Richard Chamberlain, The Protagonist of an Australian Epic Personality
An ambitious Catholic priest torn between his love for the Church and his passion for a woman he’s known since childhood.
A spirited, wayward beauty whose greatest longing is to bear the young servant of god a son.
A miserly brute of a husband who abandons her for the freedom of the sugar cane fields, and a rich, ruthless empress of the Australian outback.
The legend of a fragile bird that spends its life searching for the sharpest spine of a thorn tree on which to impale itself, singing an agonized song of striking elegance.
A $21 million epic based on a 1977 bestselling novel, scheduled as a nine-hour television mini-series.
Originally, The Thorn Birds was slated for theatrical production, first to be directed by Herb (The Turning Point) Ross, then by Arthur (Love Story) Hiller, and later by Australian Peter (The Last Wave) Weir. The lead role of Father Ralph de Bricassart, protagonist of the Australia-based epic which spans three decades, was reserved for Robert Redford. But the part of the priest whose love affair forces him to question his faith also shuffled between actors. Richard Chamberlain was one of them, and, from the moment he discovered the novel, he felt fated to play the hedonistic Man of God.
Four years earlier, he was engaged in a similar situation, an agonizing time alternately spent waiting and fighting for a chance at a similar role, shipwrecked navigator John Blackthorne, the hero of James Clavell’s Shogun. Chamberlain was rejected by the book’s author, and languished at the bottom of a list of actors under consideration, which included such stars as Albert Finney and Sean Connery. “I pursued it for a year-and-a-half,” Chamberlain recalls, “and, finally, it was between Connery and me. I got lucky because he had to accept another movie, so the part was mine.”
Chamberlain gained ten pounds of muscle for the part, grew a beard and lowered his voice a full octave. It took only two days of location shooting in Japan to convince Clavell that the actor was the ideal choice for Blackthorne. After Shogun aired in 1980, millions of viewers agreed.
When Thorn Birds became a TV property, Chamberlain was apparently top-lined for the lead - without reservations. “He was absolutely the only person we had in mind,” producer David Wolper now concedes. Author Colleen McCullough confirmed the choice, terming the 47-year-old actor the “perfect” Father Ralph de Bricassart.
“One of the first things that attracts me to a character is when he learns something that interests me,” Chamberlain says between shots on the turn-of-the-century Australian frontier set located 45 minutes from the heart of downtown Los Angeles. “Father Ralph learns about love. In Shogun, Blackthorne learned about sensitivity and civilization. Both characters lose a lot, too. Blackthorne lost all his goals, his immense ambition and the desire for power. Father Ralph realizes that he has injured his love, Meggie, and loses years of his life besides the people who love him. In the end, he becomes a loving person without realizing it, understanding that the son he has fathered with Meggie is the best part of her, not him. He comes to know something I find very interesting: that one must choose in love, because loving isn’t always enough.”
In the Thorn Birds’ early chapters, Father de Bricassart, in exile for insulting his bishop, succumbs to the charms of beautiful young Meggie Cleary, portrayed by Rachel (Sharkey’s Machine) Ward. Their love affair and the priest’s career ambitions are quickly recognized and exploited by her dominating, willful aunt, Mary Cleary Carson (the legendary Barbara Stanwyck) who tempts him with her estate, Drogheda - a name taken from Irish lore.
The extravagant $2 million set, nestled amidst the picturesque hills and plains of California’s Simi Valley, serves as background where Chamberlain and co-stars Jean (Spartacus) Simmons, Philip (The Elephant Man) Anglim, Earl (Police Story) Holliman, Mare (Amber Waves) Winningham, Piper (Carrie) Laurie, Richard (Man of La Mancha) Kiley and Ken (The White Shadow) Howard play out the sprawling drama. For five months, mansion fronts, houses, shacks, stables, a large sheep-shearing shed, corrals, rose gardens, a boar’s head fountain, fake trees, 1,500 imported sheep, 80 horses, 30 cattle and a kangaroo named Sydney have duplicated the fictional ambiance of the South Wales’ site of McCullough’s familial saga.
