Ostyle & Culture
In his new book, leading man Chamberlain reveals he is gay, and it's liberated him.
Richard Chamberlain is ready for his close-up. Buffed and preened, he far outshines the tacky tan blandness of his Century City hotel room. Chin up, chin down, head slightly left, now right. As a photographer clicks, he makes the tiny robotic shifts, and switches brilliant smiles on and off like a light bulb.
Chamberlain has finally aged a bit, after decades of what some incorrectly perceived as surgically induced youthfulness. But he is still the matinee idol, king of what used to be called "prestige television," the world's reigning crowned head of the mega-hit TV miniseries. To millions, he remains indelible as Father Ralph de Bricassart, the conflicted young priest of "The Thorn Birds" (1983). And John Blackthorne, the conquering hero of "Shogun" (1980), both still popular enough to air 20 years later. ("Shogun" starts July 13 on the Hallmark Channel.)
To millions of others, who saw him on worldwide theatrical tours through the 1990s, he is Baron von Trapp or Henry Higgins. Or maybe Cyrano, Richard II or Hamlet, whom he played in England to excellent reviews.
He is also something else, as of this month. Richard Chamberlain is Out. He has outed himself, after decades of pretending he was something he is not: heterosexual.
Why now? And does he think anyone really cares?
Just ask, and he'll answer. After decades of eluding questions and fudging replies when interviewers inquired about his private life, Chamberlain now seems eager, in fact elated, at the prospect of talking. His answers are sometimes surprising - especially for those who think that "coming out" is no problem for actors nowadays, and that the kiss between two men on this week's Tony telecast signifies some sort of end to industry homophobia. Not to Chamberlain.
In fact, he says, just weeks ago, before the release of his new memoir, "Shattered Love," he worried what would happen on the tour to promote it. "I expected to be shunned, stoned, expected crosses burning on my lawn," he says only partly in jest. "I expected people to hate me." Old fears die hard.
Would his fans see him as a fraud and deceiver who'd feigned emotions he couldn't possibly have felt as he clutched the exquisite young Rachel Ward to his manly priest's chest and whispered, "Oh, Meggie, Meggie. What's happening to my heart? What's happening to my loins?"
In fact, Chamberlain had no intention of outing himself when he sent a five-page book proposal to Judith Regan, of Reganbooks, who published the memoir.
All five pages were about spirituality, he says. "They described my belief system a kind of philosophical treatise on how we might learn to live our lives more fully." Regan must be some smart cookie. Chamberlain says she told him it was all "very interesting but needed to be a little more personal. Readers have to see how these ideas grew out of your life experiences."
Did she know he was gay? "Of course she did," he answers with a laugh. "The whole industry knew. And I knew they knew. But I didn't think the general public knew about it."
So there he was, at home in Hawaii with Martin, his partner of 26 years (who prefers his last name not be used) - and with no great job offers coming in. "The phone had stopped ringing. It was as if fate had given me the time and fortitude to do what I had never imagined doing."
Writing the book turned out to be "the biggest learning experience of my life," he says. "I suddenly realized that being straight or gay is a total nonevent. If you tell me you're straight, what does that say about you? Nothing but the general category of people you choose to sleep with. Period. Nothing about whether you are good, bad, smart, dumb, entertaining, boring. I suddenly realized that saying I'm gay is no big deal. Who cares? The only people who care are the ones who have the same wrong ideas in their head that I've always had. That being gay is a terrible, dirty, horrible thing to be."
And how have his fans reacted to the news? "Everyone has been so supportive, so positive, so friendly on this tour. In New York, people walked up to me in the street, and in theaters. Strangers gave me the thumbs-up, wished me well, said, 'Good for you.' I am just awestruck by the change in the way I feel about life now."
Chamberlain says he'd hated himself all his life for being gay. "I was as homophobic as the next guy." This duality caused him to become two people, he says. He was "the good Richard," who is a handsome, straight leading man, and "the bad Richard," who is gay and, therefore, beyond contempt. Of course, the good Richard got the roles, in Chamberlain's tortured perception. But it was hard to act them with any authenticity, he says, because all his true emotions and feelings lay within the bad Richard, "whom I didn't even want to know."
Getting past his own prejudices
His blue eyes are huge and brilliant now, his voice booming with audible awe, at the enormity of his realization. "Sixty-eight years it took me to realize that I'd been wrong about myself. I wasn't terrible at all. And now, suddenly, I am free. Out of the prison I built for myself. It's intoxicating. I can talk about it positively because I'm not afraid anymore."
In this era of sexual openness, how could he have clung to the idea that he was rotten because he was gay?
"I grew up thinking there was nothing worse. In the '40s and '50s, it was worse to be a gay man than to be a traitor. Or a murderer."
It was after he'd won the role that propelled him to fame in the early '60s, as "Dr. Kildare," that he recalls the beginnings of discomfort that has pursued him all his life. If you're pretending to be someone you're not, you don't know how to access real feelings, he says. Of course, he's not a young leading man anymore, which perhaps made it easier for him to come out.
Chamberlain and Martin, a film and theatrical director, have lived in Hawaii for the past decade. "I have no idea how he has tolerated me," Chamberlain says. "Why he stuck it out with me so long I will never know." Martin is 19 years younger, and "he didn't grow up with the same fears I did. So he had a hard time understanding why I was so scared about it. I was awful to live with."
Not just because Chamberlain was so filled with self-hate, but because the resulting emptiness and uselessness he felt led him to care more about his career than about Martin or anything else. "My career was all that mattered. I would have thrown him over for a job in two seconds." Chamberlain says he also thought it was very important to be important. "It was the only thing for someone like me to be. Otherwise, I might as well not exist."
He says the fear of his being "discovered" affected his personality in all sorts of ugly ways. But he and Martin stayed together - "and every time we tried to split over some huge disagreement, we just couldn't. I don't know why. Even before I knew there was this aspect of unconditional love in our relationship, even before I came to know it or trust it, I just experienced an inability to break away."
At Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard that night, the line of mostly female Chamberlain fans extended around the block for his book signing. Most said they already knew he was gay, and couldn't have cared less. Rebecca Delacruz, 37, says she's loved the actor since she was 16, when she saw "Shogun." "I don't care about his sexual preference," she says, "he's still sexy."
When his book tour ends, Chamberlain will start rehearsals for a play, "The Stillborn Lover," at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. He will star with Keir Dullea, Lois Nettleton and Jessica Walters. Martin will direct. It will be a new experience for them both, he says, because he is essentially a new man.
Does he wish he'd come out sooner?
"I am so happy that it happened at all. I can see where I started and I can see what I've come to. The contrast is so great and my joy so enormous that I haven't got any regrets at all."
© 2003 Bettijane Levine