When Richard Chamberlain was about to enter Beverly Hills High School, American playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz were adapting an 1880 novel by Henry James. Washington Square evolved into The Heiress and opened on Broadway in 1947. It ran 410 performances, with Basil Rathbone as Dr. Austin Sloper.
Now Chamberlain is stepping into Dr. Sloper’s shoes at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The path to Pasadena began in Pomona. “I was in a lot of drama productions at Pomona College, as scared as I was,” Chamberlain remembers in the wood-paneled Playhouse library. “Some talent scouts had come from Paramount to see a production I was in and [they] asked me out for an interview. They wanted to sign me to a seven-year contract. I was just this little kid!”
Chamberlain looks younger than his age implies. At 78 his hair is gray, yet full. His sideburns have formed into mid-19th-century chops and his body is lean, honed by an exercise regimen of swimming, weights and stretching. “I looked more like a high school student then than a college student, and I was trying to negotiate the terms of a deal. Of course, they totally snowed me. But I got my draft notice, so that saved me from signing a disastrous contract.”
It was 1956 and the Army sent Chamberlain to Korea, three years after the war’s end. “Thank God. I don’t think I ever would’ve survived a war. I was a company clerk, which sounds sort of twee, but it wasn’t. It was a very complicated job, about 30 miles from Seoul in an agricultural district. But it was very beautiful with the rice paddies and villages.”
Beauty aside, he did not enjoy his Army experience and left it two years later as a staff sergeant.
Back in Los Angeles, Chamberlain decided to pursue acting. His close college friend, screenwriter Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Mission: Impossible and its first sequel ), knew acting coach Jeff Corey. “Bob and I were in Jeff’s class together for a while. I was taking singing lessons and dance and ballet lessons, which I loved. I was very busy. I started working fairly quickly.”
At 23, Chamberlain co-founded the LA-based theater ensemble, Company of Angels. He also started landing small roles in television and an apartment in a “risky” neighborhood near Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard for $60 a month. “I was working almost enough to pay the rent. I’d get a loan every once in a while from my folks.”
The role that landed Chamberlain on the map, Dr. James Kildare, came quickly, although it nearly did not come at all.
“It was the break of all time. There was a guy in high school, George [La Mer], whose father had been a movie executive. George became an assistant to the man who ran MGM and saw my picture in a players’ directory one day and wondered what I was up to.”
He invited Chamberlain to a general interview. “They hired me for a western, The Paradise Kid. I did that pilot as the Paradise Kid, but it didn’t sell because westerns were out by then.”
A year later, the search began for a young Dr. Kildare. Lew Ayres had played him in movies from 1938 to1942 before producers eliminated him in favor of the older physician, Dr. Gillespie, portrayed by Lionel Barrymore. “They looked all over town, casting and casting and casting and not finding anyone. Finally George pulled the pilot out of the vault and looked at it and said ‘that’s it, that’s the guy.’ Isn’t that amazing? It’s miraculous.”
Chamberlain says he has no idea what he possessed that the others did not. His hunch, however, is that they were looking for a very 1950s person. “That’s what I was, even though it was the early ’60s. Well-mannered and serious and all that.”
Dr. Kildare was an NBC fixture from 1961-1966. “Kildare’s charm was that he really cared about his patients and that’s what made him so attractive to people. They all wanted a doctor who would care about them and get involved in their lives.”
Far less formal and distant than Chamberlain himself.
“When I went to England [in 1968 to work and study voice], I felt right at home. One of the first things Jeff Corey said to me was my formality was an interesting protection mechanism.”
Chamberlain admits he had no idea how to be himself. “I came into this world, I think, with a tremendous lack of self-confidence, but coupled with a huge ambition. I got busy creating a persona that wasn’t all that real.”
He lived a dual life — a closeted gay man off-screen and a leading romantic, heterosexual man on-screen. “Being gay in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s simply wasn’t an option. I was very frightened of being outed. Being gay was worse in a way than being a traitor or a murderer. It was just not a possibility at all, so I grew up with a tremendous amount of fear.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that Chamberlain came out publicly in his book, Shattered Love: A Memoir. But he has been in a relationship with actor and writer Martin Rabbett since 1976, when they were both part of a production of The Night of the Iguana on Broadway. The couple appeared together in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold in 1986.
