Richard Chamberlain Is he Hollywood's most puzzling star? (Part 1)
One morning, back in 1954, the sedate Pomona College in Claremont, California, suffered a shock.
It was a big day for the College - the day of their annual Arts Festival. And the school dignitaries, not to mention important guests, all gathered on the huge lawn in the college grounds.
Suddenly, one of the senior boys, chatting to a college V.I.P., looked toward the school building and gasped. Soon the whole party assembled on the lawn were looking in the same direction - at the school flag high on the main building. For, suddenly, it wasn't high. It was being lowered and in its place, fluttering gently in the cool breeze, appeared an article of clothing that brought a gasp from the astonished onlookers.
Clearly, the boy who committed the crime was doomed to be bouncing right out of the school in disgrace. Yet nobody was - because to this day the crime has never been solved, as the culprit got away before angry officials arrived at the scene.
That's not surprising, but maybe it's time to tell: the ringleader was the least likely suspect in school. He was a model student and a perfect gentleman who was generally considered as menacing as a glass of milk.
Today you know him as TV's Dr. Kildare. He was known then as George Richard Chamberlain.
When the college scandal broke, George Richard Chamberlain was only another Pomona student. But today the 27-year-old TV charmer still wears the same mild mask of gentlemanly innocence that threw college authorities way off his trail.
But lurking right beneath that mask is also the same iron nerve, disciplined determination, deadly sophistication and puckish flair that allowed him to pull off the bold prank. And lurking even beneath that lies a hidden panic - the fear that he'll reveal too much of himself ... the feat that people won't like him if they know what he's really like.
This contradictory combination makes him Hollywood's most puzzling character yet, a most formidable, hard-to-reach star.
Two years ago, when M.G.M. picked Dick to play Dr. Kildare, a friend of his, Jack Nicholson, cracked, "It was inevitable. Who else could possibly look as antiseptic as Dick?"
The remark is still good today; then it was perfect. At that point, the pleasant young nobody M.G.M. tabbed for its big TV bid seemed about as exciting as a role of gauze.
He was certainly handsome enough. Then, as now, his fine-lined aristocratic face suggested a young Florentine noble - straight out of the Renaissance.
Dick had an inviting fresh, scrubbed and showered look, which later moved his comedienne friend, Carol Burnett, to call him, "squeaky clean."
Yet, with all this, Richard Chamberlain seemed hardly the type to set off romantic rockets around the world.
He was so self-effacing in person that you had to look twice to notice him.
"Dick was all eyes and a mouth wide then," recalls his pal and publicist, Chuck Painter. "He was the kind of guy who comes into a room and fades right into the wall. Now that Kildare is a hit he is coming out in all sorts of ways. But for many months he was quiet like a mouse."
Dick was so quiet that when he was sent to Arizona for a bit part in A Thunder Of Drums, it was three days before the director knew who he was! On that same location, Painter persuaded a reporter to interview Dick. He soon wished he hadn't. The reported kidded Dick's stiff reserve unmercifully, printing his cautious reactions word for word like, "I didn't expect that question" and "I really don't know what to say." Dick has that first sorry interview framed today in his dressing-room as a horrible reminder of how not to behave.
Even after Dr. Kildare began, its star was so unprepossessing that for weeks Dick couldn't get past studio gate cops in his car without calling the publicity department for help. He had no decent dressing-room because he couldn't bring himself to speak up for one. Then Dr. Kildare leaped to TV's top ten, never to drop out. And things have changed considerably since that day for Richard Chamberlain.
Last autumn, at a big parade, Dick addressed a crowd of 400,000 eager fans. In Pittsburgh, 450,000 swarmed the streets for a look at him. In New York he tripped a near riot when a kid spotted him and shouted his name.
In that same city Joan Crawford - a star Dick had gaped at as a kid himself - entertained him at her home.
"Because my girls are crazy about you - and so am I," she said.
