Richard Chamberlain Is he Hollywood's most puzzling star? (Part 2)
If Dick Chamberlain's desire to become a star burned deeper than most it was also more carefully hidden.
Hypersensitive, he didn't want to get laughed at, either by the kids or at home. Today Dick is different. He likes to laugh and be laughed at - and even considers himself something of a comedian.
Dick Chamberlain always liked the girls and girls liked him. He wooed them one at a time - as he does today - and he had his first "date" at six. He can't remember her name but after her came Arden, the baby doll. Next Arlene, a brown-haired girl who liked to play games, took over; then it was June, who was a tease; and finally Anne, more on the sweet side but a bittersweet memory to Dick.
"I bought her a heart-shaped box of candy for Valentine's Day," he remembers. "But when I got up nerve enough to ring her door bell there was another boy already there - with a bigger box. He stayed. I crept home in humiliation and dismay. All that money wasted!"
Whether he sat with a girl or just by himself Dick Chamberlain never counted the money he spent at the films wasted. The kid shows were bargains. He could stare all day long as western after western reeled off. He went in for cliff-hanging serials and horror epics.
"There was one where a maniac went around blowing up buildings and murdering people en masse," recalls Dick. "That was for me."
If the film got dull the kids took over. Squirt guns were unlimbered and the air was filled with popcorn boxes, tinfoil balls and paper gliders.
Dick knew that if he were up there on screen such bored protests would never break loose, and he promised himself that in some comfortably remote future that's exactly what would come about. Flushed with this anticipated triumph he entered a Halloween costume contest. His mother spent a week fashioning a pirate's costume and, when his turn came, Dick trotted proudly out on stage. There was a weak ripple of applause. He stood in the wings waiting hopefully as winners were announced. Dick got nothing. He dragged home, stunned and unbelieving.
"But, looking back," says Dick, "maybe that was the challenge." If so, it lay unanswered for a good long time. Soon after, Dick went on to Beverly Hills High and his world became crowded with other matters. He was fourteen but already six-feet-one, "a deadpanned, skinny stringbean," as Dick describes himself unglamorously, "with long, greasy blond hair." As usual he figured himself a total loss in the wake of his big brother. As usual, Bill was long gone - to college - leaving his glorious record behind for Dick to buck. Bill had starred in football, basketball and athletics, was a social sensation with boys and especially girls. He was voted "Handsomest Man In School" at graduation.
Dick had no such great expectations.
"I wanted to go to college," he says simply. "I knew college was important. I knew I'd have to pass exams to make it. So I worked." Dick got a solid "B" average all four years. But success breeds success. Once he got in the main groove, it was surprising how easily others opened up. By graduation Richard Chamberlain's record was nothing to sniff at, even stacked up against his brother Bill's.
He sprinted four years on the school track team - 100 and 220 yards - and while he didn't always win at the interscholastic meets he usually placed. He also headed the Drama Club.
Still, as one classmate remembers, "You couldn't say Dick Chamberlain was terrifically popular at Beverly High. Respected is more like it. He was the kind you just naturally elected to offices and things. He had a sort of quiet authority."
He showed up at the dances after basketball games in the big school gym, or at the country clubs scattered around where proms and class balls were held. But he was never the life of any big party. Bill Chamberlain's wife, Pat, remembers that Dick, late in his teens, could come into a gathering at their house and be so quiet that you'd never notice he was there.
Dick was different around his own close set of pals - Dick Hall. Don Tinsley, Billy Ruggles, Vernon Lohr and Travis Reed and their steadies. Naturally, Dick had one, too.
Donna was the kind of girl he always chose - pretty, peppy but femininely sweet. Usually somebody could promote a family car; and if there wasn't a dance or a film all wanted to see, they could always drive up into the hills, park and as Dick grins, "neck in the back seat."
But the most fun was roaring off to California's handy mountains, desert or beach on weekends for picnics and sport. Dick liked the beach best because he's found a way to casually stroll off the public strand into the private Del Mar Club and blandly assume the privileges of a member. All it took was a cool head and a bit of acting.
Among the scores of forget-me-nots which classmates scribbled on Dick's last copy of the Beverly High's year book, "The Watchtower," is one which reads: "To a wonderful guy, and a terrific artist."
So painting, Dick Chamberlain decided, was his major talent and it would be art he's go after for his life's work.