“The surroundings are very helpful in setting a mood and suggesting details for my performance,” Chamberlain says, attired in colorful jockey’s silks, his face and hair transformed through make-up to look 61. “Usually, my method of building a character is to find parallel situations in my own life; it really works. In the scene I’m doing next, for example, I must behave with great care because it’s my first meeting with Meggie’s children, Justine (Winningham) and Dane (Anglim) - who doesn’t know I’m his father. It’s the same kind of care I take in meeting a journalist. When you know someone is writing about you, you’re extra careful about what you say and do. I’m using that experience here, and I’ll push it another direction for the scene.”
Chamberlain’s correlation is no exaggeration. The handsome star, who received 12,000 fan letters a week from 1961-1966 when he wore Dr. Kildare’s white jacket, cleverly manages to balance a dignified but distanced rapport with both his public and the press.
It was, nevertheless, ironic and amusing when, upon completion of a shot of the actor peering silently through a window, director Daryl (Payday) Duke jokingly congratulated his star: “Richard! One take! Marvelous! And, you didn’t forget your lines!” “Ah, but don’t forget,” the tall, bearded Chamberlain retorted, “there is a journalist on the set.”
The actor admits that until the success of Shogun pushed him into the spotlight again, he had “totally forgotten about being besieged by fans on the street. “I’ve enjoyed and taken for granted that I could walk around unnoticed.” Even screen and TV-movie roles such as those in The Towering Inferno, the Three and Four Musketeers, Petulia, The Music Lovers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Slipper and the Rose, and The Last Wave pale compared to the awesome exposure of a TV series. “It was very gratifying to be recognized, but, after a while, it becomes tiresome.”
Chamberlain’s bid for riches and recognition was something other than tiresome. “I wasn’t a very happy kid,” he reveals. “I didn’t like school, sports, all those things that you’re supposed to like while you’re growing up. So, I used a means of escape; I wanted to act, to pretend, to create. Acting required a lot of imagination, and I had that to give. As a child, I felt I was expected to be bigger-than-life, which was impossible in reality. My parents wanted me to be well-behaved, focused and perfect, so I repressed my anger. I was very inhibited.”
What began as a means for group approval, he contends, developed into a manner of vast exploration: “Acting is a way to reach, discover, add dimensions and experiences to one’s life.”
The California-born actor grew up in a comfortable Beverly Hills environment with his older brother, Bill. As an honor student and track team member of the Beverly Vista Grammar School, he was voted by classmates, the “most reserved, courteous and sophisticated student” besides being noted for “best physique.”
At Pomona College, he earned his track letter by running the 220-yard dash, switched his interests from designing to painting, and was introduced to dramatics. He looked at theatre as a way to combat his shyness, to emerge from a solitary life in a single, small room painting pictures. The stage offered a way to have fun “without getting involved in real life.”
In 1956, Chamberlain was drafted for a two-year tour of duty, spent 16 months in Korea as a company clerk, and was discharged with the rank of sergeant. He returned to LA where he attended the Conservatory of Music, and studied acting under Jeff Corey. His efforts led to bit parts in numerous TV series including Gunsmoke, Mr. Lucky and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and eventually into feature films with 1960’s Secret of the Purple Reef.
The same year, he was cast in the lead of The Paradise Kid, an aborted series pilot, a part which led to an MGM term contract and Dr. Kildare, where he earned $1500 weekly. According to the show’s executive producer, the actor read three times for the role without bringing any variety to the character, but was hired because of his “warmth and personal charm.” Chamberlain recalls TV’s most popular doctor as “an irreclaimable bore.”
Although Dr. Kildare was an early career milestone, the actor does not view it as a complete success. “I didn’t feel I was really communicating with my audience, let alone, knowing them. I tended to push myself because the work gave my life a purpose, a sense of self-worth, a quality it didn’t seem to have before then.”
