Interview 58

Richard Chamberlain: From Dr. Kildare to Beyond

CHICAGO Still regal and debonair, Richard Chamberlain has graced both the screen and television with a memorable presence that has spanned 50 years. He recently introduced "The Four Musketeers" at The Hollywood Palms in Naperville, Illinois.

Chamberlain made a superstar splash on TV in 1961 when he played the title character in "Dr. Kildare," gaining fame in nearly Beatles-like proportion. Moving from that show in the 1960s, he went to England near the end of that decade, to study stagecraft, and eventually became the second American (after John Barrymore in 1929) to play Hamlet while in residence.

His film career then picked up again, as he played a major role in the 1970s schlock classic "The Towering Inferno" and both versions of the Musketeers films (explanation below), before becoming "King of the TV Miniseries" with unforgettable turns in "The Thorn Birds," "Shogun" and Centennial, among others.

Recently, Chamberlain wrote his autobiography, "Shattered Love," in which he revealed that he was gay, and followed that up with his scene stealing role in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."

What was behind your decision in the late 1960s to go and perform in England and take on Shakespearian roles, plus more serious fare, and how did that decision evolve or advance you as an actor and person?

Raymond Massey [who co-starred with Chamberlain in Kildare] was kind of a father figure to me during Dr. Kildare. He used to invite me to his house for lunch where he would have guests like Cedric Hardwicke and Jack Hawkins. I would just sit and listen to their stories.

I was sitting one day at lunch across from Cedric Hardwicke once. And he said (affecting perfect accent) 'you know Richard its a pity, you've become a big star before you learned to act.' He didn't mean it cruelly at all, he meant where was my basic training? In England, they are trained through drama school and repertory theater, etc.

That lit a fire under me. Maybe go to England to get some basic training. And then I did Petulia. Lester was pretending to be British [laughs] and most of the cast were British. And I thought, God I love these people. I'm going to go to England, go to drama school, and get my basic training. Which I did shortly after that, in 1968.

Right off the plane, my agents got me this wonderful part in 'Portrait of a Lady.' And that started me working all the time there, which was great, because it was on-the-job-training, and it turned out to be better than drama school. I learned so much working with these fabulous actors. I was there four and a half years.

One of my favorite 1970s films is 'The Towering Inferno.' What kind of difficulties were there making that epic, and who in the star-studded cast were you finally glad you had an opportunity to work with?

I got to be punched in the stomach by William Holden, for pete's sake. [laughs] That is really something. Most of the scenes took place at the top of the ballroom in the burning building. The set was at Fox, so everybody was just hanging out there. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Fred Astaire were just there. I just sat around and listened to the conversations.

The problem with filmmaking at that time for me was the waiting around. I didn't know how to do it. It's extremely enervating, until you learn how to do it. You can't read, because that takes you too far away. Now I know how to do it, but it's part of the filmmaking game that is odd.

In your book, Shattered Love, you described a difficult journey with your family and father. How much of their reaction regarding you can you ascribe to the period of conformity in American social history?

We were extreme conformists, I was a very 1950s person, well behaved and in my family everybody pretended to be perfect. You weren't allowed to challenge anyone's perfection, so we weren't allowed to challenge one another. We pretended to be perfect, which of course we weren't.

The family structure was clear. My father was boss, king of the hill. My older brother was heir apparent and I was just this strange kid, who liked to act, paint and do weird things. I was very much in the background. When I became famous, all of a sudden, it upset all that.

My father was a speaker for Alcoholic Anonymous, he'd quit drinking and become a guru for them. He was very proud he would get a hundred Christmas cards every year. And then I started getting 12,000 letters a week. [laughs] He really didn't know how to handle it. But they did get used to it.

How difficult was it to be closeted in the 1950s and '60s? Did you feel there might be be career implications if anyone 'found out' who you were?

Of course, I was terrified. I grew up from the 1930s through the '60s, when being gay was the worst possible thing you could be. It was worse that being a traitor. It was not an option.

So I pretended to be another person. I was living as this other person, which is exhausting. I was terrified because my casting was that of a romantic leading man, so I thought to be found out would be death. Career death.

Did you find any sympathy within the acting community, though?

It was never discussed. I had close friends, but the community-at-large never discussed it. I can't remember having a conversation with another celebrity type about it.

What role in your long career best exemplifies the duplicity that you had in your personal life, and what nuance did you bring to the performance that you had never felt before?

I played Tchaikovsky as a gay man in 'The Music Lovers' [1970], which was directed by Ken Russell and co-starred Glenda Jackson. I suppose I related to the tortured aspect of his life, and some of the terror of it. He married the Glenda Jackson character, and there was an extraordinary scene where she takes off her dress and she's ready to go, and Russell filmed it like it was an enormous vagina. [laughs] And the set was shaking, Ken was playing Sostakovich full blast on these huge speakers. The camera was above shooting down and we were rolling on the floor. Finally Glenda ends up naked on the floor, and I was tormented as Tchaikovsky. Ken was slightly sadistic, and filmed it over and over again. We would leave between takes and just sit, trying to stay sane. I suppose there was a certain reality to the terror, that I might not have experienced otherwise.

Let's briefly talk about the Musketeers films. Instead of two films, it was originally slated to be one three hour film, correct? But it was cut in two without the knowledge of anyone in the production. What was your reaction to that?

We were all flabbergasted by that, by the fact we made two films instead of one film. Funny enough, Richard Lester [director] said to the press that everybody knew, but nobody did. It said 'Intermission' in the middle of the script.

Raquel Welch had something in her contract that made it possible for us to sue for some added dinero, and we did get more money for it. As a result of this, there is now a 'Salkind Clause' in every contract, saying that a work can only be released as one film, and if its released as two films you get paid double.

Are you glad you reached the point in American social history where you could be a proud and out gay man?

Yes and no. It's fine with me, because I finally reached a point at age 65 when this magical thing happened. I was writing my book, and one day it was as if I was visited by an angel. This inner voice just said 'enough already, you've been putting yourself through this for nothing.' The fact that I'm gay was totally benign. Think about it. What does that tell you about somebody. Nothing.

It's very interesting that we blow this up to be a huge and scary fact, when it isn't very interesting at all. So now I'm fine.

© 2010 Patrick McDonald