Chamberlain film "River" explores AIDS, life and death.
Richard Chamberlain hurries into the studio at Hawaii Public Radio dressed in dark slacks, a herringbone jacket, white shirt and matching tie. Someone jokes that he looks more like a lawyer than an actor.
The star of dozens of films, theatrical productions, television shows and dubbed "king of the mini series," apologizes for being late -less than five minutes- smiles, removes his coat, sits and initiates idle chitchat.
The apology seems sincere, the smile real, the friendly disposition quite disarming, the chitchat not so idle.
The feeling is that the Beverly Hills-born George Richard Chamberlain is always prepared, a bit cautious, conscientious and a very private person.
A lengthy Internet search provides the most brief biography. There are no in-depth stories, no Robin Leach visits to his two homes in Hawaii, not a word about hobbies or favorite foods or relationships. A week before this interview, Chamberlain's assistant calls with a re-minder not to ask "personal questions."
In fact, it is Chamberlain who will disobey that rule, talking easily about his life in Hawaii, his love of painting and sushi, his poi dog -though he declines to share the name- his quest for meaning in his life.
"I live a very simple existence," Chamberlain says as he plays a simple piece on a polished piano. "There's not a whole lot to talk about. Some days I do desk work, then walk the dog, go to movies with friends, swim at the beach."
What he especially wants to talk about is his latest film, "River Made To Drown In," a departure from the usual Chamberlain genre as leading man. The low-budget, independent film will be shown Thursday as a benefit for Hawaii Public Radio. Chamberlain's character, Thaddeus, is a successful Los Angeles lawyer dying of AIDS. He sells all his property and chooses to spend his last days somewhere humble and spare with a few special people in his life. The title, Chamberlain says, is a metaphor for Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, where prostitutes, primarily gay, ply their trade.
"Everybody is for sale on the boulevard," Chamberlain says. "If you stay there, you'll drown."
But Chamberlain stresses that "River" is not a film about AIDS or the gay lifestyle.
"The film examines the way we live our lives in this society and the structure of what we value. It's a film about what's important in life: love, family and friends and relationships, being creative."
Chamberlain's character rises from nothing to become a stylish, flamboyant man about town. When the film opens, he is sick with AIDS and returns to Santa Monica Boulevard to be with some of the people -not all are gay- that he really cares about and with whom he hopes to leave a legacy.
"He's reached a point in his life where love is important, as opposed to self-centered living."
The fact that the disease afflicting Thaddeus is AIDS is not key.
"The important thing is that the disease is terminal because that's the catalyst for Thaddeus' transition. When someone has a terminal disease, AIDS or not, it's a time of considerable learning for them. The film is about that process and how Thaddeus wants to share what he has learned in his life with others."
It's also irrelevant that Thaddeus is gay.
"It's like saying someone is black or white or Jewish, it just happened to be but it's not what the film is about which is how to enrich our lives through truth and honesty."
Chamberlain said the six weeks he spent on the production last year was one of the most rewarding experiences of a career that has spanned more than three decades.
"Interesting script, interesting character, interesting people to work with, interesting message. What more can you ask for."
The role also seems risky for an actor known more for making love to beautiful women on the screen.
"Luckily, I don't care. At this point in my life if I have to worry about taking risks for an interesting part, then I'm in big trouble."
"The national problem with the gay or straight issue is so uniquely American. You have some people who say there's a line in some book that says (being gay) is bad, therefore (gays and lesbians) should all be killed. It's so ridiculous. We're human beings; we live together."
He also doesn't care if some viewers see the portrayal as promoting the gay lifestyle which, he says "clearly does not."
"What about playing a murderer or an insane person! There would be no uproar whatsoever. It seems that some people just need somebody to hate. I guess it makes them feel superior."
Chamberlain doesn't know if "River" will get a general run in Hawaii. The producers are still looking for a distributor.
"I don't have any expectations of who will go or not go to this film. I did it because it had something wonderful to say."
At a fit and healthy 63 and a like reputation to match, Chamberlain says he chooses roles more on their unique quality than for the "dough." He looks for roles that may enrich his life personally.
"At my age I can legitimately get into character acting, which is what I always wanted to do," he said. "It's far more interesting."
"You come to realize that by the time you know how to live you're on the way out. I've just gotten comfortable in my life and with my own self."
"My life is so much richer now, and my relationships and friendships are so much more honest. Better late than never."
© 1997 Tim Ryan