After the TV series folded, Chamberlain packed his bag of actor’s tricks and headed for England, “a move,” he maintains “that was not at all calculated. I just followed my hunches.” There, he performed Hamlet. He did Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady for the BBC. He garnered great reviews. He was both frightened and challenged. He lost his confidence, then regained it. He was envious of others; he was content. During his four-and-a-half year stay, Richard Chamberlain became a serious actor.
Even now, between film and TV assignments, he still performs on the legitimate stage - his one true love. Recently, he appeared as Wild Bill Hickock in Thomas Babe’s Fathers and Sons, and in another production of Hamlet, “before it’s time to start my King Lear.”
He is gratified to lend his considerable presence to first-class television projects which reach a significant cross-section of the mass audience. “You don’t have to sit around nearly as much on a TV shoot, which is a gift, because you can establish and just keep going, with impulsive decisions, acting by instinct, instead of planning and analyzing too much. On the other hand, you don’t get enough rehearsal time, and, personally, I like to rehearse.”
When that kind of preparation is prohibitive, Chamberlain draws on other sources. “I drink gallons of coffee,” he confesses. “I dredge up hordes of lurid experiences from my life, anything to get the blood pumping. I’ll look into my past; I’ll get so desperate, I’ll do anything!” The remark is no overstatement. A few days earlier, as the camera was rolling - and he wasn’t - Chamberlain reacted to the situation by expressing his anger and frustration, instead of holding it in. “I hit the seat on the dolly so hard that I broke my hand!” he reveals, holding up a bandaged hand. “I still can’t shake hands with anyone. But, the pain helped me play the scene.
“I know actors can be a real pain in the ass. I knew an actress who couldn’t function until she had everybody on the set in absolute turmoil - then, she was all right. On Towering Inferno, whenever Paul Newman had a scene, he would get into an argument with the director. He’d get heated up, there would be a call for ‘action,’ and he’d play the scene with amazing force. It’s strange, but sometimes that’s what it takes.”
Chamberlain can also be unpredictable between shots. “I have complete confidence one day; on another, I don’t have any at all!” Usually, his first and second takes are “for getting the technical stuff right. In the third, I get it right, emotionally and intellectually. And, if I do get it on the third take, the fourth is invariably no good.” How or why it works, he has no idea. “Something inside me just says, ‘Enough already!’”
The tall, blue-eyed performer is careful to conserve his energy and its flow once “Cut!” is announced. “It’s amazing how good an actor can be when he feels horrible - and the opposite applies as well, of course. Once you’re there, you can’t afford to slow down. To try to put yourself on hold, and to keep close to that high energy level, key yourself to it, so when you’re called for the next shot, you can ease yourself back into it.
“I think very few actors can really relax and read a novel on set. You can go crazy, if you can’t concentrate. I know some women who knit, but most actors just chitchat and wait and think - too much!”
During The Thorn Birds, Chamberlain’s character ages from 28 to 69. In addition to the obvious make-up effects (greyed beard and hair, plus “plastic poured between folds of skin, which is hard to smooth out later”), the actor employed other techniques. “I slow down quite a bit for the age 61 sequences. Father Ralph is stooped down, too. But at 69, he’s ill.
“One day, we were all set up to shoot several scenes between me and Dane in the Vatican interiors - and suddenly I was told that I’m 61 in one shot and 69 in the next. So, I hastily chose some physical elements to use. I made myself feel weak. I put more effort into getting up and sitting down. Everything seemed more difficult, including speaking, which registered in my tone.”
The beauty of acting, he notes, is in the surprises. “I never know how things will work until I find out how the character feels in a specific scene, whether it’s the props which motivate him or someone else’s reactions. That’s how a character - or more precisely a performance - comes into being. One thing I wanted in the script is a paragraph from the book, a scene between Meggie and Ralph in which he tells her how he loves her - after they’ve made love. There was no place in the production showing that Ralph is a good priest, so I thought the material was appropriate to display his feelings. Carmen Culver, the screenwriter, happily added the lines.”
