Interview 13


The sound of hard work.

Richard Chamberlain sings a different tune as the gruff Captain von Trapp.

Headed down to the swimming pool at a New York hotel, actor Richard Chamberlain was trying to look inconspicuous when a middle-aged woman got on the elevator. "That's Richard Chamberlain!" she informed her companions. Chamberlain looked up and the following dialogue -monologue, really- ensued:
I'm such a big fan of yours. I've always wanted to meet you. I have to touch you. I have to hold your hand. With that, the fan grabbed the star's hand and had a difficult time letting go.

Chamberlain, 65, finds this sort of behavior embarrassing. Even more so when the behavior is his. "You don't know Aretha Franklin's address, do you?" he asks a reporter from Detroit. "I want to write her a letter of apology."

The way he tells it, the King of the Miniseries met the Queen of Soul and turned into a royal pain. "I went nuts. I just went nuts," Chamberlain admits. "I always thought when fans do that, it's strange. I suddenly appreciated it."

Chamberlain, who plays Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" Wednesday through Sunday at Masonic Temple, is usually the one being fawned over. The adulation began during the five years, 1961-1966, that he played the title role in the TV series "Dr. Kildare." Chamberlain reportedly received 12,000 fan letters a week.

In the 1980s, after starring in two blockbuster miniseries, "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," Chamberlain acquired his unofficial crown and went on to star in other memorable miniseries, among them "Wallenberg" and "Dream West."

All the while he maintained a busy stage and film career. Detroit audiences last him saw him on stage in 1993 as Professor Henry Higgins in the musical "My Fair Lady," a production in which understudy Meg Tolin played of Eliza Doolittle. Tolin is playing Maria to Chamberlain's von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."

Chamberlain didn't have to sing much in "My Fair Lady"; like Rex Harrison, who originated the role of Higgins, he could talk his way through the songs. In "The Sound of Music," he has to sound more like music.

"I don't do a tremendous amount of singing, but it's real singing," he says. And he had to take extra singing lessons. "I've always taken singing, mainly to keep my speaking voice in shape." He also had to learn to play the guitar a little bit because in the show von Trapp sometimes accompanies his family.

The 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the real-life singing von Trapp family, was an enormous hit, as was the 1965 movie. The stage musical was revived on Broadway in 1998; a year into the run, Chamberlain took over the role of von Trapp and became a major draw.

"The rehearsal process when you take over for someone else is very, very unusual," he says. "It's not like getting in on the ground floor. You rehearse with understudies because the regular cast is onstage. You learn everything the current actors have done. You don't even meet the rest of the cast until the put-in," when the new actor joins the cast.

Not that audiences noticed, but Chamberlain says he "didn't really find the character until I had played it for a month."

He finds von Trapp more intriguing than he expected. "He has a rather interesting journey. He starts out rather a basket case; his wife has died whom he loved very much and he's just left the Navy which he loved very much." Chamberlain, who saw Army service in Korea ("after the war!"), says he can understand the captain's feelings toward the military.

"He becomes this sort of military marionette, more or less excluding his children just to hold himself together. I don't think he has any idea how to face his grief. He becomes this super-organized military presence -and sort of dead. He can't bear to look at his children because they remind him of his wife.

"Of course," he adds, "it's a musical. You can't go all the way with this." Thing don't stay gloomy for long.

In a musical, Chamberlain says, "everything has to be shorthand, everyone wants to get to the next musical number." Maria berates von Trapp because he doesn't really know his children. "Then his children come in singing, which he has absolutely forbidden and his heart melts." That doesn't take very long, Chamberlain says.

Then von Trapp "finds out that Elsa, the woman he's engaged to, is probably a Nazi sympathizer and finds he's in love with Maria. In the space of about eight minutes he drops Elsa and proposes to Maria."

One thing Chamberlain has learned from being in "Sound of Music" is how to build a character in a hurry. "This is a good book but it's just written in shorthand. I was talking to the director, Susan Schulman, and I said it's so underwritten. She said the way to do it is with total commitment, you really have to be on your toes."

Chamberlain gives away a small secret: He hadn't expected to work so hard. He took the role thinking "it was rather a small part. It seemed like a nice secondary part and I'd have a lot of time to paint and learn Italian."

He says it's a much more challenging role than he'd anticipated.

"It's extremely hard to be on long tour. To be in a play is very hard work, but I find filming very hard work. Actually," he says, "I find everything in life very hard."

Sure. So when the nine-month"Sound of Music" tour ends later this month, in Raleigh, N.C., might Chamberlain take a nice long vacation, maybe go home to Hawaii, sit on the beach, paint ...?

That was the plan, he says. "I was hoping to have a long holiday, hoping to go to Italy with friends." However, "a friend of mine has written a play called 'The Shadow of Greatness' " and Chamberlain has agreed to star in it this summer at the Berkshire Festival, in Massachusetts.

"I play a famous playwright. It's about the foolishness of worshiping celebrity."

2000 Martin F. Kohn