Richard Chamberlain: Beyond Romance
For Richard Chamberlain, the last few years have been a time of tremendous personal and professional growth. "A time of questioning old assumptions, of pursuing various courses aimed at an expansion of awareness, of opening up as I’ve come to like myself better," the actors say between takes of "The Thorn Birds" at Burbank Studios in Hollywood. He is in "age" makeup for filming of the final scenes in the nine-hour ABC mini-series based on Colleen McCullough’s best-selling novel, but the gravity lent him by a gray wig and latex wrinkles is belied by his boyish lankiness, clear, animated blue eyes and expressively rangy voice. In fact, it’s hard to believe he’s in his mid-40s.
Playing Father Ralph, the protagonist of "The Thorn Birds," is surely something Chamberlain could not have done comfortably without questioning some old assumptions.
"Father Ralph," he explains, "is a Catholic priest who’s sent from Ireland to Australia as a kind of punishment for having lost his temper and insulted a bishop. In Australia, he serves the owner of a giant sheep ranch, Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck). She engineers a situation that forces him to choose between receiving her estate on behalf of the Catholic Church, which would restore him to their good graces, or allowing it to go to the Cleary family, whose daughter, Meggie (Rachel Ward), he has fallen in love with. "Ralph," the actor summarizes, "is, in fact, torn between three incompatible loves. He is very taken by the power and glamour of the Church in Rome. He is deeply in love with Meggie. And he is deeply in love with God -he’s a priest with a genuine vocation."
As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, Chamberlain had gone to Presbyterian Sunday School, but he says, "That really didn’t take, and as an adult, I’ve never felt the urge to become part of an organized religion." As well, he admits to having had "some negative preconceptions about the priesthood and about the Catholic Church as an organizational structure." How, then, could he portray a priest with the kind of commitment and understanding necessary to involve an audience in his plight?
"We’ve been fortunate to have as our technical advisor a Jesuit named Father Sweeney," Chamberlain answers. "Father Sweeney just blew me away. He’s so -well, for real in his love of God and his wanting to open people to God’s love, which is his basic reason for being a priest.
"He set it up for me to spend a couple of days at a Jesuit novitiate in downtown Los Angeles. I got to speak to these young and not-so-young novice priests and watch them work: They pray and study and meditate in the morning and go out to work in the community in the afternoon -at the county jail and some really tough, low-down places. They bring hope to people who are really hopeless and not otherwise cared for in human terms. What the Jesuits were doing -they were the only order I observed -was profoundly spiritual and apparently very effective in the community."
While "The Thorn Birds" project has changed his concept of organized religion, it is not the first movie role to alter his perceptions and tastes. After filming "Shogun" for the hit TV series based on James Clavell’s novel, Chamberlain developed an appreciation for the Japanese lifestyle, and after returning from several months of shooting the epic mini-series in the Orient, he began to find much of Western domestic architecture oppressive. As a result, for more than two years now he has been drastically altering the interior of the ranch-style Beverly Hills bachelor house where he spends most of his time. (He also has an apartment in New York and a vacation hideaway in Hawaii.)
"The previous owners of my house had made various additions to the basic structure that really didn’t make a great deal of sense spatially," says Chamberlain. "However, what began as a minor job of renovation to accommodate the tokonma" -a flower- or scroll-decorated platform- "and a few other pieces I acquired in Japan became something much larger. It was: ‘Well, if I’m going to do this, I might as well do that, too- and that and THAT and THAT, as well.’"
Things eventually became so chaotic that the actor moved to the house next door, which just happened to be for rent, and from there supervised the continuing renovations. "A strange way to live, to put it mildly," he laughs. "But when everything’s finished, which will be soon, I’ll have an open, airy house that’s very much mine -it’s the most personal house I’ve ever lived in.
"I built an area in my office especially for painting," adds Chamberlain, who had studied art at Pomona College before scoring in student theatricals changed his career plans. "The problem has been to set up and take down every time I had the urge to paint, so I figured if I had a place where I could set up and leave stuff, I might get to it more often. Finding the time and the focus is a problem, though, as I’ve learned I can only spread myself so thin."
Actually, Chamberlain’s life has opened out so that it tends to accommodate more and more activities. As busy as ever on stage (last year he was Wild Bill Hickok in a new play called Fathers and Sons) and screen (the thriller Bells will be released soon) as on TV, he has also identified himself with a political issue for the first time.
"I’d never been directly approached about lending myself to anything political, except for one local candidate who I had to turn down because of scheduling conflicts," he says. "And I haven’t had the time to do the kind of research that I feel one should do before getting behind any particular movement or candidate. But then I recently went white-water rafting down the Tuolumne River through Yosemite. It’s a perfectly balanced river at the moment, with a certain amount of dams, a certain amount of water for agriculture and a certain amount of water for rafting or fishing. But now the city of San Francisco wants to put another dam on the river. I told the guys who ran the rafting trip, who are very ecologically minded, that if they wanted a spokesman, I’m willing. The only thing they’ve asked me to do so far is host a pro-Proposition 13 art sale in Los Angeles, which I did."
The conservationist Proposition 13 was defeated in the November 1982 election, despite support from the powerful Los Angeles Times. But Chamberlain is undaunted, offering himself up to "anybody who has a sensible plan for water management in California."