Coming back to Hollywood, Dick's guest star was Goria Swanson, queen of that town before Dick was born.
Raved Gloria: "My most fascinating experience since Sunset Boulevard."
Right now, Dr. Kildare is ahead of Ben Casey in popularity ratings. Both Dick's recordings sold well and he is skimping lunch hours to cut new albums. Meanwhile, at M.G.M. trucks dump more fan mail (13,000 letters a week) than ever swamped Robert Taylor or Clark Gable in their heydays. It's from smitten females, mainly, of all ages.
For instance, Dinah Shore's teenage daughter, Melissa, who invaded Dick's dressing-room at his last TV spectacular, pretending to fix her hair. Or the middle-aged lady who snatched a chair he sat in - and gave the cops £3 to keep it.
Surveying all this, Dick wags his handsome head incredulously.
"I love every minute of it, sure," he admits. "What guy in this business wouldn't? Still," he sighs, "it's sort of unbelievable - isn't it?"
That it is - but Richard Chamberlain is even more so.
What Dick means, of course, is that barely two years ago he was just another obscure Hollywood hopeful, lost in the shuffle and spiritually down after fourteen boring G.I. months of exile in Korea. He was slugging away at lesson after lesson - drama, voice and ballet - but not sure he was getting anywhere and periodically telling his coach, Jeff Corey, "I'm going to quit trying to act."
Living in a gloomy apartment house perched over a smogbound freeway and in habited by decrepit old folks, he spent most nights hoping the phone would ring, which it almost never did. He was keeping body and soul together by chauffeuring a polio-stricken lady around.
Then suddenly, two Septembers ago, Dick was blasted off to the stars in what his voice teacher and friend, Carolyn Trojanowski, rightly calls, "the most overwhelming thing that can happen to a young man" - instant glory as the star of a hit TV series. That experience can indeed be devastating.
But after two years of a pressured 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily grind, Dick Chamberlain carries on apparently as smooth, fresh and cool as a mentholated cigarette ad.
On TV he seems as pure as Sir Galahad, off TV as above reproach as a queen. And Dick is not much help in cracking that illusion - and part illusion it is.
"Hey!" cried a frustrated reporter, "can't somebody get this guy to say something stronger than that he's against sin and loves his mother?"
"It's just my phoney front," Dick himself grins. "I'm gradually growing out of it.
But that's not necessarily so.
The truth is that all sides of Dick Chamberlain's many faceted personality are as valid as government bonds. He is what he appears to be and what he doesn't. And that is his hidden panic.
"I know Dick seems too good to be true," says one of his closest friends, Martin Green. "But it is true. He's kind, clean, considerate and polite - as a gentleman, the greatest. Don't forget, though, he's an actor. Dick recognizes that, plays the game to the hilt and has a great time. He is not dewy-eyed, but realistic."
Another pal, Bob Towne, an articulate young writer who, like Green, chummed up with Dick all through college, put it a little differently: "If Dick were religious- which he's not - he's be a humanist.
"He has great compassion. He couldn't hurt anyone if he tried. He's self-contained and his basic quality, I'd say, is toughness. Inside, he's the British officer type who could calmly dress for dinner in the jungle while the natives outside were howling. He's be great to have around in a crisis."
Carolyn Trojanowski backs Bob Towne up: "Dick is a perfect example of a 'cool head,'" she says. "He can look at himself and a problem objectively, analyse it and calmly set out to correct it at once. I've never seen him blow up. He never will."
Whatever his sub-surface secret - courage, control, cool head or superb act - on stage 11 at M.G.M. Dick Chamberlain is a white-coated paragon, the beau ideal of any TV producer Compared to the turbulent tension of Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare's set is a rest home, thanks mainly to Dick. He's never late, never sick, never sore and always knows his lines.
"Working with Dick," his veteran colleague, Raymond Massey, says, "is pure pleasure. He's young but mature - a professional. Like a good golfer, he doesn't press."