“The book started out being about love and how we live our lives,” says Chamberlain. “I thought at the time I knew something that was worth sharing.” He laughs. “My editor and my publisher and my friends all said that if I was going to talk about love, I would have to talk about being gay because it’s such an important part of my life experience. I didn’t want to, because I knew that’s all the interviewers would want to talk about, being gay in Hollywood.”
Chamberlain and Rabbett had built a home along the beach on Maui. “I was writing in this little room at the top of the house. I can’t really talk about this without being moved. It was almost as if an angel came in the room. It was as if she put her hand on my heart and said ‘it’s over, kid. It’s over. There’s no problem here.’ Being gay is one of the least interesting facts about a person. It’s totally benign.”
It occurred to Chamberlain that being gay or straight tells one nothing about the actual quality of the individual. “I absorbed that totally in that moment.”
There was a lot of publicity over the upcoming DVD release of Shogun and The Thorn Birds, two of Chamberlain’s popular miniseries. His publisher wanted to rush the book’s release to ride the publicity wave. “Suddenly I was on Larry King talking about being gay in Hollywood without any fear at all. It was miraculous.”
He appeared elsewhere, including on Bill O’Reilly’s show. “My friends talked me into it. He said, you and Rock Hudson were leading men in the heterosexual world, what was it like coming out?”
After he answered, he says O’Reilly stopped there and moved on to the book. “It was probably my best interview. I got to talk about the central question the book asks, which is, would it be possible for us to live our lives open-heartedly no matter what life throws at us? My theoretical answer is yes. I believe all of our power and intelligence comes from love.”
Chamberlain does not believe in a deity, in contrast with what his late father experienced later in his life. “My dad was a repressive person, as is Dr. Sloper (his character in The Heiress). I didn’t experience him as loving. I experienced him as terrifying. He was a big man, loud when he wanted to be, and domineering. My nature wasn’t like that at all. He was really rough to deal with.”
But Charles Chamberlain became an avid speaker at Alcoholics Anonymous conventions, where a “higher power” is recognized, sought out and relied upon.
Could that angel who tapped on Chamberlain’s heart have been his father? “Of course it could’ve been him. Nobody knows what happens after death, but I’ve talked to people who seem to, not exactly channel, but be in touch with the unseen.”
He asked one such person, whom he found quite convincing, about his parents. “I said I would like to apologize to my mother for some event and this being, who spoke through this person, said she’s almost like pure love now. She just totally, totally, totally understands and is for you and with you. That’s a rather sweet possibility. I love the thought that after death we can be helpful to people in life.”
An octogenarian in two years, Chamberlain complains his body is starting to fall apart, noting bad knees. “That’s really annoying, but I find that my quality of life seems to be improving.” His 70s, he says, is the favorite decade of his life. So far. Compared to the distant, formal man many people knew, he is now happier and more accessible than ever.
“Time goes by and you experience life, and I went to a lot of spiritual groups and things like that. I have had wonderful friends… boy, I’ve been so lucky in terms of finding wonderful people to be my ‘next’ family.” Chamberlain has an older brother and a couple of nephews he sees infrequently.
When Chamberlain and Rabbett sold their Hawaiian home a few years ago, Chamberlain moved to Los Angeles and began working almost right away. Rabbett now is in San Francisco, Chamberlain says. “We’re curiously not living together at the moment, but we’re better friends than we’ve ever been.”
After Chamberlain concludes The Heiress with Heather Tom and Julia Duffy (directed by Dámaso Rodriguez) he adorns a priest’s robe, as he had done for The Thorn Birds. This time it’s for The Exorcist at the Geffen Playhouse, to be directed by John Doyle. “After that, I really would just like to be on my own for a while and paint some pictures.” (Chamberlain’s art gallery here.)
“It’s hard to pick up a phone or turn on my computer or pay a bill right now. I force myself to do it. I’m living most of my life in 1850 and then have to come back and take care of life in 2012. It’s almost like being schizophrenic.”
The Heiress. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino, Pasadena. Opens Sunday, 5 pm. Tues-Fri 8 pm. Sat 4 pm and 8 pm. Sun 2 and 7 pm. Through May 20. 626-356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
***All photos by Jim Cox, except where noted