Dr. Kildare Plays Hamlet
Richard Chamberlain, actor's actor, has finally shaken off the ghost of Dr. Kildare. But now he has another ghost to contend with -Hamlet's daddy. And you know, Richard couldn't be happier.
Birmingham is a grimy British industrial town, famous as the producer of most of the world's bicycles and most of Britain's cars. But famous for culture it isn't. However, it does support one repertory theater, and two years ago they put on a production of Hamlet. And who should be playing the role of Hamlet but an American, and not a Shakespearean actor either, but Richard Chamberlain, the young, blond heartthrob of TV's Dr. Kildare. And he was so good in the part that NBC is putting on a special two-hour Hamlet this winter starring the former M.D.
"Hamlet is the part I wanted almost more than any part I have ever read," Richard said in London, where he now lives most of the year. "When I started rehearsing I was in a state of shock. If the other actors had been beastly, I'd have understood. They'd a right to be upset if someone without their experience came in and played such a role. But amazingly, the company didn't resent me -they were marvelously kind and helpful. By the end, I think I was giving a reasonably straightforward reading. Maybe it's good to come fresh to Shakespeare." This modesty is amazing when you consider that, as Dr. Kildare, Richard was fabulously successful, earned a huge salary and had a fan mail intake which broke all previous studio records.
"I enjoyed that," Richard admitted, "because all actors love to be adored. That's why they do it."
Yet in Birmingham his salary was only $100 a week, and at present, instead of living in his beautiful house high in the hills of Los Angeles, he has a tiny apartment in the middle of London.
"I do miss the sun and I miss my house, which I'm very fond of. It isn't a large house, just two bedrooms, but it's all quite beautiful, with wood beams. And I miss my friends," he admits. But then he adds, "I love England and I love its people. I think the people here live more inside themselves than we do. They're a bit gentler, a bit more vulnerable. But I haven't given up America. My ideal would be to spend half a year in each country."
And how did Richard manage the radical transformation from Dr. Kildare to Hamlet, from being considered a teenage heartthrob to being taken seriously as an actor? "The image of Dr. Kildare is exactly how I was when I began the series," he says. "I was young in years and younger still in personality, and conscious of a certain responsibility to the image -you know, trying to give the picture of a clean-cut, clean-living, rather innocent young American fellow."
"Dr. Kildare was a prig, and it was agony speaking to the press because I always had to say everything was lovely and beautiful and true. As I grew up, he didn't, so I couldn't either, properly, until the series was over."
But after the series was over he really started to take stock of himself and what he wanted from his career. "I had very little experience before Kildare, so I had to do some of my basic training after. Kildare was hard work and marvelous training, but after five years I thought I’d rather exhausted its possibilities for learning."
He began to look around for ways to expand his range as an actor, and not just go on doing television, although he was offered other series and admits that "it would have been very easy to continue on in television." Instead Richard took the difficult step of doing summer stock in the East and Middle West, playing in The Philadelphia Story, Private Lives and West Side Story. He also made his first movie, Petulia, with Julie Christie and George C. Scott. "Petulia was sort of the first step out in a new direction," he recalls. "All relationships in Petulia went wrong because the people weren't able to feel deeply enough to make them work."
But he also recalls that Julie Christie, personally, was a warm and giving person to act with. Richard played her impotent and sadistic husband, a far cry from the priggish Dr. Kildare! After Petulia he made the move to England.
"There were opportunities in other series," Richard admits, "but I felt the need of expanding my experience as an actor and I thought that theater and films were the places to do it. Also, I had heard about England and its repertory companies and that it's easier to get training as an actor there."
So he flew to England. "I seemed to fit in from the start," Richard says. "I’d been here before, staying with friends, and was flattered when one of them told someone, 'We like him because he's a Quiet American.' Well, the first time I came on business I got the part of Ralph in Portrait Of A Lady, and this was a great turning point for me." His taking this part surprised most people since Ralph was not the leading character in the 5-part television serial but the charming, frail cousin of the heroine, who dies before the end of the story. Richard was a great success in it, and he declares, "People saw it and I got offered other things. Before, a lot of people thought I couldn't act."
