Lessons from troubled dad
Richard Chamberlain says playing the role of Dr. Austin Sloper in 'The Heiress' hits close to home.
Richard Chamberlain is putting a lot of his father, Charles, into his role as Dr. Austin Sloper in the Pasadena Playhouse production of "The Heiress," Ruth and Augustus Goetz's 1947 adaptation of Henry James' "Washington Square." The drama begins previews next week and opens April 29.
Set in 1850s New York, "The Heiress" revolves around the wealthy physician's domineering relationship with his plain-Jane daughter, Catherine, and his disapproval of her handsome suitor, whom he believes is a fortune hunter. Basil Rathbone was nominated for a Tony in 1948 for his performance as Sloper in the Broadway production; Ralph Richardson earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal in the 1949 film classic directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland in her Academy Award-winning performance.
"I don't think he is a villain," said Chamberlain of Sloper.
"I think he becomes obsessed with this competition with this young man. And he is such a controlling man. I can think of my father. He was extremely dominating in the household. Bullies are easy to scare if you really stand up to them. At the end of the play, she stands up to him and he just wilts."
The actor, a youthful, almost boyish 78, did try to stand up to his father, who had been a heavy drinker until Chamberlain was 9, then became a tireless worker for Alcoholics Anonymous.
"But he just mowed me down," he said over his lunch break from rehearsals. "He was a very powerful man. But in my father's case and, I think, in Dr. Sloper's case, there is something damaged underneath that needs that protection of winning and dominating and having the big chair. There is something very missing in people like that."
Chamberlain said he finds playing his father to be cathartic.
"There is one scene in the play where he is totally, absolutely cruel to her when they return from Europe and he's sick," said Chamberlain. "It is the most awful scene, but it's actually fun to play. Fun may be the wrong word -- really interesting to play -- to actually feel the depth of sheer cruelty to the most innocent of persons."
The revival's director, Damasco Rodriguez, said Chamberlain is a total gentleman. "It is surprising to find out he is 78," he said. "He is only that age because the facts say so. He is really sharp and fit.
"There is a tendency in the rehearsal room to say, 'Wow, we are in the room with Richard Chamberlain.' But once we are working, he is just one of the company. Dr. Sloper is this dominate presence over his daughter and also a figure in the community, so Richard just brings this charisma we know him for, but the authority of experience and the ability to command a room just being in it."
Though Chamberlain is best known as the noble "Dr. Kildare" in the 1960s series that made him famous and for his leading roles in the 1980 miniseries "Shogun" and 1983's "The Thorn Birds," he is no stranger to theater. In fact, in 1959 he became one of the founders of the Company of Angels theater troupe , which is still in existence in downtown L.A.
"A bunch of actors were working with [actor and acting coach] Jeff Corey," he recalled. "None of us could get work and we decided to form our own theater company. Somehow we got funds together and rented a little odd space and started putting on plays. We did 'The Caine Mutiny' and 'La Ronde,' and it was deliriously wonderful to do that."
He also starred with Mary Tyler Moore in one of the legendary Broadway flops of all time -- the 1966 musical version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," which closed after four previews on Broadway.
"It was first-class, very expensive and nothing worked," he said.
Oddly enough, Edward Albee ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") was brought in to rewrite the book. "We got a new director.... I think I began to get shoved a little bit aside. It became a very dark musical 'Virginia Woolf,' and the audience hated it. [Producer] David Merrick closed the show with an enormous pre-sale. He returned all the money. It just broke my heart when it closed."
© 2012 Los Angeles Times
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