Interview 17


The Torrid Trio of The Thorn Birds

Richard Chamberlain relaxes after his first TV role since Shogun, while sexy co-stars Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward head for the altar.

It is the clinch of a lifetime. After years of forbidden longing, the handsome Irish priest finally consummates his relationship with the brown-haired Australian beauty who has charmed him since she was a child. But according to Richard Chamberlain, making love to Rachel Ward in the climactic sequence of The Thorn Birds was no easy task. "There’s a microphone hidden in the armpit and another in the sheets," he says. "There’s a wig to worry about, a shadow, an angle. Your arm is giving out because you’ve been sitting above her for three hours on the same elbow, and you’re trying not to smear her lipstick or make slurpy sounds while you’re kissing." Insists Chamberlain, 48 this month, "Love scenes are difficult."

As Father Ralph de Bricassard, the hero of ABC’s 10-hour, four-part, $23 million version of novelist Colleen McCullough’s 1977 mega-seller, Chamberlain faced problems from the start. Although the producer insists he wanted Chamberlain, other contenders were said to include Christopher Reeve and Peter Strauss. When Richard learned that he had snagged himself an encore to NBC’s enormously popular 1980 Shogun, he threw a party in an L.A. Restaurant. But the celebrating stopped as soon as the five and a half months of filming began last June. Playing the ambitious, tormented priest occasionally put Chamberlain into a solitary funk. "I was in a funny place," he admits of some scenes, "where I really didn’t want to be with people." In a fit of frustration over his acting one day, Chamberlain smacked a camera seat and broke his hand. "The complexity of the situation made this performance more difficult than Shogun," he says.

The situation on the set didn’t help. As on Drogheda, the Australian sheep station that is The Thorn Birds’ setting, personal feuds flared. Barbara Stanwyck, 75, who came out of retirement to play manipulative landowner Mary Carson, enchanted cast and crew but clashed with producer Stan Margulies when he cut some of her lines. Says Stan, "I’ve had my ass chewed out by people over the years, but she ranks in the top two percentile."

There were also persistent reports of trouble with Chamberlain’s co-star, Rachel Ward, the 25-year-old English model turned actress who plays Meggie Cleary, the put-upon heroine. "She was scared to death the first couple of weeks," says Chamberlain, gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote, "Rachel simply made herself thoroughly detested by her high-handed attitude." Ward recently conceded, "I was miserable a lot of the time." Chamberlain claims that Rachel’s behaviour was not unprofessional and that he did not break his hand in anger over her antics, as one published report insinuated. But, ever diplomatic, he adds, "She has extremely high standards for herself, so there were times when I could tell she was not happy." Of their chemistry, he says, "I loved her."

So did co-star Bryan Brown, 35, the craggy-featured Australian actor (Breaker Morant, A Town Like Alice) who plays Ward’s wayward husband. In writer McCullough’s love triangle, Brown loses Ward to Chamberlain. But off camera, he got the girl. In fact, the couple will wed April 16 in a small English church (60 guests) near the Oxfordshire estate where Ward was raised. Jokes Brown, "She came begging me to marry her. How could I turn the poor girl down?" Says Rachel, "Bryan’s given me everything. I’ve got it all." Including an engagement ring of pink sapphire surrounded by diamonds.

Bryan and Rachel were strangers until they met on the set. But the attraction was almost instantaneous. "Bryan was smitten," recalls a colleague. "I’ve never seen two people more in love," says Chamberlain. "I think they wanted to be left to themselves." However, when the company trekked to Hawaii’s Kauai, which doubles for Australia’s Queensland, Brown and Ward went public, often strolling on location hand in hand.

The behind-the-scenes romance had on-camera repercussions. With only four previous acting credits (including Sharky’s Machine and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), Rachel was apprehensive about her work. "It’s real hard to play that heightened drama every bleeding day," she notes. But Bryan calmed her fears. Observes Chamberlain, "She seemed to get happier and happier, and her work got better and better." Says Rachel simply, "It certainly helped having Bryan there. He may be rotten to Meggie, but he’s great to me."

When Bryan finished his eight-week Thorn Birds stint, he went to England, where he recently wrapped a part as Paul McCartney’s manager in the up-coming movie musical Give My Regards to Broad Street. Six weeks later Rachel finished and headed home, skipping the wrap party, which did not further endear her to Thorn Birds’ cast and crew. ("I was in love, for heaven’s sake. Any girl would have done what I did," she says.) Reunited in London, the pair decided to marry. "Aren’t I the lucky girl?" asks Rachel.

