RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN – HOME, HOME ON THE STAGE
While he has reached iconic stature as television’s Dr. Kildare and for his roles in a string of legendary miniseries, actor Richard Chamberlain says he is, and always has been, most at home on the boards.
"Although there’s a tremendous amount of waiting around, film and television work can be very exciting – doing things out of sequence – backwards and upside down. But when things get rolling, I really do enjoy the process,” said actor Richard Chamberlain. "That said, I feel more at home on the stage. I enjoy the environment of stage work – the rehearsal process and going from beginning to end. I also love being in front of an actual audience instead of a machine.”
Chamberlain is currently enjoying being back at home in front of an audience in the role of Dr. Austin Sloper in The Pasadena Playhouse’s production of "The Heiress,” which will run through May 20.
A Los Angeles native, Chamberlain graduated from Beverly Hills High School, matriculated to Pomona College, co-founded a theatre group, Company of Angels, and began appearing in various television series throughout the 1950s. In 1961, at the age of 27, Chamberlain was cast in a role that would become one of the most iconic in television history – Dr. James Kildare – in the MGM television series "Dr. Kildare,” co-starring with legendary stage and screen star, Raymond Massey.
"Ray and I had first worked together on an ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ episode – which was one of my first jobs in television,” Chamberlain recalled. "I played his son and we got on quite well. So when ‘Dr. Kildare’ came along and he had been cast as Dr. Gillespie, he had approval of who would be cast to play Dr. Kildare. Because we had worked well together, he approved me. He was a wonderful friend and father figure to me. He was generous, kind, funny and just wonderful. I didn’t have a good relationship with my own father, so Ray filled in the gap my father didn’t.”
When "Dr. Kildare” wrapped production after a successful five-season run, Chamberlain returned to the theatre and, in 1968, went to England where he appeared in the BBC’s adaptation of "Portrait of a Lady” and worked in repertory theatre, becoming the first American to play the role of Hamlet in the UK since John Barrymore did so in 1925. The following year, he was cast as Roderick in the Warner Bros./Seven Arts screen production of the satirical dramedy, "The Madwoman of Chaillot,” with Katharine Hepburn.
"She was the most unique human being I ever encountered,” laughed Chamberlain as he recalled working with the great Kate. "She was just incredible and wonderful to work with. She has a gigantic personality that she used brilliantly. She would have her steak and swim every morning, ride her bike to work where she would then proclaim: ‘I like to feel better than anybody,’ and then be in bed by 8:30. She could also be a bit of a bully. I remember her questioning the director (Bryan Forbes) on some things until he finally had enough and expressed his exasperation. She took it all in stride and said: ‘All you had to do is tell me to shut up.’”
Throughout the 1970s, Chamberlain continued appearing in films, including "The Towering Inferno,” "The Three Musketeers,” "The Count of Monte Cristo” and "The Lady’s Not for Burning.” That era also saw him earn the moniker of "King of the Miniseries” for his appearances as Alexander McKeag in "Centennial,” the dual role of Louis XIV of France and his twin brother, Philippe, in "The Man in the Iron Mask,” Major John Blackthome in "Shōgun” and as Father Ralph de Bricassart in "The Thorn Birds.”
"I did some really great miniseries,” said Chamberlain. "It was a wonderful, rich period of using exciting material – these grand novels – to do what were actually very expensive and well-produced productions. The miniseries is a fabulous medium because, it’s halfway between a television series and a feature film. While they are shot much faster than a feature, they are shot much slower that a series episode. You really have the time to work on your character and each scene.”
Since the late 1980s, Chamberlain has appeared in "King Solomon’s Mines” with Sharon Stone, and as Jason Bourne in the 1988 version of "The Bourne Identity.” He has also returned to the stage as Henry Higgins in the 1993 Broadway revival of "My Fair Lady” and as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 2005 national tour of "Scrooge: The Musical” and has made numerous guest-starring appearances on the small screen in "The Drew Carey Show,” "Will & Grace,” "Hustle,” "Nip/Tuck,” "Desperate Housewives,” "Chuck” and "Brothers and Sisters.” In 2008, and again in 2009, he appeared as King Arthur in the national tour of Monty Python's "Spamalot” and in 2010, appeared in the recurring role of expert thief Archie Leach in the TNT drama "Leverage.”
Today, the three-time Golden Globe winner, who turned 78 this past March, is enjoying his life – personally and professionally – as much as ever. "While I have found it to be rather distressing having to put up with the traveling pains and the bad knees of aging, I overall just like being alive – in this body – in this world – with my friends,” he said. "I feel my heart is open like never before and I’m very comfortable with where I am in life. I just like living – enjoying what I’m doing and spending time with friends – going to the movies and out for dinner.”
With a lifelong adherence to physical fitness, Chamberlain said he doesn’t feel or sleep well if he doesn’t exercise in some way or another every day. "I also eat reasonably well,” he added. "I do eat just about everything – anything I want – but I do include a lot of vegetables and fruits and I like to make sure I get enough sleep. I am fairly careful about the practical side of taking care of my body, but I’m not a maniac about it.”
As for his current project, Chamberlain said "The Heiress,” based on Henry James’ "Washington Square,” is a very good adaptation of the novel. "The dynamics of the family are fascinating,” he said. "I think family dynamics are invariably fascinating – in real life as well as in a theatrical production. And in this particular family, the dynamics are heighted to melodrama. The show is an extraordinary combination of characters with various motivations, and I really enjoy playing the role of Dr. Sloper because he is such a complex man who has so many sides and makes so many mistakes, despite his intelligence.”
Asked if, after all his years of acting, he is still learning new things about his craft, Chamberlain said "The Heiress” has provided him with a newfound level of freedom in the development of his character. "That was surprising to me – that during rehearsals I experienced this freedom – something like I never experienced before,” he revealed. "I believe that comes from having great trust in the director and cast. That level of trust has given me the freedom to incorporate very spur-of-the-moment things that, up to this time, I may have been hesitant to try.”
Pressed about employing any sort of pre-curtain ritual before walking out onstage, Chamberlain said he has always made it a point to mentally become friends with the audience before stepping out of the wings. "It’s a mindset thing,” he said. "It’s almost a meditative thing – that all these extraordinary people have come to see our show. I put myself in a mindset in which I am amongst friends. Thinking that helps me to be very at home on the stage.”
© 2012 David Laurell
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