Interview 43

Richard Chamberlain: Nervous In Paradise
(May 2008)

The former King of the Miniseries on his stay at Wisteria Lane.

Richard Chamberlain, a trim and youthful 74, cherry picks his acting assignments these days.

"Working is lovely and not working is lovely," he says.

Chamberlain has called Hawaii home for more than two decades - he currently lives in Maui - and when he's not in front of the camera, he spends his days in "paradise," painting.

Yet, Chamberlain still has his eyes on industry prizes and hopes he'll get an Emmy nomination and award for his guest-starring role this past season on ABC's "Desperate Housewives" as Lynette's (Felicity Huffman's) long-lost stepfather who reunites briefly with her and his ex-wife Stella (Polly Bergen). During his visit to Wisteria Lane, he confesses to Lynette that he and Stella broke up because of the fact that he is gay.

Chamberlain, who came out of the closet himself at age 69, became a teen heartthrob in the 1960's as the gallant and noble young doctor on the long-running NBC series "Dr. Kildare." Working extensively in England in the 1970s, he appeared in such movies as "The Music Lovers," "The Slipper and the Rose" and "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers." During the 1980s, he became the King of the Miniseries genre, starring in such blockbusters as "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds."

Besides his appearance on 'Desperate Housewives," Chamberlain has guest starred on "Will & Grace," "Nip/Tuck" and "Hustle" and was featured in last year's hit feature comedy, "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."

I find it hard to believe that you have never won an Emmy.

No, I've been nominated so many times. I am hoping I get this one, which would be wonderful. First of all, it's the most beautiful statue of all of them, and I would like to have it sitting around some place. I would love to have one.

You had worked with Polly Bergen years before "Desperate Housewives?"

Yes, she did a "Dr. Kildare" episode.

Was she your love interest?

She was in part! She played twins. Of course, there was a good twin and the evil twin. And I probably got them all mixed up. Polly reminded me as the evil twin she tried to seduce me on a beach somewhere, but given Dr. Kildare's extraordinary character, he probably didn't succumb. He didn't drop his [doctor's ] jacket much less his pants.

Your character was so sweet on the series.

He is a really good guy. It was fun playing him because he was a really good guy.

Would you have played a gay role before you came out?

Of course. No problem. I played Tchaikovsky in 'The Music Lovers' and he was gay. That was OK. It was coming out and saying, 'I'm gay,' that was verboten. You had to keep your mouth shut.

What is it like for an actor doing a guest shot on a TV series?

It's wonderful. I love doing this. I have done "Will & Grace" and others. It's really, really fun because you enter this family -- this existing family -- and usually they all get on really well. That's the way it was with "Desperate Housewives." Mainly, it was Felicity [Huffman] and Polly and me, all of our scenes were together. I didn't interact with the other wives unfortunately. But I loved Felicity, I can't tell you how I loved it. We became bosom buddies on the show.

Well you two worked so well together. You really felt there was a strong, loving past between you.

I was hoping Polly and I would get invited back and get involved in some of those extraordinary misdeeds that happen on the show, but then there was a writers' strike. There's always next season.

You have worked with so many remarkable actors over the years, including Raymond Massey in "Kildare" and "Hamlet," Glenda Jackson, George C. Scott, Julie Christie to name just a few.

Outstanding people! Even on 'Kildare" we had Gena Rowlands and Lauren Bacall and Gloria Swanson for Pete's sake.

Gloria Swanson? What did she play?

Well, what else? A famous actress who was in the hospital. She was terrific, but bizarre to work with. In television, time is of the essence, and our first morning's work she was in her hospital bed. Suddenly in between takes she said 'Helen, Helen.' And her maid comes in with her breakfast. This elaborate breakfast on a big silver tray and everything stops because she is having her breakfast in bed. It was unbelievable. Nobody dare say anything because she was a real tigress and there she was and that happened every day.

Do you have as much passion for acting now as you did early in your career?

I'm totally excitted, but I'm terrified.

You're terrified?

It is more like excitement. This big fan magazine used to have these awards that Johnny Carson used to host. Bette Davis was getting one and we were backstage waiting to go on and she was really nervous. I said 'Miss Davis, you can't possibly be nervous.' And she said 'Honey, when you stop being nervous you're finished.' There is some truth in that. You never know what's going to happen. Every role is different, and in a way you start from zero [with each role], though, you have acquired a lot of skills along the way.

Are you contemplating a return to the theater? I know at one point you were going to do a tour with "On Golden Pond" with Hayley Mills.

That didn't work out because they couldn't work out a schedule that was livable. I was going to do "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. this August, but it fell apart because the cast got Broadway shows. It would have been extraordinary. Maybe next year.