After graduation, he enrolled at Pomona College, in Claremont, to study art.
Claremont is only thirty-five miles from Beverly Hills, but except for the mountain backdrop and sunshine it could be in another land.
All of the students soon knew Chamberlain. From the start and in various ways, he was a marked man.
"Dick's only problem was holding the girls off," remembers his friend Bob Towne. "More girls were after him than he knew what to do with. You couldn't blame them. He was as good, maybe even better-looking then than he is now. I had early morning classes with Dick and I never saw him with a hair out of place, a whisker or, for that matter, a smudge on his face."
In one way or another the spotlight focused on Dick all his four years at Pomona. If he wasn't winning a trophy at an art exhibition, he was starring in a theatrical production.
He loved art and was good. His paintings won prizes and he even sold some to Pomona students.
"Dick has real talent, still has," says Martin Green, who should know. "He could have been a fine painter, especially in ordered abstractions and geometrical subject matter. He was especially good in greys, blacks and whites."
As school slipped by, something was happening to Dick, and he knew it.
"I was thinking less and less about painting and more and more about acting." he says.
"I think the turning point for Dick was when he did Shaw's 'Arms And The Man,'" believes Bob Towne. "He did a brilliant job."
Virginia Allen, head of Pomona's Drama Department, thought the same thing.
"I'm considering trying to be an actor instead of a painted," Dick told her. "Should I?"
She thought a minute.
"Yes," she said. "I think you should."
It was too late by then to change his college course, but from then on Dick Chamberlain knew what he was after.
He told Bob Towne flatly, "I'm going to act. It's not such a lonesome life. Besides, I think that I can give more and get more."
"I was amazed, really," says Bob. "Dick was handsome, sure, talented - yes. But where was the conceit and the ego? I still don't know."
At any rate, Dick had only one thought in mind - getting somewhere in Hollywood. For the first time in his life, nothing, not even a girl, sidetracked that idea.
Dick says he broke up with Joan, his steady of two years, about that time when she got too serious.
Only four months after Dick drove home from Pomona, the Army nabbed him.
That was a blow Dick hadn't counted on.
It was the beginning of two years which, in Dick Chamberlain's book, add up to one long, frustrated waste.
Private Chamberlain left for a place called Camp Hovey, thirty miles in from Seoul.
"If there was anything around there worth seeing or doing, I never discovered it," says Dick. "The most uplifting activity was drinking beer."
Even less exciting than the scenery was Dick's job - company clerk. "I had to do all the paper work," says Dick. "It took me eight months before I was really on top of that job."
They rewarded him with a corporal's stripes and finally a staff sergeant's.
"Until Dr. Kildare," he says, "I had never worked so hard in my life."
Dick spent his final service weeks at Fort MacArthur, right out of Los Angeles. Then he was free at long last, but loaded with problems.
"Briefly, they were, no money, no place to live, no experience and no contacts," sums up Dick.
His first attempts to get all four were pretty discouraging. For three months he lived at home, but Dick soon discovered that Tom Wolfe was right: You can't go home again. His family was sympathetic with his ambition, but nobody exactly cheered. How could they? He was just one of a thousand others with the same long odds against him.
"I didn't want to take money from my folks, but I did," says Dick. "I had to have lessons and I had to eat."
He also had to pay £20 a month for a Hollywood flat.
The years 1958-1959 are not rose-tinted in Dick's Memory.
Dick expresses it neatly: "There's nothing so depressing as being on the outside of show business, trying to get in."
And that's it.
Of course, it's also the oldest story in Hollywood. For the brash, the brassy, the thick-skinned, it can be an exciting game. But the sensitive suffer. Dick had never failed helplessly at thin air before. Always some good things had come his way, whether he really enjoyed them or not. Now nothing, and nobody seemed to care.
"I almost went out of my mind," Dick admits.
"Still, I was lucky," Dick believes today. "All that time I had very wise people keeping tab on me and cracking down."
Two were Carolyn Trojanowski and Jeff Corey. Low or not, Dick never stopped taking lessons. And they weren't always encouraging.
Jeff Corey is a drama expert who has helped such stars as Tony Perkins, Gardner McKay, Diane Varsi and Tony Quinn.
"The thing I liked about Dick," he says, "was his sensitivity and charm. He had a lot of good stuff."
For a long time few around Hollywood saw more than a handsome, mannerly, young man who'd like a job acting. Only the ones who got to know him became boosters. Everybody liked him; nobody gave him a job.
