treat the most common ailment in TV doctor shows - a subdural hematoma.
Inside this curious place, the original departmental signs on the brick walls haven't been painted out. Here you'll see "Appliance/Electronics"; there you'll find "Lumber/Paint/Plumbing." Snaking past them are the sets for an entire hospital.
Even more unusual is that filming is as brisk as on any other TV show, but there are no self-important crew members constantly screaming, "Quiet!" The people working here are naturally quiet. Or Hawaiianized. Richard says, "Sometimes when I'm in Los Angeles and I call here to talk to people I work with, they sound drugged ‘cause the pace, the rhythm is so different. And when I'm here it's amazing to watch people from the mainland, especially if they come in from New York. But it usually only takes about three days to mellow out the real hard-nosed speed machines. There's a wonderful basic humanity here, an availableness on a very personal level, a real sweetness. It's not puritanically sinful to enjoy life."
Hawaii seems to be the logical link in a chain of self-awareness and expansion for the actor, who has been through Gestalt therapy, meditation and intuition development. In his trailer between scenes, he talks of visiting a "healing kahuna" (master) as research. "To them, healing is a much broader subject than just giving herbs, which might be likened to modern medicine. It has to do with working with energy, with the fact that there's some kind of spiritual possession of the ill person. The kahuna asked me whether I had any problems, and I said I has a perennial crick in my neck. So he starts working on it, and it's been gone ever since." His blue eyes widen with enthusiasm. "The early Hawaiians felt very much in tune with nature. They spoke to the sea, to the trees. The trees and birds spoke back, and they were very, very close, like primitive people often are. I feel incredibly at home with that."
Tell us, Richard, what do you and the trees talk about?
He laughs. "I have an old friend here a pure Hawaiian woman who says she never enters any kind of wilderness area without asking permission of the spirits of the place. Not to do so would be like walking into a stranger's living room without knocking. Every time I go swimming now, in my mind I say to the ocean, ‘May I come in?' The ocean doesn't say, ‘Yeah, come on in,' but what you get is a feeling of welcome. And you think: Well, why not? I'm part of this I'm - what? - 85% sea water anyway. If my distant ancestors came out of this, why shouldn't I feel at home?"
Having leased out his L.A. place, he's truly at home here, in a house on the west coast of Oahu, 30 minutes from the studio. "I bought it 12 years ago. It's a little beach house, three bedrooms and a kid of kitchen-living room, very simple, way out in the tullies. It's a part of the island that's unknown to tourists and to a lot of people who live here because the road dead-ends 20 minutes past my place." But not for long. A Japanese company is planning to build a $2 billion resort 6 miles away.
Life, he says, is simple. Hawaiians don't pounce on his celebrity, and nobody bothers him in the 7-Eleven. "I like to mess around in the ocean, scuba and body surfing. And I cook a mean breakfast, pineapples and macadamianut pancakes, and clean up and take care of the dogs - all that stuff real people do." The dogs, he insists, shall remain nameless. "I don't want somebody coming by and calling them by name. It's a porous community, with a lot of petty theft." Is he afraid of dognappers? He raises an eyebrow and smiles. "There's an old Hawaiian custom of sharing things. If you write about the dogs, call them Spot and Rex."
Richard's feelings about Hawaii, he says, were a large factor in doing this series. "I was born in L.A. so I have the right to say I'm tired of it. You've had so many lunches that you don't care to remember anymore. And, though I love doing miniseries - and I'd do them again - I'm tired of hotel rooms, of suitcases. I'm tired of airports. I love this crew, I love being here, and it's kind of like a steady job, which I've been longing for for a long time. In the past three years, every time I came here it got harder to leave. I feel better here. I like myself better. So I thought: ‘Why just have this as a vacation place? Why not have it as your whole life?' And the way to do that was to do a series here. So some friends of mine and I started kicking around ideas."
But does the world really need another doctor show?
"It's such a natural arena for human drama that we'll never really get tired of doctor shows like we did of Westerns, for instance. It just seems to be much more of an entrée into people's deep, deep lives."
The interviewer has a sudden, horrific thought: Will the success of Island Son encourage a riot of medical shows?
"I'm not gonna comment on that," he says, unleashing a staccato, infectious laugh, sounding like Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm. "The variety of stories we can do is endless. My hope, as we get into a second or third season … knock wood …" He knuckles his head. "… is that the show takes on a more and more Hawaiian personality. These islands are so special and so beautiful, and when they're gone, when they're all paved over, I think humanity will be so much poorer … It makes me so sad that human beings can't seem to encounter anything that they don't want to cover with concrete."
He shrugs. "Well, by then I'll be dead. I'll be bored to death because there won't be any beauty left. Then I can watch TV - ‘Elvis Goes Hawaii'."
He needs to get ready for a scene. Reaching for a black leather make-up kit, he says he has to look into his "monster mirror." His interviewer asks to see it, and he says, "Have you made peace with the world and everything?" Its triple magnification is indeed monstrous. "On a bad morning you don't want to look into it."
Staring at his reflection, Richard, now 54, shrugs. "We Americans have psyched ourselves into the belief that we have to be young all the time and that the minute we're not young anymore, we're worthless and should be thrown out. Well, this goes against all the wisdom of the ages. The whole point of living is to acquire some tiny degree of wisdom, some rapprochement with life, which is often such a bitch. So our battle scars, our wrinkles or whatever, should be looked upon with pride. When I was in my 20s I was obsessed with how I looked and thought the idea of getting older was terrifying. Now I find it rather fascinating, except for the fact that I don't run quite as fast."
He puts the mirror away. "Then I think: Why do I need to run quite as fast? Maybe I'll just sit fast."
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