That television serial started up a whole new romantic image of Richard; no longer as the blond, outdoorsy Dr. Kildare, but as a fragile, sensitive aristocrat. And soon he was being offered the role of Hamlet. "I have had the experience of being very disappointed in relationships, which is inevitably one's own fault -and Hamlet is a disappointed man," he says. "And at times I've felt very vengeful in my life, too, though not to the point of murder. One of my problems in the part is that I'm not actually used to expressing myself in anger. I usually let it pile up and seethe rather than flash out with it as Hamlet does. Mine would come out in some terrible underhanded way."
His success in the repertory version of Hamlet led to the NBC special, which will be the first time Hamlet has ever been played to an audience of around fifty million! And since making that, Richard has also played another Shakespearean role, that of Octavius in the movie Julius Caesar, with Charlton Heston and Sir John Gielgud. He also made the movie The Madwoman Of Chaillot with Katharine Hepburn.
But when I saw Richard in London he had just finished making the movie Tchaikovsky, with the brilliant director Ken Russell, who made Women In Love and several very controversial television dramas.
"To be asked to play Tchaikovsky was easily the biggest challenge of my career," Richard asserts. "He was a man totally involved with himself, a brilliant talent and an unhappy creature."
"Because Tchaikovsky is such an unusual film, one doesn't know the effect it's going to have," Richard continues. "I wonder how it will turn out. I just don't know if I'm any good. It's fascinating -and terrifying- because Ken Russell is so brilliant and you worry about not matching up to his standards. It might be a great, great success and if it is ..."
Does Richard enjoy the thought of becoming a top box-office star all over again, or does he dread the renewed publicity and pressure that that would bring? After all he did say after Kildare, "I had to break loose. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the series or the publicity attached. I'm rather a shy person, but I liked the fame and being noticed. What I'm doing now, though, is much nearer my dreams when I was in college."
College for Richard was Pomona College in California, the state where he was born. His father is a successful manufacturer of furniture, and his elder brother works in the family firm. While Richard was in college he played Blanchley in Shaw's Arms And The Man, and that led to his going to drama school after a two-year hitch in the army. "I was only pursuing acting as a hobby at that time," he confesses. But when he became Dr. Kildare, he began to take the acting profession seriously, particularly as he secretly felt he was not really qualified enough for a leading role.
"Doing Kildare was in fact rather difficult," he smiles. "I think playing a leading man is probably the most difficult for an actor because of making the role interesting. It's easier to play a neurotic or a character role."
Raymond Massey, who also played in the series, has said, "The last two years it began to feel as if it had bogged down -we ran out of diseases." Richard goes on, "It's a waste of time acting in anything but close-ups on TV because that's all TV cares about. Which is a pity because you end up acting from the neck up. In Portrait Of A Lady and Hamlet and Tchaikovsky I have learned much more than I ever learned in school about acting -it couldn't be otherwise. Now I think I have much more freedom as an actor, but I have a long way to go before I am satisfied."
Everybody else who's seen Richard acting lately is more than satisfied however, and Ken Russell, in particular, is known only to work with powerful actors. Richard says the Tchaikovsky role has been one of the hardest for him. "I never worked so hard in my life, weekends and the lot. I was nearly dead with fatigue when we finished. I had no time off at all. But I learned an enormous amount about the making of films."
Obviously, Richard is a very sensitive and introspective actor these days, not at all like the Dr. Kildare image. "I used to do the fresh all-American boy routine because it was easy in America," he laughs. "Here it isn't enough. No one is impressed by the 'Big Star' routine -you have to get down to honest relationships. I like England very much and it always is a great help to get out of context, to uproot yourself and live for a while in a different environment. I found out about myself. We Americans tend to be a bit conformist. In England people are very tolerant of eccentricities and have more respect for personal individuality."
Finding himself seems to have involved living a much less luxurious life, but Richard likes that. "In Los Angeles, especially, there is such opulence of material wealth. It distracts. Encumbered by giant freezers and huge cars, too many things can clutter up your life."
But there is one thing he feels is missing and that is a wife! "Now that I'm past thirty," he confesses, "I am very conscious of time running out. I'd like to get married. I've got a super home in California, but it never looks lived in. It needs a woman. Still, astrologers say it won't happen until I'm thirty-eight or thirty-nine."
And until that time? Well, with this Hamlet, as with every other Hamlet, the play's the thing.
© 1971 Patricia Darrow