Interview 35

The Most Happy Fella Stars in 'The King And I'

Content at last with who he is, the legendary Richard Chamberlain plays the lead role in Hawaii Opera Theatre's non-opera production.

Richard ChamberlainRichard Chamberlain

Fade in.

Exterior. Guest house. Makiki Heights. Mid-morning.

MidWeek writer, photographer and Hawaii Opera Theatre PR director arrive for interview. Richard Chamberlain, a handsome actor, leans out of the front door while getting dressed. He is shirtless, carrying his hairbrush and mirror.

RC: I'll be right with you. Take the path to the pool terrace, there on the right.

LADIES (sighing): It's good to see you.


Poolside terrace in lush garden setting with panoramic view of Honolulu.

RC: Will this do?

REPORTER: It's good to see you.

RC: It's good to be seen. Shall we talk about the show?

REPORTER (regaining composure): Yes, of course. That's why we're here.

REPORTER: July 21 is opening night of Hawaii Opera Theatre's (HOT) The King and I. How are you preparing for your role as King Mongkut of Siam?

RC: I spent a lot of time learning the script and lyrics. I also read about the actual king, and that was useful. I sing Puzzlement, a very tricky song. I'm going to look as Asian as they can make me. I won't look anything like Yul Brynner (who played the King in the 1956 film version). The costumes and sets are beautiful. This is one of the greatest musicals of all time.

REPORTER: How did you get the part?

RC: I was last on the list. They wanted an Asian actor and had several in mind. Actually, they hired Cary Tagawa, but he got a film project. I always wanted this role, but I didn't tell Martin (Rabbett, the director) I was dying to do it. I love this part, and I love doing it.

With executive director Karen Tiller of Hawaii Opera Theatre, general and artistic director Henry Akina and co-star Jan Maxwell
With executive director Karen Tiller of Hawaii Opera Theatre, general and artistic director Henry Akina and co-star Jan Maxwell

I've done a lot of theatre. I saw the earliest film version with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn. That was not a musical, but it was terrific. But unlike Harrison's or Brynner's portrayal, this king will be more like me. I emphasize the duality of the character. He is conflicted between ancient and modern values. The conflict overwhelms him.

REPORTER: What about the king's interaction with Anna, the English teacher role to be played by Tony Award nominee Jan Maxwell?

RC: The king's never encountered anyone with that forthright manner. But he's very attracted to Anna. He has an intuition that she's very important to the future of Siam.

Jan Maxwell is absolutely going to steal the show. She is a wonderful actress. She sings the kind of truth that Martin is looking for. I've worked with Jan in Sound of Music on Broadway. We trust each other and work well together.

REPORTER: How operatic is this production?

RC: It's not an opera; it's a musical. The music is absolutely gorgeous. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this one feels the least dated, because of its themes of East-West culture clashes and a yin-yang power struggle that's funny and heart-rending. This is more story-rich than most operas.

Best of all, audiences get to see a live Broadway show of professional caliber in the comfort of their community and with a hard-working local cast.

REPORTER: What about the local cast? RC: There are 64 people in the cast, one of the largest productions staged by HOT. Jordan Segundo (Lun Tha), Kristian Lei (Tuptim), the chorus and the dancers have been working very hard. Wait until you see them; they are incredible. Martin has never directed such a large cast before. I marvel at how he's handling it.

REPORTER: Do you prefer films or theatre?

RC: I've done and enjoy both. Theatre is a blessing. Movie acting is extremely technical. Everything's cut into pieces, and there's endless waiting on the set. You have to keep your energy focused and stay ready at all times. In theatre, you get to rehearse for several weeks, go from beginning to end on stage, and you're in constant rapport with the audience. It's a wonderful feeling.

REPORTER: Got any tips for enjoying a night at the opera?

RC: Don't eat too big a dinner beforehand, so you won't be sleepy. Sit in your seat, look at the program, and when the lights dim and the curtain goes up (gets emotional and teary), be ready to enter a world of dreams. If we do our jobs right, it will be mesmerizing, entertaining and moving. And oh, dress up for the occasion. It's nice to have that sense of event. My acting coach, Jeff Corey, used to say, “The theatre is a sacred place. Wear shoes.”

REPORTER: There are a lot of philosophical gems in this play, like your song Puzzlement.

RC: (exuberantly): Oi vey!

Jordan Segundo co-stars in 'The King and I'
Jordan Segundo co-stars in 'The King and I'

Life is the greatest puzzle of all. Here we are in this beautiful place, doing this wonderful play with wonderful people. It's extraordinary. Yet elsewhere in the world there is so much turmoil and suffering. Go figure.

REPORTER: Has living in Hawaii brought you peace?

RC: I came here 30 years ago, and I've lived here permanently for 18 years. It is paradise in the middle of the ocean. But for some reason we can't resist covering it over with concrete. Talk about life being a puzzlement! We're so complacent, sitting back with our mai tais and sunsets. If there weren't laws about building on Diamond Head, it would be covered. Oh, oh. Don't get me started!

REPORTER: OK, let's change the subject. How's your (autobiographical) book Shattered Love doing?

RC: It was a New York Times best seller when it was released in 2003. The response has been wonderful. The mail has been extraordinary. It's a book about how to live our lives more fully. The basic question is would be it possible and desirable to live more open-heart-edly all of the time, no matter what life throws at you. My answer is “yes.” Love is the actual motor of the universe, the source of wisdom and intelligence. The minute you're in resentment, hatred and retribution, you're in a sense dead. The heart doesn't deal with negative stuff. This is the basic tenet of the book.

REPORTER: In the book, you reveal for the first time your longtime relationship with Martin Rabbett, producer-director-film-maker. At age 69, you came out and no longer hide your sexuality in order to have a successful career.

RC: (as he told the Los Angeles Times): "Everyone has been so supportive, so positive, so friendly. Suddenly, I am free, out of the prison I built for myself. It's intoxicating. I can talk about it positively because I'm not afraid anymore. Sixty-eight years it took me to realize that I'd been wrong about myself. I wasn't terrible at all."

REPORTER: In The King & I, you explore the character's duality. Sounds like you had one in personal life too.

RC: I was two people - the good Richard, handsome, straight leading man - and the bad Richard -a gay man and, therefore, beyond contempt.

REPORTER: Has it affected your career?

RC: I had a couple of years when I wasn't working at all. I just lounged around Maui, having a good time. All of a sudden, I'm working all the time. It's amazing.

After more than 40 years of playing heroes and romantic leads, I'm going to play a controlling, slightly predatory, gay businessman on FX's hit drama Nip 'n Tuck. I'm also going to do a movie in Ireland called Strength and Honor. I just completed a role in Blackbeard for a Hallmark mini-series.

REPORTER: (reflectively): Will I ever get those piercing blue eyes out of my mind? I still remember his good looks and charm as Dr. Kildare in the popular TV series of the 1960s. And who can forget his signature roles in TV mini-series Shogun and The Thorn Birds? He's come a long way from being that shy kid in Beverly Hills and art student at Pomona College. His parents, Chuck and Elsa Chamberlain, would be proud of how he's managed his life and career. CNN host Larry King put it best when he closed a recent interview with:

KING: I'll pay you a great compliment. I don't think I've ever interviewed a happier person.

RC: Whoah! Thank you.

Fade out.