In fact, the two are something of an odd couple. She comes from England’s upper crust. He comes from working-class Sydney stock. She favoured jet-set nightclubbing. He preferred jeans, beers and hanging out with the blokes.

As the eldest daughter of aristocrat Peter Alistair Ward, 57, and niece of the Earl of Dudley, Rachel was raised with a younger sister and brother in comfort at Cornwell Manor, her father’s 1,800-acre estate. But at an early age, she rejected the decorum expected of society’s child. As she once joked, "My parents saw it coming when I stopped doing my homework and did not get in until 7 in the morning." At 16, she left school to pursue a modeling career. Recalls her London agent, Laraine Ashton, "She was quite nervous about her work. She never really thought she would be any good."

Instead, she was a surprise hit. In the late ‘70s she left England for a successful career stateside appearing in major ads for Revlon and Fabergé. But as a lady-about-town, she was seen at discos more often than on magazine covers. She ran fast in a fast set. "Coke was nice when I was modeling a lot," she once said. One evening at Manhattan’s trendy Xenon disco, she inspired a brawl between Princess Caroline’s then husband, Philippe Junot, and David Kennedy, RFK’s son, whom she dated for five months prior to his 1979 drug scandal.

By contrast, Brown’s life halfway around the world was not so colourful. His mother, Mary, helped support Bryan and younger sister Kristine by taking in ironing after their salesman father walked out when Bryan was 3. After high school, Brown worked for an insurance agency, but acting beckoned. He apprenticed with London and Australian companies, appeared in numerous films, and won international attention as the rakehell soldier in 1980’s Breaker Morant.

With a confident swagger, lean frame and rugged looks, Brown personifies Australia to the rest of the world, but despite his popularity he maintains a low profile in Sydney. Before Ward, he enjoyed a 10-year relationship with Australian actress Julie McGregor. He lives next door to sister Kristine, a teacher. When his 1963 Chevrolet was stolen, he didn’t bother to replace it. His mother said recently, "He has waited a long time to get married, but I think he wanted to wait. He’s seen so many marriages break up in the acting world."

Ward appears eager to play wife. "I’m going to concentrate on being married," she says. "I’m going to be a good wife and look after my hubby and have lots of babies." First, however, she’s about to co-star with Mel Gibson in a caper flick, The Running Man. Bryan is in Australia completing Eureka Stockade, a TV miniseries about a gold miners’ rebellion in 1854.

After marrying, the couple plan to divide their time between homes in L.A. and Australia. Chamberlain suggests, however, that living Down Under could pose a problem, as it did for Meggie and her husband in The Thorn Birds. Says he, "From what I’ve observed, there’s an enormous rift between men and women there. Men don’t seem to count women as full-blown human beings." In Rachel’s case, though, "She’s too independent to fall in love with somebody who didn’t recognize her for herself," he says.

While Brown and Ward plan their wedding, Chamberlain, a long-time student of spiritual matters, returned earlier this month to Kauai to join a 17-day retreat with his holistic teacher, Brugh Joy. For years Chamberlain has planned a TV movie based on his mentor’s book, Joy’s Way: A Map for the Transformational Journey. Richard contends that six years of training with Joy has changed his outlook. "I used to be very self-conscious and inhibited," he recalls. Observes a long-time friend, "He has a kind of inner calm that is unusual for a working actor."

Despite his TV popularity, Chamberlain consistently avoids the Hollywood crowd. A confirmed bachelor, he lives in a three-bedroom Beverly Hills home that he’s remodelling with Japanese-inspired designs. He also has residences in Oahu and Manhattan. In the wake of The Thorn Birds, he intends to stay put for a while in New York City. Playing Father Ralph took a toll. "This story," he says, "is not about happiness."

Rachel and Bryan have their own outlook on The Thorn Birds. Despite the professional and personal boost the show has brought them, neither expects to watch it when it airs next week. "I’m at the stage of not wanting to see myself onscreen," explains Bryan. "I hate my mug on film," chirps Rachel. Besides, they have written their own happy ending. As Rachel says, "We’re already walking together into the sunrise."

© 1983 Scot Haller