Interview 10


Five Questions with Richard Chamberlain.

Call him Dr. Kildare. Or Father Ralph. Or Raoul Wallenberg. Richard Chamberlain is unlikely to issue even a murmur of protest.

That would be impolite, and the actor comes across as candid but impeccably well-mannered. There's another reason: Chamberlain can look back fondly on his TV roles because he managed to avoid being trapped by them.

With his blond, chiseled looks, Chamberlain became an instant heartthrob when he donned a stethoscope in 1961 for the television series, "Dr. Kildare." When the series ended five years later, he saw that a career make-over was in order.

For Chamberlain, that meant journeying to England to hone his skills in theatre and display the range that could earn him varied roles.

Chamberlain, 63, earned roles in a number of films, including "The Music Lovers" (1971) and "The Four Musketeers" (1975), but television offered him the chance to become king -of the miniseries, that is.

He set hearts racing, and raised some hackles, with his portrayal of a Catholic priest who fell in love with a young woman (Rachel Ward) in the 1983 miniseries, "The Thorn Birds." TV Guide dubbed it the most romantic show ever.

Q: How do you explain the popularity of "The Thorn Birds"?

RC: I think sex and love are probably the most interesting things in our culture, although money is our god and power is a whole other trip. So love stories have endurance. And the more obstacles there are between lovers, the more compelling they become. And I guess you can't have a bigger obstacle than God.

Q: How much heat did you take for the role of Father Ralph?

RC: There was some controversy about that, both from the public and the church. I didn't pay that much attention. I thought the story was really justified, and I'm not a great believer in mandatory celibacy, anyway. I understand the reason for celibacy if one chooses it, because all that energy can be transmogrified into spirituality. That's a wonderful goal, if a person chooses it. It seems to me that's an aspect of our lives that our culture just ignores.

Q: Is Hollywood a community at odds with spirituality?

RC: There's a certain amount of lip service. Miracles and things like that acquire a certain audience in L.A. for brief periods. But mostly it's as materialistic and tough and greedy a world as you could possibly imagine -along with a lot of creativity and a lot of fun. But the business side of the business is really, really tough. If you're not working in something and hot as a pistol, you might as well be dead. Nothing else has any value whatsoever.

Q: How do you keep it in perspective?

RC: Well, I moved to Hawaii. When I come back here, I find it extremely seductive. You begin worrying about how you look and what you are driving and maybe you should have gone to that party. And you begin to evaluate yourself in terms of what work you're doing.

Q: What's an average day for you in Hawaii?

RC: By the time I've gotten up, made breakfast, maybe gotten some exercise, and walked the dog, it's practically noon. Then I go into my painting studio. I was an art major and I've started painting again. I'm very excited about it.

1998 Lynn Elber