Romantic leading man reveals truth about personal life.
Richard Chamberlain has been a heartthrob for four decades, no small feat in the often fickle world of prime time TV. But his acting went far deeper than his audiences knew, because for all these years, Richard Chamberlain has kept a secret, one he's revealing for the first time. He spoke with NBC's Keith Morrison.
He has been practically a definition for dashing leading man: chiseled features, brandy-smooth voice, piercing blue eyes. Richard Chamberlain has been a movie star, accomplished stage actor, king of the television mini-series. Women, especially, couldn't get enough of him. Many still can't.
KM: "There's still women all over the world who are just gaga about you."
RC: "They're tending to get a bit gray, mind you!"
You may remember him as the charming serious young Doctor Kildare. This was his big break, his first TV series back in the early 60s. In one episode, he falls for a surfer who suffers seizures, a chance to play opposite Yvette Mimieux. Back then, it wasn't considered so inappropriate for a TV doctor to have a certain "bedside manner" with a patient. Success struck like lightening. Chamberlain went from living in a $60-a-month apartment to instant fame, receiving 12,000 fan letters a week.
KM: "When the part came along, did you realize that it was you?"
RC: "Yeah. I was pretty scared and very green, but I knew this was going to be kind of wonderful if I could pull it off."
Pull it off? Even though he played the part of the confident young doctor, he was filled with self-doubt and wondered when everyone would realize their praise was misplaced.
RC: "I never quite believed it; I never quite believed that I deserved all this adulation."
But why? Richard Chamberlain grew up in Beverly Hills in the '30s and '40s, the second son of a businessman and stay-at-home mom. Richard says he hated school and was excruciatingly inhibited. His childhood was very unhappy, he says, his father psychologically abusive, his family miserable, behind a carefully tended façade. To the outside world, they were perfect -attractive, talented and happy. His name for that is "The Chamberlain Magic Show."
RC: "We all pretended to be perfect, the perfect Chamberlain family. It was kind of like those families on television in the 50s."
KM: "You write that your father was a 'periodic alcoholic'?"
RC: Yes. "He was a periodic drinker. A few weeks on, a few weeks off until he finally hit bottom and went crazy mad and had convulsions and all that stuff and went off to the hospital and finally realized that he couldn't beat it. And so he got into AA and became all over the world a renowned speaker in AA."
KM: "And you're thinking?"
RC: "And I'm thinking, how could he be so effective in public and such a schmuck at home?"
Richard says his father was so controlling, he perceived Richard's sudden success at age 27 as perhaps some sort of threat.
RC: "It upset the family for awhile."
KM: "Upset the family?"
RC: "Well, no one knew what to do with this because suddenly this strange little kid was a big star. Then they decided that it was probably just a flash in the pan that as soon as Kildare was over, I'd be lost and forgotten again."
But of course, he was hardly forgotten. He was becoming a bigger and bigger romantic star, all the while hiding his true identity, the one he waited all these years to reveal. He played everything from a role in "Julius Caesar" in 1970, to the villain responsible for the fire in "The Towering Inferno." But Chamberlain was not the bad guy for long and this brought him right back to romance. He was captivated by the novel "Shogun," and when he heard it was being turned into a mini-series, he called his agent. Chamberlain was told the lead role had been offered to Robert Redford, then Sean Connery. So Chamberlain met with the author of the book and tried to convince him he was right for the part.
RC: "I knew he wanted Sean Connery so he wanted somebody big and manly and I was working out, taking lessons to sort of lower my voice and at the first meeting I was wearing six T-shirts underneath my shirt to look kind of bigger and tougher. I managed to deceive my way into the part."
Chamberlain turned pilot major John Blackthorne into a household name. Richard played a 17th Century sailor shipwrecked in Japan who falls in love with his married translator.
RC: "I'm a very romantic guy; I loved riding in on a white horse and saving the damsel and all that, I loved all that."
And he played that role unbelievably well. His next miniseries would be even more successful than his last. In "The Thorn Birds," he played a handsome priest torn between his church and his woman, played by Rachel Ward. It is only now, at age 69, that he is finally able to tell his full story without feeling shame, to let go of the secret that he had hidden all his life.
RC: "I can talk about it now because I'm not afraid anymore."
It happened just recently as he was writing his autobiography, "Shattered Love." He describes it as an epiphany.
RC: "Two months ago, I say, I had this moment of grace writing the book. It was like grace; it was like the divine or something said, 'Look, here's the truth.' And I looked and I saw that it's a non-issue. It's a non-issue."
The man who made a career of wooing women for five decades -is gay.
KM: "Part of what you've done in this book is that you have essentially brought yourself out of the closet after many years."
KM: "Why now?"
RC: "I'm not a romantic leading man anymore so I don't need to nurture that public image anymore. The major reason is I have something to say about it now. You come up to me and say 'I'm straight.' That tells me almost nothing about you. It doesn't tell me whether you're a good person or a bad person, it doesn't tell me anything about hardly anything, except that if you're sleeping with somebody, it's probably a female. It's the same with gay. It tells you almost nothing about the person."
It has taken the better part of his lifetime to admit and accept who he is. All those years growing up, becoming a star, playing the role of the romantic hero, he lived in terror that his secret would spill out. Even his parents died without ever discussing it.
RC: "When I grew up, being gay, being a sissy or anything like that, was verboten! I disliked myself intensely and feared this part of myself intensely and had to hide it and became ‘Perfect Richard, All American Boy,' too, as a place to hide."
And so the all-American boy became the hunky heartthrob.
KM: "That wasn't awkward for you in any way to be, having to be this incredible romantic lead with these women? And you're sweeping them off their feet?"
RC: "No, man, it's acting; it's called acting! It's wonderful! It's wonderful when it happens. It's just delightful! The question wouldn't come up if I was playing a murderer."
He hid his homosexuality because he was convinced that if people found out, his first role would be his last.
RC: "The press, you know, they're all kind of sniffing around the edges. And when I was doing Kildare and all that, the fan magazines were all kind of, you know, hmmm, and tried to ask those oblique questions and stuff. And I got very good at fencing with them."
And now? It is such a relief he says, not to do that anymore, not to deny any longer the relationship he has been in for 26 years.
RC: "I just am more thankful for Martin's love than anything else in my life."
Richard met Martin in 1977 while working on a play in Los Angeles. Martin is now a director and producer and also Richard's manager.
KM: "When you look back at having to deny it, all that time."
RC: "Not pleasant, not pleasant, not pleasant for Martin, because he's much younger than me and didn't have the terrible self-doubt that I had about this particular subject."
KM: "Was this an issue between the two of you?"
RC: "Yes, from time to time. In the beginning of our relationship I was incredibly self-involved, I was not easy to live with. He wasn't that easy to live with either, to tell the truth. But somehow we stuck it out together."
While Martin supports Richard's decision to go public, he values the quiet life they live together in Hawaii. And after 69 years, Richard Chamberlain finally accepts himself for who he is: a perfectly imperfect, gay and happy man.
RC: "I love my life just the way it is. I'm proud of my relationship. I'm actually proud of myself. And there you are."
© 2003 NBC News