Female guest stars, from Suzanne Pleshette to Gloria Swanson trip over themselves beaming back Dick's suave, courtly manners.
After Dick recorded his first song, "three Stars Will Shine Tonight," the sound man, used to electronically piecing and patching other TV stars pretending to sing, yipped, "Glory - we're in the free!" At that same first "take" Dave Rose's whole orchestra stood up and clapped. Dick had worked the number out to perfection before he arrived. That's the way he does everything.
But when Dick rolls away from the studio in his grey Fiat convertible, he turns back the clock - and with him it's almost as if all this had never happened. He steps far out of the after-hours Hollywood scene, in which he has no place at all. Instead of operating like a top young bachelor star who has it made, Dick acts as if he were nobody still struggling to score.
After a quick meal, Dick goes home to a remote pad that would thrill Pete the Hermit. Perched in the hills back of the Hollywood Bowl, it's seventy-five yards from a winding mountain street and so masked by tangled growth of all kinds that you'd never find it without a helicopter. Up a plank ramp there's just one big wood-panelled room, a tiny kitchen, bath and a sun deck. A piano sits against one wall and a small desk, cluttered with bills and assorted mail, by another. A tape-recorder, TV and stereo sit here and there and, of course, there's a bed. Also, behind a convenient closet door there is always a pile of shirts and shorts which Dick takes to a laundry now and then but, if stuck, washes himself.
Not long ago, Martin Green looked up from a book he was reading to see Dick bustling out with a soggy armful which he proceeded to string on a line.
"And now," announced Chamberlain with mock gravity, "the famous Hollywood star will hang up his washing!"
Dick rented this hideout shortly before M.G.M. signed him and, despite all that's come his way since, has never seen fit to leave. He paid £25 a month at first, because he took on the gardening. Too busy for that now, he pays the full £33. He's making a hundred times now what he did then, which was close to nothing. He stays not because he's a miser but because the splendid isolation suits him.
When Dick is home he's almost always by himself.
"I never entertain," he admits. "I doubt if twenty people have been in my place since I've had it."
Visitors are so rare that if one raps on the door there's invariably a "wait a minute" and a scurrying sound inside as Dick hastily tidies up the place. Such privileged callers are not new-found friends of the Hollywood glamour set. Dick has none. Social gates are wide open to him by now, but he doesn't even look.
"You approach Dick Chamberlain so far," complained a frustrated hostess recently, "and then he goes behind a wall."
His lone publicity date record was with Rossana Schiaffino way back at the premiere of West Side Story - and, with due respect to Rossana, that was because Dick wanted to see the picture, didn't have a date and couldn't go alone. But when photographers tried to bunch him with "the Hollywood young set," he politely refused.
"I'm not anti-social," explains Dick. "But I am busy."
That's very true talk. Dick Chamberlain couldn't be much busier without being twins. Despite a 5:30 alarm, Dick moonlights two nights of his five-day, all-day week on Dr. Kildare with lessons - dancing at Renova and Renoff's and voice training with Carol Trojanowski.
"Dick is as hardworking and conscientious a pupil as I have," states Carolyn Trojanowski. "He never lets a day pass without thoroughly warming up his voice. It's a good light bass," she classified, "but it lacks power. Dick will never sing opera but he can develop a very good stage-musical voice. That's what he's determined to do, and he will - wait and see."
To develop the power, Dick methodically jogs along mountain paths near his place, at dawn or dusk, works out with weights, and makes canyons ring practicing scales. Diet is never off his mind; when he heard Joan Sutherland sing out robustly at a recent performance of the San Francisco opera, he cried, "My God - what do you suppose that woman eats?"
He faithfully supplements his own meals with high-protein snacks prescribed by Miss Trojanowski. One, that was especially recommended, was raw liver whipped up in a blender. Dick tossed in red wine to kill the nauseating taste, still gagged, but kept downing it. Then one day he read that raw liver was loaded with uric acid and led straight to galloping gout. Only then did Dick happily switch to strawberry yoghurt.