He was always, "Not quite right."
Dick, however, takes some of the blame.
"I think it was largely my own fault," says Dick today. "I froze up on interviews. When they asked me to read I read badly. I couldn't sell myself. They could see I was no professional - not yet, anyway."
"No, Dick wasn't," agrees Al Tresconi, M-G-M's casting chief. "But if you have it in the eyes - you have it."
Tresconi had nothing cooking then to put Dick in, but he made a mental note: good bet for a long-term M-G-M contract.
That's exactly what Dick finally got, of course, but not until his wide eyes had opened considerably wider by the hotfoots of show business. His very first "break" in a TV film turned into exactly one line which he delivered with three other people, yelling "Goodbye" to a wedding party.
There was a film, too - The Secret Of The Purple Reef, and again Dick's hopes rocketed up only to descend with a thud when they scissored his part to nothing.
"I got by", he sums up, "with an occasional loan from home, my chauffeur job and the odd small acting part."
Was he discouraged?
"It was scary at times, sure," Dick allows calmly. "That's why I never stopped those lessons. I realised I wouldn't get steady work until I learned a lot. When I had - well, the break came along."
The break Dick means was when powerful M.C.A. took him on as a client. A friend of his family's, Jack Bailey, raced him in there.
As agents, M.C.A. thought big and acted the same way. All through 1960, as M-G-M waded carefully into television, Dick knocked steadily at M-G-M's door. He went there first to make a Western. Next, Dick tried out for a tentative half-hour version of Dr. Kildare. Nobody wanted it at first so that effort was dropped. He showed up again for another TV film. He wasn't the type.
Then Dr. Kildare came up again - a big hour show now with the works behind it. M.C.A. shot Dick right out again. This time M-G-M invited him to stay. That was December, 1960.
Of course, it wasn't that simple. It never is. For a time both Dr. Kildare and Dick Chamberlain were on trial. Launching a major TV series is something like a blast off at Canaveral. If it goes into orbit, everybody's a hero; if it fizzles, they come up fools. Dick knew that thirty-five other actors with far bigger "names" than his had tested for Jim Kildare. He also knew that one big reason he got it was because he came cheaper than most. The money wasn't too important, but the opportunity was. Once again, Dick was where he seemed always to land - in the spotlight and yet all alone.
In this respect things changed hardly at all for Dick when Director Boris Sagal saw rushes of the first Kildare show, hustled up to the front office and told anxious M-G-M executives, "Stop worrying!" Ulcers healed magically all over the lot.
From the start Dick's poker mask has made it all look ridiculously easy. It never was.
"The first year," says a director who guided him often," Dick got by mainly on his nerve and his good looks."
Raymond Massey adds benevolently. "Dick has grown an awful lot in this job."
But there has been growing pains, too. Most are connected with Dick's period of adjustment to life as a public figure. Psychologically, he wasn't cut out for that.
Secure on the set, Dick is comfortable, as he always has been in a tight little group who know him, work with him, have learned to like and understand him.
The other day, Bill Sargent, an actor friend of Dick's with a small part, found himself without a light in his dressing-room. Dick noticed Bill struggling to dress in the dark, politely asked an electrician for a fixture, then installed it himself, rather than make even a minor fuss.
Yet, barely a year ago, after Dick was interviewed on TV before a live audience of women, he stepped off the stage, clutched his stomach, and mumbled to Chuck Painter, "I think I'm going to be sick!"
Last summer in New York he cautiously timed his arrivals at Broadway shows so that he could walk up to his seat in the dark, and leave before the lights went up.
"Dick's improved. Now he's more self-confident in a crowd," believes Painter, who is usually at his side. But he complains: "I never seem to be ready."
Dick was ready enough to score a vocal hit in his live TV debut, singing "Manhattan" with Shirley Jones - as smooth as if he's been doing that sort of thing all his life. But only his voice coach, Dick, and a few people close to him know how he worked and worried every day until the show went on air.
One bunch was his Kildare crew, who sent him a gag wire to break the tension right before his number: "MY DADDY IS LETTING ME STAY UP LATE TONIGHT TO HEAR YOU SING, CAROLINE KENNEDY." Someone else, even closer, knew about the lonely fights Dick stages with himself to come through cool, calm and perfect in a challenge like that.
