Article 81

A Couple Makes a Début

Martin Rabbett & Richard Chamberlain

Stockbridge, Mass. The Red Lion Inn was out of clam chowder on a recent Monday night. At Richard Chamberlain's table, they seemed to be serving truth serum instead.

Over dinner -and with only tap water to drink- Mr. Chamberlain was ready to tell all. There were the adventures with LSD, his visit to a restaurant in Honolulu in full drag, the conflicts in his 27-year-relationship with Martin Rabbett.

While starring on TV in "Dr. Kildare" in the 1960's and "The Thorn Birds" in 1983, Mr. Chamberlain was anything but candid. In those days, he said, "I was one tough interview." Now, he is so open, there is nothing to do but listen. "I have no image to defend," Mr. Chamberlain explained.

In "The Stillborn Lover," which opened at the Berkshire Theater Festival on Wednesday, Mr. Chamberlain plays an ambassador who comes out to his family. Mr. Rabbett directed the play, meaning he got to help Mr. Chamberlain say, "I'm gay."

Unlike Rosie O'Donnell, who came out last year, then insisted she was never in the closet in the first place, Mr. Chamberlain is frank. For years, he said, "I played a cat-and-mouse game with the press."

Then he said wistfully, "Game over."

Mr. Chamberlain is 69; Mr. Rabbett is 50. This is the first time, the men said, that they have talked to the news media as a couple.

Leaning across the table, Mr. Rabbett told Mr. Chamberlain, "You're lighter, freer now. You've lifted many, many veils."

Mr. Chamberlain: "I was such a jerk."

Mr. Rabbett helped edit Mr. Chamberlain's recent coming-out memoir, "Shattered Love," and encouraged him to be honest. "We paid a high price for Richard's fame," he said. He recalled that after the book was published, he got a letter from one of Mr. Chamberlain's fans. "'We always knew you were there,'" the letter said. "That really touched me."

Of coming out, Mr. Chamberlain said: "No one has tried to run me down in the street."

Before dinner, Mr. Chamberlain had pulled the trash pail up the driveway of their rented Victorian house here, then he swam laps in the backyard pool. Mr. Rabbett led this reporter up a creaky wooden stairway to the top floor of the house. There, he said, he had discovered a ghost the night before.

"As I came up the stairs," Mr. Rabbett recounted, "I could feel the hair on my arms standing up. My heart started to race."

Mr. Chamberlain, out of the pool, said he believed in spirits, but "this one is Martin's."

Later, at the Red Lion, Mr. Rabbett, who grew up in Hawaii, said, "Spirits were all around us." He said he feels sorry for them, "caught between two worlds. You have to help them to make a transition."

But if he believes in ghosts, it may be because, as Mr. Chamberlain's partner, he has been invisible for 27 years.

The couple's move toward visibility began when Mr. Chamberlain started writing "a series of philosophical essays." But he said his editor, Judith Regan of Regan Books, told him, "We're not interested in you as a preacher." Mr. Chamberlain asked Mr. Rabbett -who he said "is organized and smart and methodical"- to help him. In turn, Mr. Rabbett remembered being "ruthless" with his partner's prose.

In the book, Mr. Chamberlain describes growing up before World War II under the thumb of a brutal, alcoholic father and spending the next half-century wallowing in self-loathing. "I so mistrusted myself," he said, "that I invented another person to be."

On Oahu, where they have lived for more than a decade, the couple are building a beach house. They won't mind if spirits find it, they say, but they hope to keep Mr. Chamberlain's fans away.

Over dessert, Mr. Rabbett began to describe the new house, which he called "contemporary Asian." Mr. Chamberlain intervened: "Do you think it's wise to talk about it?" he asked. "People might put two and two together."

Everyone deserves to have one secret.

© 2003 Fred Bernstein