Richard Chamberlain - How he keeps the Faith in his Private Life
"Fame isn't the answer. The answer is allowing yourself to be who you are."
"I'm not interested in being a multimillionaire; I want to do the kind of work that interests me. When I was beginning, I wanted to do everything: films, TV, modern things, period things, classics, musical theatre, I wanted to make records and I also wanted to paint. I'm a medium with occasional goods. I took dance lessons, and I have discovered that you can't do everything, but I've done a lot of it."
In a company town, Hollywood, where a favorite indoor sport is to trash everyone, its almost impossible to find anyone with a sour word to mutter about Richard Chamberlain.
The erstwhile Dr. Kildare, perhaps unintentionally, has made a secondary career of winning friends. He is Mr. Nice Guy wherever you turn.
He is therefore going against casting in his current role of Father Ralph in the ABC-TV mini-series, The Thorn Birds. For those unfamiliar with the best-selling Colleen McCullough's supernovel, Fr. Ralph does just about everything a priest isn't supposed to from having money of his own - courtesy of the character played by Barbara Stanwyck - to not being obedient or chaste.
In fact, there are those who might consider him a bit of a rotter. Not so Richard. We're sitting in his offices at The Burbank Studios just a few months after he has finished production on this massive film. He is about to don another hat: that of executive producer on a TV movie for CBS, hence the office setting complete with a round black glass conference table and comfortable chairs. Only successful executive producers rate such perks. But enough business talk. We are here to discuss The Thorn Birds, how he feels about yet another blockbuster following his so-successful Shogun and his real life.
First of all, Richard doesn't believe that Father Ralph behaved in such a reprehensive manner. "He followed his destiny," he states. "That process brought him to a kind of humility he never would have found otherwise. He needed to do that. He needed to fall from grace. I'm not saying all priests do; Ralph was too in love with the image of a perfect priest, with the glamour," he explains.
Those sentences give one a clear indication of what makes Richard Chamberlain tick. He's a perfectionist, although certainly not a bore - far from it - but he does get inside the character he plays. That's what makes him such an outstanding actor.
For this part, he researched Catholicism with Father Terry Sweeney, a Jesuit priest. He visited a Jesuit novitiate and stayed over with the young novices. "I had never before been involved with organized religion, and I got the feeling of what it's like to be part of a group of people who put the love of God and humanity before personal happiness. It is unusual and rare. The novitiates I met are in the process of doing that," he learned.
The painstaking research aside, working in TheThorn Birds was a grueling six-month assignment. A large portion of the nine hours was filmed in the Simi Valley, north of Los Angeles, where an exact copy of the Australian Drogheda landscape has been built. And it was hot. Richard's priestly garb, donned in layers, must have been well nigh unbearable.
With a boyish grin, he acknowledges that it wasn't an actor's dream come true, commenting that the plastic collar cut into his neck a lot. Just another of the ordeals that an actor goes through for the sake of a great role.
And a great plum it is. "I wanted it when I first read the book four years ago. I salivated over the part; it was such a wonderful love story. I chased after the part for years. I told my agents I wanted to do it; at that time, it was to be a feature movie and it went through the hands of numerous producers. They had Robert Redford at the top of all their lists. So I waited it out, like I did with Shogun. When they realized it couldn't be a film and Warner Bros. decided on a mini-series, then I knew I was in a good position. The producers - David Wolper and Stan Margulies - wanted me - and it became a dream come true," he says comfortably.
The dream realized, Richard was in the same position as all other actors when a role is complete: he was out of a job. "I have the actor's habit of thinking once a job is over I'll never be hired again. I can get very anxious about not working. It doesn't go into anxiety attacks, but there is a sense of fickleness about the business. If I allow myself, I can worry a lot."
He didn't allow himself to this time. Instead he took off for two and a half weeks to his little house in Hawaii. He has what he describes as, "a place on the beach in the toolies where there is nothing to do except eat." Or so he says. It doesn't show on his trim waistline two weeks after he has returned.
"I had forgotten what it was like to spend a day doing nothing. I kept saying I must be doing something wrong, this can't be right. I had a vague guilty feeling. So I just lay there on the beach and I didn't do anything," he laughs. "I find it an incredibly healing experience to go there. It's a wonderful change from the madness around here," he motions to indicate Hollywood. "I'd like to go there more often. As it is, I get there twice a year if I'm lucky."
The house has a live-in caretaker who looks after the property while its famous owner is gone. It is also rented out, through an agent, so the tenants never know that they're sleeping in Richard Chamberlain's bed. Pity.
It would appear that Richard is indeed the golden boy we all envy, whose life has been comparatively uncluttered with the "stuff" that make most of us miserable. And looking at him, handsome, trim, relaxed, just a few flecks of gray in the beard and mustache he has grown for his next part, he reflects total peace and tranquility. He's sipping a cup of herb tea from a delicate Japanese cup, NOT imported from Japan as were many of his household furnishings. Shogun did leave an impression on him.
He admits of being happier with his life as it is today than in previous years.
"As I look back, one of my big motivations for working so hard in this business in the early times was to find for myself a kind of self-worth which I imagined I would see reflected from the world when I became famous. It didn't work." He laughs shortly. "Being well-known has worked in other ways, but it didn't make me particularly happy. When I first realized that wasn't gonna work, I found other ways to work on myself, through Gestalt therapy, and working with Dr. Brugh Joy (a world-renowned metaphysician who gave up his medical practice to work with groups at his establishment in California's Lucerne Valley. Richard brought the film rights to Dr. Joy's book, Joy's Way, three years ago, and has a contract to produce and star in the story for CBS. He hopes to get it under way later this year.)
