Just What The Doctor Ordered (Part 1)
How does he do it? As James Kildare he was the dishy doctor whose beside manner had temperatures soaring. Now, 25 years later, Richard Chamberlain is the 50-year-old heart-throb whoís the greatest tonic for women all round the world.
Richard George Chamberlain was 25, shy, unknown and unsure of himself when he auditioned for the role of Dr. Kildare. He was the 36th actor to try out for the part and didnít think he had a hope. But he got it, and his life was never the same. He was soon getting 12,000 fan letters a week -more than Clark Gable in his heyday. Women wrote with suggestions that shocked him -"mostly to do with my beside manner." Others waited outside his house and tried to snip locks of his hair. They mobbed him in the street. He was one of televisionís first sex symbols but he breathed a sigh of relief when, five years later, it was all over.
But out of sight meant out of mind and soon it was a case of Richard Who? The one-time TV heart-throb thought he would end his days in relative obscurity. Then, five years ago, when he was 45, history repeated itself as a new generation discovered Richard Chamberlain when he starred as the macho but very gentle Captain John Blackthorne in Shogun. This time he was third choice, after Sean Connery and Albert Finney. The series was a smash-hit around the world and a Dr-Kildare-like fever broke out all over again.
He was "amazed, amused and delighted." He couldnít get over the hysteria he generated wherever he went. "I walk into the same places where I used to go relatively anonymously just a few weeks ago and Iím recognised and mobbed," he said at the time. "People have been calling from all over the world. They want to buy my clothes, send me gifts, have a lock of my hair. Theyíre even proposing marriage. Itís just like the Kildare days. I never thought it would happen to me all over again."
Shogun changed his life even more than Kildare and heís modest enough to be flattered that both the series are being shown on British television this summer (Dr Kildare is currently being shown on BBC1 and Shogunís back on August 3). But if Chamberlain had his way he would have pulled the plug on the pretty boy, goody-goody doc years ago.
"I really sorted myself out after Kildare Ďdiedí," he says. "Believe me, Iím happier for it. I was more a personality than an actor when I did Kildare. I was simply a product of televisionís handsome young man mentality. No one expected me to shine as an actor in that period. I was a product, nothing more. I spent years proving that Richard Chamberlain could act."
The years were depressing ones. He says the worst time of his life was in 1967 when, still flushed with the success of Kildare, he headed for Broadway to star in the musical Breakfast At Tiffanyís. It closed after four preview performances. "I was distraught. Iíd never known anything but success. I thought I had developed a pretty good voice, but now I know there wasnít a whole lot of heart in my singing. Iíd like to see if Iíd be better now."
He fled to England where he made friends in the British film and stage world, gained respect for the work he did in the BBC series Portrait Of A Lady and for his Hamlet with the Birmingham Rep, and fell gently in love Ö
"Perhaps I shouldnít tell you this, but Iíve always been a little in love with Nanette Newman," he says shyly. She is the actress wife of director Bryan Forbes. Both befriended Richard and introduced him to other directors, like Ken Russell and Robert Bolt.
Later, and more seriously, he fell in love with English actress Gemma Jones, who played Ophelia to his Hamlet. It was a short-lived romance but it is one of the reasons he still has a love for Britain and all things British. He even talks with a slight British accent.
"You know, England was where it all really began for me. I always new I would have to go abroad for a while after Kildare. I was attracted to the British way of doing things -your discipline, your training, your formality. Iíd got my first taste of that working with Julie Christie and director Richard Lester on Petulia.
Then, as if fate pulled me by the neck, I was given a plane ticket to London to do some publicity for the film. While there, I landed the lead in Portrait Of A Lady. That was really a turning point for me, the first time people said, ĎGosh, the kid can actí."
He stayed in London until 1970, then returned to America and soon fell in love with stunning dark-eyed actress Taryn Power, daughter of the late screen heart-throb Tyrone Power. This affair lasted just over two years and then fizzled out. "Iíve had more than my fair share of broken love affairs," he says wryly.
By this time, he was starring in a series of swashbuckling films like the Count Of Monte Cristo (Taryn was his co-star), The Man In The Iron Mask, and The Three Musketeers. "Iím a cape freak," he says with a grin. "I enjoyed those roles a lot. I think itís partly because deep down I have a ridiculously romantic nature and I like all that charging around on horses, rescuing damsels and all that stuff. Itís really fun to do."
He was still swashbuckling and romantic when he starred with pretty Gemma Craven in the updated Cinderella film, The Slipper And The Rose. He fell a little in love again Ö but the romance ended when he returned to the States.
By 1974, a year before his 40th birthday, he had to admit to himself that he was not the box-office star he had hoped to be. And when he actually turned 40 he remembers: "I was very depressed. I nearly wanted to kill myself. I thought my life was over. And then I realised it was just beginning Ö"
He turned to a controversial doctor for help to get over his crisis. Now the doctor, Brugh Joy, is Chamberlainís close friend, spiritual adviser and mentor. Richard spends up to 17 days at a time at the doctorís desert retreat, at peace with himself, meditating and practicing yoga.
"Brugh can make you feel incredibly wonderful," says Chamberlain. "Iím a lot happier now than I used to be. Iíve done things in therapy and Iíve worked with people who have some very interesting ideas about life. I think my life has become richer, my relationships have become richer and Iíve become better friends with myself."
"I started out, for some reason that I donít fully understand, not liking myself very much when I was younger. I was terribly unhappy in my 20s. But now I feel more comfortable with myself, with fewer violent ups and downs."
The thought of the gentle, gracious Richard Chamberlain uttering a few well-chosen words in a towering rage is an unlikely one but thatís exactly what gets him annoyed. "People still see me as this white-coated paragon of virtue Ö instead of a human being."
Thatís why he was delighted when, after years of pleading and chasing, he landed the John Blackthorne role in Shogun. It would give him a chance to be seen in a new strong light, bristling beard and all. "I just knew it would change my life," he says -but even he was amazed at how much. His pillowing -the charming Old Japanese word for lovemaking- scenes with co-star Yoko Shimada sent hearts fluttering from Tonbridge to Texas to Tokyo. His samurai sword-swinging brought directors down from the Hollywood Hills to Chamberlainís tiny office at Warner Studios.
Since then, he has become known as the king of the mini-series and his work has brought him happiness as well as fortune. His work-rate is amazing -after Shogun, he starred as the passionate priest Father Ralph de Bricassart in the smash-hit series The Thorn Birds, with sultry British actress Rachel Ward. Then came the 1984 television film Cook And Peary: The Race To The Pole -he played Dr Frederick Cook, a polar explorer obsessed with being the first man to reach the North Pole. He was recently seen on ITV in the harrowing mini-series Wallenberg: The Lost Hero, playing World War II hero Raoul Wallenberg.
He is now in Africa where he has been making two films, a remake of the action-adventure King Solomonís Mines and its sequel, Quatermain. When he returns to America in September, he goes straight to Oregon to work on another mini-series, Dream West, playing the role Old West explorer John C. Fremont. And then he hopes to tackle Broadway yet again in the play Born Every Minute. This time he wonít settle for less than a smash-hit.