Interview 51

Veteran actor Richard Chamberlain, free from fear, silly in "Spamalot"

Richard Chamberlain was a TV matinee idol for decades, from playing the swoony intern on Dr. Kildare in the 1960s to reigning as king of the miniseries in the 1970s and '80s (Centennial, Shogun, The Thorn Birds). Lately, Chamberlain has been doing musical theater, appearing on Broadway and on tour as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Capt. Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, the title role in Scrooge: The Musical and now as King Arthur in Spamalot, which opens in Tampa tonight.

Six years ago, Chamberlain created a bit of a stir by writing his memoir, Shattered Love, and coming out as a gay. He lives in Maui, Hawaii, with his partner of 32 years, Martin Rabbett. Here are excerpts from a phone interview I had with him last week:

You turn 75 on March 31, and you still look great. What's your secret?

I don't know. It's partly genes. My parents looked pretty good until they left the planet. I take rather good care of myself. I exercise every day.

The Thorn Birds was such a huge hit. What do fans most ask about?

What was it like kissing Rachel Ward? Wonderful, wonderful, I gotta tell you. How did you like Australia? And I have to tell them we shot all of it in Los Angeles.

What impact did coming out have on your career?

None at all, as far as I could tell. It had a tremendous impact on me, because it wasn't until I was totally free. . . . Let's say you grew up with red hair, and everybody in your society believed that red hair meant you were possessed by the devil. So you dye your hair black or brown so people won't think you're the devil, but on the inside you still think you're the devil because you've absorbed that from your culture. And I grew up thinking I was the devil, and trying to hide it.

Finally, when I was 68 and writing the book, it was as if an angel came and put his hand on my head and said, "Enough already. It's over." And I suddenly realized deep, deep down that being gay or straight means almost nothing. I realized that I had been filled with fear about something that was totally benign.

You write a lot about your mother and father in Shattered Love. Did you ever tell them you were gay?

No, we never discussed it. It would have been interesting. But I've never sat down with myself and imagined doing that. I think I would have been met with a sort of blankness. They were a funny couple.

I hadn't known until reading the book that your father was an important figure in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Oh, he was a big deal. He stopped drinking when I was 14 and got into AA. He became a very charismatic, very popular speaker. People used to come up to me in airports and say, "Your dad saved my life." I still thought he was a jerk.

What's the most challenging thing about Spamalot?

The biggest challenge is remembering to take it all very, very seriously. The more seriously everybody takes the show, the funnier it gets.

© 2009 St. Petersburg Times