Interview 55

Richard Chamberlain: From "Dr. Kildare" to "Spamalot"

Think of Richard Chamberlain and you probably picture a dashing leading man on your television screen.

He found overnight fame in 1961 in the title role of "Dr. Kildare," a medical drama that ran for five seasons. In the late '70s and '80s, he starred in a series of top-rated TV miniseries, including "The Thorn Birds," "Shogun," "Centennial" and "Wallenberg." In recent years, he has guested on "Will & Grace," "Nip/Tuck" and "Desperate Housewives."

On the big screen, Chamberlain has a long and varied list of films, including "The Three Musketeers" and its two sequels, the epic disaster movie "The Towering Inferno" (as the villain who caused the fire), "The Madwoman of Chaillot" (opposite Katharine Hepburn), "The Music Lovers" (as the composer Tchaikovsky), the Indiana Jones-style action saga "King Solomon's Mines" and the Adam Sandler comedy "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."

His extensive stage credentials include touring Broadway revivals of "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music," and productions of "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Blithe Spirit," "Richard II," "The Night of the Iguana," "The King and I" and "Scrooge."

These days Chamberlain is starring as King Arthur in the national touring company of the riotously funny musical "Monty Python's Spamalot," opening Tuesday at Cleveland's Palace Theatre. I had a lively phone interview earlier this week with the gregarious actor, who turns 75 on Tuesday.

Is "Spamalot" the silliest thing you've ever done?

It is, and that's why I love it so much. It is divinely silly. Mammothly, fabulously silly.

I saw on a previous tour and it was hysterical. Are the crowds loving it everywhere?

They just go nuts over the show. It's absolutely thrilling. We live in rather grim times right now and by the end of the show, people are exhilarated.

I was just reading that during your peak of "Dr. Kildare" popularity, you were getting 12,000 fan letters a week. How did you deal with that kind of fame?

Interesting question. First of all, I wanted to be that famous because my sense of self-worth was practically zero. I needed that sort of input on a massive scale and I got it. I loved all the attention I was getting. The reason I didn't go crazy from it is because I was working so hard. We shot 36 episodes that first season, and between seasons they put me in these little films. And if there was a spare minute they'd send me out to do publicity.

So no wild partying for Dr. Kildare?

I didn't have time to get into trouble. Plus, you must remember I grew up in the '40s and '50s, and it was an entirely different world than today. I knew one person in college who had smoked one joint. Cocaine I had never heard of.

You were the king of the TV miniseries for a long stretch. What is it like to make 10-hour movies?

It's like something that fell down from the heavens. The networks could afford to make them at that time because they had such a huge portion of the TV audience. The material was sensational and they had the time and the money to make them well. They took great pride in the miniseries. It was kind of a second golden age of television.

Was "The Thornbirds" your peak of stardom?

It's certainly the thing that's mentioned the most by fans, especially the women.

That was quite a role for you. Tell me about Father Ralph.

His was not a happy life. He was torn in not two but three ways. He really had a deep religious side, so there was God, and then there was the glamous and power of the church, which he was also extremely attracted to. And he was also deeply in love with Maggie, they had a real soul connection. None of these loves were compatible.

You mentioned your fans. Are you able to move about freely in public these days?

In public, I'm able to move much too freely! (Chuckles) But it's kind of wonderful drifting back into anonymity. I like being able to walk through crowds and not be noticed at all. And the people who come up and say hello are ever so kind and appreciative.

What it was like working with Katharine Hepburn?

She was actually very sweet but quite grand and sort of imperial. She approved me for the role and then we got on quite well. One time they were setting up a scene and she and I were sitting on a bench and she was holding my head in her lap. She was playing with my hair which had been streaked blond and all of a sudden she said, "You have little piggy ears close to your head just like mine! It means you're very selfish just like me!" (Chuckles) We were on the set when she found out she'd won the Oscar for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and I remember she said, "You always win it for the wrong things!"

You've worked with some amazing actresses over the years: Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Page.

Lauren Bacall is one of the most fascinating people to be around. She knows everyone and has stories about all of them. Geraldine Page was a miracle to work with every night onstage. Faye I have no comment about, although I think she is a splendid actress.

Did you ever appear in anything that was a disaster?

In terms of movies, "The Swarm" was quite dreadful. In theater, I did a Broadway musical version of "Breakfast With Tiffany's" with Mary Tyler Moore that bombed. It was the first thing I did after "Dr. Kildare." It was supposed to be the hit of the season, everybody working on it was absolutely first class, and nothing worked. The magic never happened. Mary used to go off and cry between scenes because they'd be yelling at us from the audience.

Do you have a favorite role?

I'd say my favorite was in a little play called "Fathers and Sons" that I did at the Public Theatre in New York. I was Wild Bill Hickock, Dixie Carter was Calamity Jane and it took place in this broken-down Western bar.

After "Dr. Kildare," you were the first American actor to play Hamlet in England since John Barrymore. Was that a little daunting?

The terror I felt on opening night was paralyzing agony. I remember walking across the stage and I couldn't bend my knees. I was so scared I couldn't hear my cues from the other actors. Fortunately, things started coming together and I wound up getting some very good notices.

Actors don't seem to retire like people do in other professions. Is it just too hard to give it up?

Mostly we keep doing it because we love doing it. It's not just about being onstage, it's the excitement of it, the exploration, the creativity. It's so wonderful to be an actual working actor that we sometimes stay past our prime. Even somebody like Nureyev, who danced long after he should have. He just had to - it's what he did!