Out, proud and happy: Richard Chamberlain embraces his inner goofball as King Arthur
Richard Chamberlain, 74, is the latest celebrity to take on a role in "Spamalot." And not to diss the youngsters, but we're betting he brings a lot more to the show than, oh, Clay Aiken. With close to half a century of solid show business behind him, the former teen heartthrob (Dr. Kildare), King of the Mini-Series (Shogun, the Thorn Birds, the Count of Monte Cristo) and acclaimed Shakespearian stage actor (Hamlet, Richard II) could easily be resting on his laurels in the Hawaiian home he shares with Martin Rabbett, his partner of 33 years. Instead, Chamberlain is hoofing it through eight shows a week and travelling on his day off. And, he says, loving every moment of it.
"This show is so nuts and so crazed and so off the wall. And that's a part of my personality that I seldom get to use," he said in an interview shortly before beginning "Spamalot" rehearsals. "I'm actually a very silly person."
Unlike "Hamlet" and "Richard II," "Spamalot" is – of course- a very silly show. Based on Monty Python's skewed version of the Legends of King Arthur and Camelot, it opened in Chicago and continued to Broadway in 2005, picking up three Tonys (Best Musical, Director and Featured Actress) that year.
"Of course it's easier than Hamlet or Richard," said Chamberlain, "But it's tricky material. One must never let on that one thinks one is funny. If you do that, it's all over. "Anyway, I feel like I start at zero with every new role," he added. "There's almost a necessary insecurity. The moment you start thinking you've mastered something, you start to get a little slick. And that's not good."
Chamberlain has mastered much, both offstage and on, over the course of a life that could provide the plot for a miniseries like those he so excelled in throughout the 1970s and early '80s. For more than 60 years, he maintained what he calls the Richard Chamberlain Magic Show, presenting the illusion of a dashing straight man. Hollywood made millions. Women and girls swooned. Chamberlain, a gay man, lived in a painful closet.
"I grew up when being gay was the absolute worst thing you could be," he recalled. "Constantly pretending to be something you aren't – it's a rotten, rotten way to live your life. For almost my entire life, I had this fear that there was something horribly wrong with me. I'd been in a stable, loving relationship for 32 years, and I was still certain that I was somehow irrevocably broken."
"Martin," he added of his of the man he met while working on "The Night of the Iguana" in 1976, "'was pushed into the background during the heights of my career. I'd be squiring lady friends around everywhere, and never talking about him. That was horrible for him. He's younger than I am by 20 years, so his fears weren't nearly as embedded as mine were." But all those embedded fears were somehow dislodged when Chamberlain began penning 2003's "Shattered Love: A Memoir." Unlike most celebrity "autobiographies," Chamberlain wrote his without the help of a ghost-writer.
"It was almost as if an angel put their hand on my head and said, 'Richard. Enough of this,' " he recalled. "And suddenly, there I was on television, talking about the book and all of my secrets without the slightest bit of fear."
"The basic question of the book isn't about being gay or straight. It's about whether it's possible - or even desirable - to live a life with an open heart all the time. Our culture would say 'no,' – you have to be touch. You can't be vulnerable. But I think the answer is yes. Because love is our absolute source of strength," he continued.
"When we deny and abandon that, we deny and abandon ourselves. We force ourselves to live in a mode of flight and constant resentment. "
Since coming out, Chamberlain says he's had nothing but support and good-wishes from fans. "I'll be walking through the airport, and somebody'll come up and say, 'Good for you!' " he said. Even so, he's under no illusion that the world is all puppies and lollipops and rainbows.
"Society moves at a glacial pace," he said. "Look at Proposition 8. Mormons put millions of dollars into promoting disastrous lies. Saying gays are trying to corrupt all your children. Those fears still linger.
"Hatred," he continued, "has its pleasures. It's great to feel morally superior to everybody else."
But it's not hate that Chamberlain focuses on these days. "I want to live more openheartedly. I want to be a better friend. I want to keep working," he said. "I love it when my phone rings and people say 'We need you for such and such.' It just makes me happy."
Richard Chamberlain Online