Out in the Open
For the first time, Richard Chamberlain opens up about being gay in Hollywood
Playing television's Dr. Kildare in the 1960's and The Thorn Birds' Father Ralph in 1983 turned Richard Chamberlain into a romantic leading man. But to maintain that image, Chamberlain kept his identity as a gay man secret. "I think it would have been big trouble for my career," he says. Today, at 69, Chamberlain is tired of hiding. In his new memoir Shattered Love, the Los Angeles native talks for the first time about his years in the closet and his partner of 27 years, Martin, 50, a producer and director with whom he lives in Hawaii. "It took me writing this book to get where I thought, 'Wait a minute - there's nothing wrong with me!'" he says. But as this exclusive excerpt shows, the road to self acceptance wasn't easy.
As adolescence was approaching, I began to notice that I was more attracted sexually to boys than to girls. In high school I played the game and had wonderful girlfriends. We'd go to dance and neck in the backseats of friends' cars like everybody else (I was known as a great kisser), but it grew ever more clear to me that my heart was elsewhere.
At the beginning of this millennium when our understanding of homosexuality is slowly leading to acceptance and, better yet, disinterest, it's difficult for those who weren't around in the forties and fifties to appreciate how deeply terrifying it was to imagine being labeled a faggot, a pansy, a pervert. It seemed to me then that even traitors and murderers were generally held in higher esteem than I would be if anyone ever found out the truth about me. I remember walking home from school one day solemnly swearing to myself that I would never ever reveal my loathsome secret to anyone.
After his 1956 graduation from Pomona College and a U.S. Army stint in Korea, Chamberlain headed back to Los Angeles to study acting.
In this heady new atmosphere of artistic discovery, I fell in love for the first time. Of course I'd had secret crushes before, but this was the first time all those falling-in-love mechanisms were powerful enough to mow down my titanic shame and fear.
On our first date Dave took me to Golden Pagoda in L.A.'s Chinatown. The vibes of new love made it seem like Shangri-la. Just going to the movies or cooking up dinner was wonderful fun. But we kept our affair as secret as possible, even from our friends.
In 1976 Chamberlain met Martin while starring in a play in Los Angeles. The two eventually combined their personal and professional lives, sharing a home and working together on projects such as the short lived 1989-1990 television series Island Son.
A new and unsettling period began for me after the demise of our television series. Some gay-activist cowboy started investigating and publicly 'outing' celebrity types. The tabloids flashed front-page headlines that I was gay, shoving me right into the middle of my darkest nightmares.
I was terrified that this news would alienate fans and topple my cherished career. From early youth I had absorbed our culture's fear of any gender confusion, giving my utterly harmless sexual orientation the underserved semblance of villainy. I had to admit to myself that I was as homophobic as the public I sough to please.
Chamberlain (who didn't respond to tabloid reports) couldn't find work for a year, but eventually his agent's phone began ringing again. Surviving the episode freed the actor once and for all to embrace his homosexuality.
My life continued mostly unchanged. The only really important change was positive: I realized that the time had come for me to deal with my own deep seated fears. The tabloid headlines in themselves weren't frightening at all; in fact, they were sort of funny. My problem was my terrified reaction to them.
Recently it has dawned on me that this whole painful drama of fear and loathing is a blatant travesty of reality. Sexual orientation is a benign personal matter, it is a total nonissue. This utterly novel experience of trust in the truth, in myself exactly as I was, and in the world as it was, was like finding myself smack in the middle of heaven.
© 2003 People Magazine