The hidden life of Richard Chamberlain
(January 24, 2004)
Dr. Kildare dreamboat Richard Chamberlain has published his memoir, Shattered Love (ReganBooks/HarperCollins) - and "the sky didn't fall, crosses weren't burned on my lawn and nobody has spit upon me. But the greatest part," says the handsome 69-year-old actor, "is that I'm no longer spitting on myself."
In Shattered Love, Chamberlain, who until now has tried mightily to keep his personal life hush-hush, talks about being gay.
Growing up in the forties and fifties, he was frightened of being branded "pansy or pervert," he writes. Later, as a TV star playing cute medic Kildare and as "King of the Miniseries" - three hits in four years (Centennial, Shogun, The Thorn Birds) - he hid his sexuality. The romantic lead feared his career would crash otherwise.
Shattered Love was conceived as a series of philosophical essays, but Chamberlain's editors wanted a more personal book and in story form. By the time he finished, "I realized the reasons for all my fears around being gay were bogus. They were induced by society when I was a kid. I had made that the dark secret of my life," he says. "Understanding that it's actually the nonissue of all time was almost like a moment of grace."
Now the four-time Emmy nominee, three-time Golden Globe winner sports a wedding band symbolizing the bond with his life partner. Chamberlain and Martin, 50, a stage director, have been together 27 years now. "As far as I'm concerned, Martin and I are married in the most profound sense. There's nothing casual about our relationship," says the actor by phone from Hawaii, where the two have lived for 15 years.
The suave Chamberlain, who played Blair General Hospital's Dr. James Kildare from 1961 through 66, has an intellectual curiosity and analytical bent that, unfortunately, he's hidden from the public as well. "I think that love - not romantic love but the love that is wisdom - is the creative driving force of the universe. The basis of the interrelationship of human beings is unconditional love. The question in my book is," he says, "is it possible to live open-heartedly all the time no matter what life throws at us?"
In 1990, tabloids outing Chamberlain "shoved me right into the middle of my darkest nightmares," the actor writes. He feared the stories would end his career; plus, the sexuality to-do stirred up his own life-long homophobic self-loathing. Indeed, job offers dried up for almost a year.
But now, since his autobiography came out, the phone is ringing; and Chamberlain is due to star, as a cantankerous judge, in the movie, Final Witness. He plays a bisexual ambassador in the play, The Stillborn Lover, which ran at last summer's Berkshire Theatre Festival and may be Broadway-bound. Martin directed the work, and he gave Chamberlain a hand editing his book manuscript.
Though nearly 20 years Martin's senior, Chamberlain "always felt" the younger man was "more mature than I in some ways. Like, his relationship with being gay was infinitely more healthy than mine," he says. "And he never allowed himself to be overwhelmed by my being very powerful because I was a world-famous celebrity and all that."
Martin, though, prefers that his last name not be made in public "in terms of our relationship. It's really complex. But," says Chamberlain, "he wants to keep at least the illusion of being a private person." At the same time as the tabloid outing - but unrelated, says Chamberlain - Martin walked out. "He felt I was overlooking our agreement that he would produce for me - which he had done and still does brilliantly. But," says Chamberlain, "he was feeling double-crossed that I hadn't pushed hard enough to involve him in productions I was doing. Hollywood [executives] don't like to share power, so there was a resistance."
Like most committed, long-term relationships, Chamberlain and Martin's haven't been glitch-free. "We've had big problems, but we've been willing to work on them." The two even have been to joint counseling. "I can't believe how stupid I was - and how extraordinary it was that Martin stuck with me despite that. I was selfish, controlling, put my career ahead of everything else, never wanted to admit I was wrong, always wanted to be out front and didn't believe, really, that I could be loved," says Chamberlain, displaying acquired self-awareness.
Though he misled fans, the actor never felt guilty or phony in deluding them that he was straight. "It was my job as a person in life wanting to keep this as secret as possible. As an actor, my job was to play mostly romantic leading men. And that's what I did; it was great. A person can be deeply uncomfortable in many ways and still have a good time!"
He was born in Los Angeles and reared in a so-so section of Beverly Hills. His grandmother was a singer; mother, an actress and director. Dad was a domineering alcoholic, psychologically abusive to Chamberlain and his older brother. "My father had to be the strongest, the smartest, the best. He wouldn't allow competition. He had a subtle sneer that meant that whatever you were doing was, well, OK for you but not really very important or interesting," recalls Chamberlain.
He was a poor high school student, though social, and active in art and drama. "Underneath it, I was pretty tied up," he writes. His homosexuality was so troubling that he promised himself to keep it secret. "I couldn't deny it, but I didn't want to act upon it because in my judgment it was so bad and wrong. Therefore," he says, "there wasn't much carrying out [sexually]. That came later, in my early 20s." Back in high school, he necked with girls "in the back seats of cars like everybody else" and became known as "a great kisser," he says in his book. "But it grew ever more clear to me that my heart was elsewhere."
When, at 22, the art major graduated from Pomona College, a talent scout who saw him in school plays enticed Paramount Pictures to offer him a seven-year contract. But the draft intervened, and he wound up in Korea instead. On R&R once, and drunk, he lost his virginity to a Japanese girl. In a letter to a college buddy, he pronounced the experience "utterly enjoyable." By 1959, Chamberlain was back in LA, where he joined an acting workshop.
Two years later he scored the role of Dr. Kildare and became an overnight sensation. Still, on the personal front he was unhappy. Looking for answers, he signed up for group therapy. He was a major TV star, but "it didn't take long for everybody to tweak to the fact that I was just as screwed up as they were," he says. In the sessions, he never spoke of being gay.
Professionally, things were humming along. But after nothing but career success, Chamberlain found himself in what would be one of Broadway's biggest bombs: a 1967 musical of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Starring Mary Tyler Moore, the show closed before it opened. "Poor Mary took the brunt of it. During the four New York previews, we died," Chamberlain recalls.
"Mary would go off and cry between scenes. The audience really hated the show," which had been rewritten by Edward Albee after weak out-of-town try-outs. "Nobody in New York wanted a dark, gloomy musical, especially when they were expecting the movie. They wanted Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard."
Then, starring in an LA version of Night of the Iguana, Chamberlain met Martin, on the production staff. After a six-week run, the company split up. But when it reconvened several months later to play Broadway, Chamberlain's friendship with Martin, he writes, "picked up where we'd left off. It soon blossomed into romance."
Chamberlain is happy to announce that at almost 70, he's finally "made friends with life." And he insists that, rumors to the contrary, he isn't hiding another secret: face-lifts. No, he jokes that he owes his youthful glow to "the right light." Most likely it's the right genes and over-the-counter skin lotion. Says Chamberlain: "I've put on Lubriderm since my early 20s-and that's the only thing I've used."
© 2004 Jane Wollman Rusoff