"Fame isn't the answer. The answer is allowing yourself to be who you are. I grew up at a time when certain values were deeply impressed upon children: in school and at home. There was a certain image to be maintained and a certain goal to be achieved."
One must bear in mind that Richard was born and raised in the rarefied atmosphere of Beverly Hills, where most of his friends at school were super-rich. His own father was a first salesman for a market fixture company, and then took over the firm. But he still wasn't raised in an atmosphere of wealth.
He became interested in acting while he was in college, but recalls, "My family wasn't enthused about my going into show business. They'd seen me in some college productions," he laughs. "I did want to go to college, but in my senior year I made a decision to take the gamble and get into acting. They didn't say 'don't do it'; they were supportive and they helped me, even though they didn't say 'Oh boy, this is terrific'."
His career proceeded normally: he studied with noted acting coach Jeff Corey, he got minor roles in a dozen TV shows, and in 1961 he got really lucky with Dr. Kildare. By the time that show had finished its run - there were 132 one-hour shows between 1961 and '65 and 57 half-hour episodes the following year - Richard Chamberlain was a big star. So big, he wondered if he'd live down his reputation of being the noble young doctor who did everything including make house calls.
He did what was then considered a rash step: he moved to England and worked in repertory. "I went to England because I felt it the best place to go and study. I had this real powerful hunch that I should go there and study. I was attracted to British theatre and I had amazing luck."
Indeed. He got raves for his role in a six-part adaptation of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady on the BBC. He appeared in Hamlet, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Julius Ceasar, and played composer Peter Tchaikovsky in the Music Lovers opposite Glenda Jackson. There was more Shakespeare, other classics, and when he played Aramis in two versions of The Three Musketeers followed by Cyrano de Bergerac, no one made anymore jokes about the boyish Dr. Kildare. Richard Chamberlain had arrived, as a serious actor of the theater and films. Deservedly so.
He is, of course, delighted that he listened to that powerful hunch, as he terms it. "I always try to listen to my inner voice. That seems to be one of life's most ironic essences: that very soft little voice of intuition is so easy to ignore, yet it's so often accurate. I always choose my roles intuitively. They appeal to me for reasons I couldn't say. I always have an answer as to why I choose a role, but the answer really is that it has a magnetic quality. Now, as a producer, I know that I read scripts looking for ways to make scenes work, and ideas that come up seemingly from nowhere. They just spring into my mind. It's not an intellectual process. Oh, it is to some extent, but it is largely emotional and intuitive."
As noted, here is a man who is comfortable with himself and he doesn't have to prove anything anymore. He's done that. So, when asked how he can top the role of Father Ralph, he says easily, "I don't think in terms of topping things. Everything is different and real to me. My next movie, titled By Reason of Insanity is for my own production company. I play a man named John Balt, who murdered his wife, spent years in an institution in therapy and is now back in society as a contributing member. In fact, he wrote his own life story, which this is. This story goes into areas I've never touched upon, so it's a vast challenge.”
"After Shogun and Thorn Birds, I find my interests are turning back to more ordinary parts - not that the John Balt story is ordinary, it isn't. He's an ordinary man who gets caught in an incredible vortex. Yes, I have leaned towards larger-than-life roles and that might have something to do with the fact that I have a very romantic nature. I didn't find life terribly interesting when I was a little kid. I hated school and I didn't like sports. I didn't like anything that anyone else liked. I felt out of it. It isn't that I didn't have friends. I did. And I had a pretty good time, but I was always fascinated by adventure movies. Especially Errol Flynn. But the other night when I couldn't sleep I turned on an old Errol Flynn movie and it was boring. It didn't hold up. The Three Musketeers and that kind of swashbuckling does, but not the one that I saw," he mock mourns.
Every actor has a dream role, and Richard has played such variegated parts - has he played it already or is his dream part still in the future?
"I think John Balt is as fascinating a part as I'll ever get. What are dream roles? Roles that call for words like depth and complexity, people who want things passionately and have to overcome tremendous obstacles to get them. My theory about John is that he wanted wholeness in his life that he unconsciously felt wasn't there. I think murdering his wife was unnecessary, but who am I to say that? He was living a life complying to images. He had an image of manhood, an image of the writer, of the husband and father, and he never said 'Who am I, what kind of man am I, what kind of father, do I love my children?'"
"Who am I?" Richard repeats the question. "I'm beginning to get answers at long last. What I am is an ever-changing alive being, who is not an image, who is not consistent, and I'm beginning to allow myself to BE instead of trying to be consistent and trying to comply to images. Images such an American hang-up. And so here I am in a business where images are more powerful than almost anyplace else except sports. I have found that I have warmth and lovingness and creativity. I might have doubted that before. I'm much more comfortable with people, much more willing to speak my mind. I don't have to try to manipulate people into liking me. I don't. I thought that I did." He is very thoughtful now and seems to enjoy looking within.
What are his long-range goals these days after 20-plus years of a good and rewarding career?
"I've done some satisfying work in the theatre, and I'd like to do more but I find it difficult to find the time. I want to continue along the lines I've been pursuing. I really like what I've been doing. I like my mobility in TV, I want more emphasis in films. I think I'm ready for that."
"And I like my life. I've finally created a home that I really love. I've had several houses, but I just remodeled this one - in a quiet canyon street, and it's just perfect for me. It's slightly Oriental, slightly Japanese. I brought back a lot of stuff from Shogun."
And who lives in this perfect house?
Just Richard Chamberlain and his pals. "I have two dogs," he says with all the love in the world in his voice. "Two Dalmatians: Jessie the Bandit Queen and Billy Boy."
And what does Jessie steal to merit that colorful name?
"My heart," he says in a tone that any animal-lover can recognize.
And so, then, one knows that Richard Chamberlain, a really happy man, does indeed have it all.
© 1983 Isobel Silden