Article 57

Mobbed ex-Dr Kildare

"Iíd forgotten about being besieged in supermarkets." Said Richard Chamberlain.

"I used to get it during my Dr Kildare days but then it stopped and I forgot about it. Now itís started all over again."

That it has. Ever since the enormous impact of the TV mini-series Shogun in which he was seen last autumn, Chamberlain has found it almost impossible to go anywhere without being mobbed.

"It scared me at first," he said when he came to see me the other evening.

"Iíd got out of the habit o being looked in public places. After a certain amount of recognition in the old days, it was nice to be anonymous for a while. Then came Shogun and an absolute onslaught of recognition. I felt uncomfortable when it first happened but now it feels good. Any actor who says otherwise is not being honest."

The success of the James Clavell TV series has done more than win a lot of new female fans for this handsome actor. It has also brought him more offers than he has had in his whole career.

Problem -which to choose? "It isnít easy," he said. "Do I do a play, or a film or another series? Iím an actor, by the way, who feels a great obligation to TV."

"Itís been very good to me. I donít think it should be sneered at by my profession. God forbid those millions who watch it should never get the chance to see anything good."

He was, of course, talking about American TV which even Americans are now beginning to agree is horrendous.

So what may he do? Well, I happen to know he is first in line for the lead in the big new series The Thorn Birds from the Colleen McCullough bestseller which is now being rewritten for television after many vain attempts to transfer it to the screen.

Chamberlain would love to do it.

"Itís such a terrific story," he said. "And I think it has a better chance of being good as a TV series than as a film."

At one point Peter Weir, the Australian director for whom Chamberlain made The Last Wave was set to direct The Thorn Birds as a film. At that time Robert Redford was the star they wanted. So Chamberlainís name did not come up. Now it has and he is hoping it stays in peopleís minds.

"I want to get back to playing leading men again," he said. "Shogun gave me the chance to do that. In recent years Iíve tended to play character parts because they were the better roles."

He has always believed in stretching himself as an actor. Since he fled the hospital corridors as Dr. Kildare and took off for Britain to play Hamlet in Birmingham -a bold step indeed- he has tackled Richard II, Cyrano and The Night Of The Iguana on stage -prompting Time magazine to call him "The next Barrymore."

"If I buckle down and make the next few years count," he said. "I think I may come through as a creditable actor."

Last year, here in Beverly Hills, he played the role of Wild Bill Hickok in one of the smallest theatres in town. Did he agree with the argument that film actors were talking a risk by doing theatre on their own home ground?

"No, I donít. For one thing I donít think the town takes theatre seriously enough for that to happen. So if youíre no good on stage nobody really cares. If the play I did had been no good it wouldnít have mattered much. People in the business began coming to see me only when it became really difficult to get tickets."

Unlike the situation in Britain, Hollywood actors tend to appear on TV here only as a last resort. Chamberlain finds that attitude appalling.

"Iím quite sincere when I say I feel an obligation to it," he said. "After all, it gave me my start in Kildare. I know it is awful but it wonít get any better unless we do something about it.

"Someone gave me two kittens for my last birthday and when I was sitting in front of the TV one night they clambered up on my lap and fell asleep. Iíd just got them and I didnít want to disturb them. So I had to sit through a quiz show that had just come on.

Well, I was mesmerised by the horror of it. Iíd never seen anything as abysmally stupid. And I vowed then and there that I would do my best to see that people got the chance to see something better."

And with The Thorn Birds almost certainly they will.