Martin Green nods at this.
"Dick would," he said. "He has to have a reason and a method for everything. Do you know how he stopped smoking? It was beautifully planned. He was on straight cigarettes, so he switched to filters. After a few days he added filtered holders to the filters. Next he dropped down to de-nicotinized sticks, something like smoking warm air. After that, quitting was easy."
Green, a hard working serious painter, is typical of the few friends who feel free to rap in Dick's door. Another is Clara Ray, Dick's steady girl-friend.
Clara is a pretty, brown-eyed, button-nosed girl. Unlike Dick she's an extrovert - and as full of beans as a holidaymaker.
"Dick shy - stuffy?" exclaims Clara in wide-eyed wonder at the thought. "Why he's anything but! It just takes time to know him."
It took Clara a whole year. She first spied Dick two years ago at Carolyn Trojanowski's studio.
"We were rehearsing for a Christmas show," Clara recalls, "the first time everybody was there at the same time. Dick was in the bass section - way in back, and he never moved out. But when we ran through 'More I Cannot Wish You,' it was so lovely. He was more than good looking - he had a quality that made you remember him."
Now Dick and Clara make a steady team, three or four evenings a week. But usually their fun's synchronized with some career project. Because what means most to Dick Chamberlain - his work - is seldom far from his thoughts.
Not long ago Clara played a small part in a Dr. Kildare. Actually, she was so good that cast and crew plugged to have her join the show as a regular. But when Clara saw the rushes with Dick she hid her face in her hands.
"I had no idea I did all those awful things!" she wailed.
"You really did, didn't you," he replied, rather ungallantly. "You have to be shown, don't you?"
Dick Chamberlain's stern dedication to self improvement and his cool, correct manner of tackling it are his trademark with all who know him.
All this work and no play, of course, could conceivably make Dick a dull boy. To more than a few that's just what he seems to be. However, Dick can - and usually does - break out a far more colourful side when he's within his tight little circle of old friends. Among those in fact, he's known as a party clown and show off who, as one says, "will climb up a wall if he has to, to entertain."
Dick has even wriggled through limbo exhibitions and twist frenzies a Carolyn Trojanowski's get-togethers. Usually, though his fun stunts are sophisticated, creative and, in effect, performances, "Noel Cowardish," is the way Bob Towne describes them.
If there's a piano handy, Dick will sit down and start rippling the keys with Debussy or Ravel, correctly and with feeling. But before anyone knows it, he's off in wild improvisations which are pure Chamberlain - and killing burlesque. Not long ago at a party things like this went on till dawn, helped along by champagne in paper cups.
"Dick did a fake strip-tease - with all the props - that was paralysing," Green recalls.
"Dick has a devastating wit," confirms Carolyn Trojanowski. "No one he knows well is safe, especially himself. It's always creative and you never know when he'll let it fly."
But even Dick's closest friends recognise a line behind which Dick occasionally steps to become someone nobody really knows, possibly including himself. Carolyn Trojanowski, who knew him before he went to Korea, says, "Sometimes I have no idea what Dick is thinking. I might think I do, but I can't be sure."
Clara Ray, thoughtfully fingering the diamond pendant Dick gave her, admits, "The longer I know Dick the more I realise I don't know him."
And Martin Green, who has painted two portraits of his pal, muses, "When Dick sits for a painting his personality seems to turn inward. He's not easy."
The other night a friend dropped by Dick's hideout on his way home from the beach.
"Dick offered me a brandy and we had one, then a few more," he reports. "He began to open up. I don't remember all that he said but I got the impression that deep down Dick feels a bit unfulfilled and lonely. He mentioned what few close friends he really had and how hard it was for him to make new ones."