Travel is another means by which Chamberlain is branching out and reaching out. Of course, he has probably travelled in the line of duty as much as any contemporary actor. In addition to the Japanese sojourn for "Shogun," he has gone to Australia to shoot "The Last Wave" (but not "Thorn Birds," which was filmed in Hawaii and Simi Valley, California); to Spain for 2The Three Musketeers" and it’s sequel; to Italy for the TV film "The Count Of Monte Cristo," and to England for numerous film and TV assignments and the 1969 stage production of "Hamlet" that clinched his transformation from pretty boy of the "Dr. Kildare" TV series to serious actor.
But even in his private travels, he has rarely had the opportunity for the anonymous, in-depth study of another culture that he did last year when he went to South America. "A bunch of us -20-odd people, mostly from outside of show business, but all interested in feeling out a place on more than just a tourist level -went for six weeks," he relates. "We sometimes stayed overnight in monasteries, and I was able to enjoy, immediately, the kind of person-to-person contact that takes longer to establish when you’ve got to get past my public ‘identity.’
"By that, I mean both the qualities that people rightly or wrongly project onto me and the feeling on my part that I have to keep pumping energy into upholding some kind of public image or persona. In Lima," he laughs, "a photographer chased me around a hotel lobby trying to take my picture, but that was the only event of that kind in all the time in South America."
Professionally, Chamberlain has expanded his horizons by forming his own production company. The plan is for the company to produce and Chamberlain to act in a number of two-hour television movies for CBS. The first is to be "By Reason Of Insanity," a drama in which he will play a writer who murders his wife while in a state of mental incompetence, then recovers and has to deal with the consequences of his act.
"I wanted take the responsibility, at least in part," he explains, "of providing myself with material I found exciting to act and of having a bit to say about the actual production of it instead of being somewhat at the mercy of another producer. Then, practically speaking, I had the opportunity to do so because "Shogun" put me in a rather nice position. But I can’t point to a particular moment when I had an amazing insight and suddenly went out to be a producer. I rarely have gigantic breakthroughs -a slow, steady growth is more my process."
To a significant degree, Chamberlain attributes his recent growth to the teachings of Dr. William Brugh Joy, a physician turned holistic doctor who teaches at a retreat in Lucerne Valley, California. Chamberlain learned about Joy from a friend and spent two weeks at the retreat to acquaint himself with Joy’s precepts. There he learned of the doctor’s amazing story.
"He’d been a medical doctor with the absolute best training and a stupendous talent for his work," Chamberlain relates. "But all his life, he’d had certain sensitivities to other aspects of existence -spiritual things, things tat are not part of traditional medicine. He began to find he could feel people’s energy with his hands. He himself could transfer energy to people -be a kind of conduit of energy. He could relieve pain, for instance. The use of morphine went way down on his ward -mostly terminal cancer patients."
According to Chamberlain, Dr. Joy was eventually questioned about his unorthodox holistic methods in a staff meeting at the hospital with which he was affiliated. Opting for full disclosure when he could easily have skirted the subject, he received an ultimatum from his chief of staff: "If you wish to continue here, you must practice in the prescribed way." Joy decided to follow his own lights, but Chamberlain says that "he’s primarily a teacher now; he doesn’t do a lot of healing. He’s written a wonderful articulate book called Joy’s Way.
For Chamberlain, subscribing to some of Joy’s precepts does not necessarily preclude consulting practitioners -or even untraditional one, such as acupuncturists. In fact, Chamberlain numbers an acupuncturist among his friends and has even visited one, though he says it’s impossible to tell if the treatment was effective because he was not in excruciating pain, as were friends who have claimed to be helped.
Chamberlain’s eclecticism extends to the areas of diet and exercise. "I do a certain amount of exercise every day," he says, "because I don’t feel good otherwise. Sometimes I run, sometimes I play tennis or ride, sometimes I do callisthenics. I once took dance, so I know a lot of stretching exercises. Because I travel and live in hotels so much, I’ve figured out how to turn my room into a gym -do pull-ups on the door, lift chairs. I eat the usual American balanced diet: quite a lot more meat than most of my friends" -beef stew for lunch on the day of this interview- "plus vegetables, fruit, whole-grain bread and rice. Varied but not strict."
Chamberlain has probably acted in more period pieces than any of his American peers, and he admits that he, personally, has felt the pull of the more romantic eras of history. "But there’s an element of escapism in intense romanticism," he says. "I’m now more and more interested in the life around me. One reason I was attracted to "By Reason Of Insanity" is that it’s a contemporary story with a hero who’s not romantic in any way."
After "By Reason Of Insanity," Chamberlain hopes to produce and act in a TV movie with a contemporary setting but a hero that could be said to be romantic in his way -William Brugh Joy. "Because Brugh’s story is really an inner journey," he says, "dramatizing it has been rather difficult. But after several years’ struggle, we’re finally coming up with a wonderful script."
Is there not a sense of things coming full circle in Chamberlain playing the maverick Joy when his first fame as an actor came from his portrayal of the very conventional Dr. Kildare?
Chamberlain doesn’t think so. "The fact that they’re involved in the same profession doesn’t have a great deal of meaning for me," he says. A point well taken, for surely each is unique in his own way, and just as surely Richard Chamberlain is the man to appreciate that uniqueness and portray it.