Richard Chamberlain 'Once I wanted to die. Now I'm so in love with life'
If Richard Chamberlain is considering unpredictable career moves, it's no more than he's done for the last 20 years, even since Dr. Kildare came to an end. He was also what passed for bankable in the early Sixties, and was offered a handful of attractive, and lucrative, TV series.
Instead, he did the unthinkable - he came to England and played Hamlet for the Birmingham Rep. The move could have led him falling flat on his face; and even if the reviews were good, what goes on in Birmingham matters little in Hollywood.
"I did it against everyone's advice," he recalls. "I turned it down at first but then I woke up at three one morning, and realised I had to do it."
At one stage, it looked like a bad decision - director Peter Dews called him into his office after three weeks' rehearsal. "I counted on you," he recalls Dews telling him, "but it's not going very well." Indeed it wasn't. Chamberlain remembers being "terrified and intimated by these young actors all around me, some of them just out of drama school, but very articulate and confident."
However, things took a sharp turn for the better, and the play was an unexpected triumph.
After returning to America, he drifted back to Britain - staying four years this time to appear in movies like The Music Lovers and Lady Caroline Lamb. Again, he was warned that he would regret it.
Clearly then, he is not a man to be swayed by easy options. Yet for all this apparent self-confidence, he says he has only found contentment in the last decade.
"I was terribly unhappy in my 20s," he admits. He found it hard to form any relationships. "I didn't know how to take care of myself, in terms of saying what I wanted. We're all taught to ignore the dark side of our natures - to say not what we think, but what the other person wants to hear."
His success as Dr. Kildare came as a double-edged sword. Instant public recognition meant he had problems responding to people as Richard Chamberlain, rather than the handsome young medic. "We all gravitate towards industries that challenge us," he reflects. "It's a deep problem with me, learning how not to deal with people from the aspect of image."
So he went through life, as he puts it, "self-conscious and inhibited. When I was around 40, I was very attracted by the idea of staying young. When I actually turned 40, I nearly wanted to kill myself. I was very depressed for two years."
"I used to maintain a certain distance from other people, but I'm learning how to get beyond that, into better, closer relationships. There is this sense in Hollywood that anything you do which isn't part of the business is completely without validity or importance.
"People here don't seem to know that other things - like travel or reading - exist. Any number of things that are wonderful to do. I used to be completely career-orientated, until maybe five or six years ago. I fell for all that. When I wasn't working I was really vulnerable and shaky."
The destructive pattern was abruptly broken when Chamberlain met a man called Dr. Brugh Joy, who was to become his mentor and spiritual guide (he recoils at the word guru). Dr. Joy is a practitioner of holistic healing, which combines a psychological, spiritual and physical approach to health.
Chamberlain frequently accompanies the doctor on retreats - one immediately followed by the rigorous work he put in to The Thorn Birds. Now he insists his current situation "is, by a billion times, the best period of my life. I'm now excited by the problems I have."
It's tempting to reply that, looking the way he does at his age, he can afford to feel comfortable. He still has a boyish demeanour; his hair flops over his brow, his skin is clear and he moves with an easy energetic grace, giving an impression of physical strength held in reserve. But for all his present inner calm, and the look of detached amusement, his role as Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds took its toll.
The handsome Irish priest agonises over whether he should consummate his passion for the beautiful Australian heroine, Meggie played by Rachel Ward. Theirs is a love which will damn Ralph in the eyes of his Maker, thwart his ambition in the church and torment him for the rest of his days. Chamberlain observes: "Ralph is a really terrifying guy to play, because of the complexity of his desires. He loves God, he love Meggie, and he loves the glamour and wealth of the Church."
Chamberlain turned into something of a recluse for long periods on set. "There were times," he admits, "when I really didn't want to be with people." And one day, in exasperation at his own acting, he thumped a camera seat so hard, he broke his hand.
Ironically, in view of the grief the role caused him, but predictably (this is Hollywood, after all), The Thorn Birds' success has "led to a lot of offers to play more tortured priests." Would he make a good priest in real-life? "I think I might be a fir-to-middling one," he concedes. "But although I live alone, I like to have people around me a lot, so I'm not really solitary." But Chamberlain's personal life is the subject of much speculation, the details of which he keeps a closely guarded secret. "If I told everyone about my private life, it wouldn't be private any more, would it?" he asks.
"I like privacy. I don't lead a life that is fascinating to anybody but me. I always imagine people like Mick Jagger could write volumes about their private life, because one imagines it's intriguing. But I don't think I could write volumes about mine."
This much he will confess: he's a confirmed bachelor, living high above Beverly Hills in a three-bedroomed home that he has spent almost two years remodelling in a Japanese design.
"I think that when you change your home, it's often an outward sigh of some inner change." When it's finished, it will be "full of light and freedom, spacious, comfortable and simple."
"My last house - the one Kildare built - was full of antiques and cluttered up. Every space was filled with something. I just felt that was necessary then."
He has a secretary and housekeeper now, and other homes in Hawaii and New York. "I live relatively simple," he says. "I don't have mansions, a lot of cars, or a huge entourage. My whole life is disorganised chaos. Very few of my closest friends are in the business - some are artists, some writers, one leads a river-rafting team." His colleagues also tend to see little of the inner Richard Chamberlain. Thorn Birds producer Stan Margulies admits: " worked with Richard but I certainly don't know all of him. There is a professional side of him that is smooth, fun-loving and full of jokes. But believe me, the private Richard is very private."
Jokey? Well, he does say of obligatory love scenes - if only on film: "There's a microphone hidden in your armpit and another in the sheets. You worry about her wig, shadows across your face, and staying at the right angle. Your arm is giving out because you've been sitting above her for three hours on the same elbow, and you're trying not to smear her lipstick or make slurry sounds when you kiss."
But it adds up to a quirky, odd portrait of a man who has become one of America's leading actors. However, insists Chamberlain, he is now starting to take his future in his own hands.
He has become an actor-producer, a logical step for someone whose admirers already regard him as the next Barrymore. As a producer, he has a deal with America's TV network to deliver at least two movies of his choice with scripts that he's developed.
"It's a new sense of responsibility for me. Rather than just deciding whether to accept or reject whatever scripts are offered, I can take a much broader look at film. This is something I'm growing into. I'm one of the century's late bloomers," he smiles, knowing only too well that Hollywood is riddled with whiz-kid producers in their twenties.
"The most fun I've had in my career has been breaking through the preconceived ideas that people have had about me," he says.
That's why Kildare went straight into Hamlet and a long exile in England. It's also why he did two musketeer movies which sent up his dashing leading-man image. "It's easy to live according to your image of yourself, and what you know is safe. I've come to realise that real living happens on the edge - where there is an element of risk," he says. But does it make him happy? "Oh yes," he says animatedly, "I'm happy with the way things are- I like where I'm going." And once again, Hollywood's most bankable TV actor lets the laugh lines show.
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