If that's true, the feeling is nothing new with Richard Chamberlain. Most of his like he has been in some spotlight or other - but essentially alone in a crowd. All that time he's had everything anyone could wish to make him confident, easy and open - good looks, health, talent, brains - plus the ability to go after what he wanted and get it. Whether it was exams, girls, sports, art or acting Dick could wind up a winner. He had security too, a good home and well-off parents. The worst sickness he ever had was measles, his only accident a broken toe.
"To this day," says one old friend, "Dick hasn't had a really hard knock. He's never needed one." Yet, somehow a sign, "Private - No Trespassing," has hung on him almost from the day he was born right in Beverly Hills, at 6:30 p.m., March 31, 1935. (actually 1934).
"Only five and a half hours away from being an April Fool," Dick points out. "I've always thought the margin was too slim."
He's kidding, of course. Neither brains, nor much of anything else was lacking in George Richard Chamberlain's heritage. It was solid and solidly American, including a touch of Indian blood on his father's side, which you can spot in Dick's high cheekbones and, perhaps in his stoic reserve. The rest, as Dick breaks it down, is "two-thirds English and one-fourth German," and he owes the sturdy yet sensitive traits of those races, too.
His dad, Charles Chamberlain, came from Indiana, went through Indiana University, played football and injured a leg so badly that a Hoosier doctor told him it would never heal. So, Charles went to California "to die" in the sun. Instead he got well, found a job in a service station.
One day a girl with the marathon name of Elsa Winifred Von Fischer Benson drove in for some petrol. Elsa was from San Francisco, she was blonde, pretty and musical. Her own mother had been on the stage and Elsa had sung briefly herself. However, any ideas she may have had of a career vanished when she fell in love with the husky, handsome garage attendant. As soon as Charles Chamberlain found a better job as salesman for City Refrigerator Company, they were married. By the time Dick came along his brother, William, was almost seven. After Dick, Elsa had another son, but he died at birth. That left Dick not an only child but still a lonely one.
Because, more than an age gap seperated little "Dickie" Chamberlain from his brother.
"I was never very close to Bill," Dick says. "He was all the things I wasn't - outgoing, sporty, handsome, romantically confident with girls, and, of course, way out ahead of me."
Throughout Dick's boyhood, though, Bill's glamorous trail cast a backward shadow in which Dick felt blotted out. Dick appraises himself then as, "a shy, serious, lugubrious kid, painfully thin, with a long sad face."
Back of it, however, lay an adventurous spirit which, even as a tot, made Dickie both a personage and a problem on South Elm Drive.
The Chamberlains lived on that pleasant, middle-income Beverly Hills street from the time Dick was two until he left for college. Dick's home was one of the nicest - a comfortable seven room Spanish type stucco with a Mexican tiled patio in back and out front two huge trees shading the lawn. But for some time his haven was a prison for Dick and he contrived to spring himself at every opportunity. Elsa Chamberlain, going about her housework, would spot Dick contentedly plying with his toys or pet turtle one minute. The next she peeked he was gone.
Usually, she found him wistfully hugging the fence surrounding the playground of the school down the road. But sometimes he ventured further and then the police would have to be called to round him up. Excitement was rare on respectable South Elm Drive; the only real rumble was once when a reputed "gangster" got himself shot in a nearby apartment. So, neighbours threw open their windows, leaned out hopefully then slammed them shut as bluecoats led Dick dismally home.
"Just that Chamberlain kid running away again," they muttered.
Dick went to the Beverly Vista school when he was six. By then Billy was on to greater glory at Beverly Hills High, but his golden aura still lingered. Dick didn't dare hope to match it; he just wanted friendships and fun. His mother took him the first day and they watched a new little girl stage a crying scene when her mother left.
"Now," said Mrs. Chamberlain, "isn't that silly?"
Dick thought so, too. He was proud that he didn't cry. But why should he when he was finally where he'd longed to be? In a few days he wasn't so sure about that.