"I knew Dick would be up to it. He's up to anything," says Clara Ray. "But my heart ached to be there backing him up."
Instead, Clara was in Houston on a singing engagement. All she could do was send another wire: "GIVE'EM BOTH BARRELS, SWEETIE."
That's precisely what Dick Chamberlain has been doing, of course, ever since he started stalking an acting career in his solitary way. The method's hard to beat; nothing succeeds like success.
Today, Dick explains himself like this: "Right now it's important to me to satisfy myself as an actor, a singer and an all-round performer. I still take these lessons because I realised long ago that I'd never get what I wanted unless I did. After you go around for months without getting a job you tell yourself, 'Wait a minute, something's wrong!' What was wrong with me was that I wasn't worth anything to anyone, so nobody wanted me. I've been extremely lucky. My break at M-G-M came after a long fallow period. I'm grateful. But I wasn't sure I wanted to do a TV series when I started. I know now I don't want to do one forever, even if that were possible. The question with me is: After Dr. Kildare, then what?
"I think I'll end up on the stage," Dick continues. "I've found I love it and I think my future's there more than TV or even films. So I'm preparing, that's all. Sure, I like fun and people as well as the next guy. It's a constant frustration with me not to be able to join in more. Only right now I simply don't have the time."
What free time Dick has he spends mostly with Clara Ray.
Clara Rays's own career often takes her out of Hollywood singing. But when she's home, "Clara and Dickie," as they call each other, make a duo. Sometimes Clara cooks Dick a steak at her tiny Hollywood apartment while he works up an appetite on her piano; other nights the same scene shifts to Dick's hideaway. When they're feeling grand they dress up and dine at Windsor House or Trader Vic's for Dick's favourite Polynesian food.
On rare workless weekends, they usually head for the beach. Thursday nights, or course, TV is a must.
To Clara, Dick is "a marvellous person, so dependable and sweet, and we couldn't have more fun together."
But when you mention marriage, she gazes demurely off into space "Why," she says innocently, "we've never had that on our minds at all!"
Dick's more explicit: "Marriage? Lord, no - not now," he protests. "I want to be married someday, of course. I think that's probably the greatest adventure of all - and the most ticklish. Too many people toss it away. I might if I married now. I'm just not ready yet. Say, when I'm about thirty-two."
If Dick Chamberlain does wait until he's thirty-two to make a home and found his own family, with Clara Ray or anyone else, he runs the risk of missing out on a hunk of important living, which even the most glorious career might not make up for.
By then, unless they run out of patients, Dr. Kildare might still be hogging the TV screen, or Dick Chamberlain might be the toast of Broadway. Either way, chances are he'll be rich. Already Dick makes four times the £500 a week, plus his loot from recordings. He is also starring in a couple of films.
What he makes now Dick socks carefully away into a savings account. He took on a business manager the other day, though he has no financial plans.
"We'll see," he says cagily. "Frankly, I love money and I intend to save it and keep it."
"Dick is always talking about buying a new car or a house," says Clara Ray. "I don't think he'll do either soon. He's cautious and intelligent about his money."
"The house is one thing," Dick admits, "I want very much. I'd like to find a lot high in the hills with a wonderful view, and build a place to suit my own needs. Then," he grins, "I'd really be on top of the world."
But it could be, too, by that time he's add up to a crusty old bachelor still looking for the real Dick Chamberlain to step forward. For Dick faces the trap most super-serious actors face: all art and no reality can come up artificiality. And so far Dick's street is distressingly one-way.
"More than anyone I know," says a close friend, "Dick needs the anchor of a wife, the stability of a home, a family."
If Dr. Kildare could prescribe for Dick Chamberlain, a wife might be just what he's order. Not only to banish the essential loneliness Dick has known all his life, but to dispel his fears and crack the bland, boyish mask he wears for the world. It still hides the fascinating man underneath, still makes Dick Chamberlain seem to most people what he is not. For it is the mask - and the mask alone - that keeps people from knowing how much more than a boy he is.
Only the other day, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, Dick wandered into a shop, went through the magazine rack and came up with a "Dr. Kildare" comic book. He went over to the counter to pay.
The cashier looked at the comic book and then up and down at Dick. "That'll be ten cents," she stated.
He gave her the money and waited silently while she dropped it into the till.
"Thank you," she said "- little boy."
(This article is courtesy of MC. The transcript is © 2007 Darren Smith.)
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