It came as a rude shock, Dick remembers, that school was not just one long, happy romp on a playground. He was also supposed to learn things- laborious and rather uninteresting things at that. This wasn't what it was cracked up to be. Again he found himself a celebrity, in reverse.
"For a while I refused to let them teach me anything," he recalls. "I earned a unique honour - the most uncooperative kid in school."
No threats, or appeals to his parents did any good.
Worst of all was learning to read. He didn't really get with that until he encountered a patient, understanding teacher named Florence Montgomery. She took time after class to break down his rebellious block, and for that Dick is still grateful.
"She was a wonderful woman," he says, "and I really don't know what would have happened to me without her."
Yet, even today Dick Chamberlain has trouble with oral reading. It handicapped him when he was trying out for his first Hollywood jobs. Learning lines is no problem but give him a script to read- and he messes it up.
Back then, Dick Chamberlain messed up about every conforming situation he ran into. He finally got through Beverly Vista with a passable C-average, but he hated school, organised sports, teams and regimented games. He was the fastest kid in school; he'd run a race with anyone - and usually won. But when he couldn't he's quit.
"One time," Dick recalls, "I ran the 100 yards in a YMCA track race against kids from all over town. I took it for granted that I'd win - I always had. But suddenly several guys were out ahead of me and pulling away. So I stopped running. Everyone was sore. They said, 'It's a race, and you finish a race, win or lose!' That didn't make sense to me. I like to think that quitting that race was the last honest thing I ever did!"
Fights over a girl
Sundays Dick had his arm twisted and trotted dutifully off to the Beverly Vista Community church. He even stood in the choir briefly as an alto with a bunch of lady sopranos.
"I hated it," he admits honestly. "But I had to go. I've always hated anything where I don't have freedom of choice."
Given that, Dick was as normal as the next boy. On his street, which "throbbed with kids," he free-wheeled happily around with junior citizens. A few of the boys, and Dick was one, worshipped the same girl, and beat up each other regularly. With the gang he heaved dirt clods at passing cars until one target turned out to be a police car, and that was disaster. Periodically, a circle if kids gathered under Dick's trees to watch Dick and another boy, with whom he had "a personality conflict," slug it out. Dick nursed his wounds with a toad which he kept in his room.
"An ugly, exotic beast," he remembers, "that seemed beautiful to me."
Another precious possession was a disreputable alley cat named "Tommy."
"I think I loved Tommy as I've never loved anything since," muses Dick.
Dick was closest to his mother, with him all day at home, and who Dick resembled in both temperament and looks. His busy dad was off early mornings, home late at nights and Bill, well, to him Dick was mostly a bothersome brat. Introspective Dick may not have considered his home the warmest in the world.
Actually, family life at the Chamberlain's went along about as it does everywhere - with successions of joys and small tragedies. Both boys had what they needed, in love and material blessings. They weren't rich but there was always money enough.
There was nothing unique about Dick Chamberlain's dream to become an actor. It was common, at one age or another, to almost every boy and girl in Beverly Hills. The town itself was one big such dream come true. Films had made it and kept it flourishing. The studios were Beverly's pulse and the glamorous stars its heartbeat. They lived up across Santa Monica Boulevard in mansions and you could see Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford or a hundred other glamorous goddesses bustling in and out of the smart shops. At any corner Clark Gable might pull up in that curious new sports car of his called a Jaguar.
All around were people "in pictures."
Dick's paper round had names on it anyone might know. A friend's father was an assistant director. Dick's own family had a close friend who made "quickies." And right across the street in an apartment house lived a queenly beauty who was actually a star. Dick pestered her for autographs, week in and out.
"I had to get new ones all the time because Billy would hang up the ones I had and riddle them with darts," he explains.
When the star moved out of the neighbourhood Dick sneaked into her vacant apartment. The walls were covered with mirrors. "I think she must have had a Narcisstic complex," he observes now dryly.
(This article is courtesy of MC. The transcript is © 2007 Darren Smith.)
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