Sharing the screen with both the old studio school of actors (Stanwyck, Simmons, Laurie) and young graduates of TV and theatre (Winningham, Anglim) was an interesting experience for Chamberlain. “To begin with, most people work differently,” he says. “But, I thought it was perfect that the old-timers are in the first chapters (the mini-series was shot chronologically to minimize logistical complications), and the new faces are in the end. Barbara Stanwyck is very professional; what a lady! She’s always on time and never allows a stand-in to take her place, even when they measured lighting. I, of course, come from the tail end of that same studio system.”
When he’s not acting, Chamberlain prefers to travel, read, catch up on movies, and “mess around with friends.” He is still remodeling his Laurel Canyon home. He avoids large parties (“I don’t enjoy working on my expected image”), and contemplates returning to painting.
Chamberlain is also developing his own film projects. His production company, Cham Enterprises (“Cham” from the signature on his college-era paintings) will do a pair of two-hour movies for CBS, and has the option to develop six more. The projects include a romantic comedy; Joy’s Way, the true story of Dr. William Joy, a practitioner of holistic medicine; a western; and By Reason of Insanity, a psychological drama chronicling the therapy undergone by a man who goes mad and murders his wife.
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 actor says 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 miniseries 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 miniseries 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 tokonoma” - a flower- or scroll-decorated corner 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 up 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 traveled 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 The Three Musketeers and its 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 cinched his transformation from the 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 to 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 that 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 wonderfully articulate book called Joy’s Way.
For Chamberlain, subscribing to some of Joy’s precepts does not necessarily preclude consulting traditional medical practitioners - or even untraditional ones, 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 calisthenics. 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 breads 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, 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?
(Having won the part of Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds, Richard Chamberlain began a journey on what, for him, was uncharted territory.He talked to Sue Reilly about learning to understand the character. – Ed.)
I knew the character superficially from reading the book when it first came out and from rereading it when I knew it had become a television property.But when I was faced with bringing this character to life, in all of his complexities, I knew that I had to explore the man’s commitment to the Catholic Church and to the life of an ecclesiastic.I was not born a Catholic.My early religious experience involved attending Presbyterian Sunday school when I was growing up in Southern California and receiving Bible instruction as I wriggled uncomfortably in itchy wool suits.
It came as a welcome surprise to learn that, while not sanctioning our script, the Church had agreed to offer assistance to the producers and me in correctly portraying the duties of the priesthood and the rituals of the Church.I was given the name and address of a Jesuit priest who worked with movie companies in this way.
I walked into this old house and asked for Father Terry Sweeney, who was to be my mentor.He was just not what I had been expecting.He was young and looked like an educated surfer.He had an easy, natural kind of charm that made me comfortable in the way you are with an old friend.Terry radiated a kind of spirituality that was neither holier-than-thou, nor condemning.It was the joy of a man who is easy in the way he has chosen to live his life and safe in the knowledge that he is making a contribution.
We had long talks about the character and motivations of Father Ralph and about the men, in general, who choose to enter the priesthood.For me, the key to understanding was my realization that these men were not born saints, but had developed a need to lead a life singularly devoted to service.
As an actor, I have always needed to sink into a part to understand how a character feels and to be able to think and feel as he would.By the time I had begun to portray Father Ralph before the cameras, I was beginning to feel almost priestly, to sense the compassion and the grace of this way of life.I think I began to understand how priests can live in the world while not being of it, how a man like Father Ralph could withstand a passion he had for a woman, to struggle on his chosen path, in spite of his failures.It made the drama of the part so much more real to me and the portraying of Father Ralph such a passion.
Actors are so blessed in that they are allowed to walk in the shoes of so many other people in their different roles and in that way know feelings and attitudes that they might not have known before.It’s a continuing education and a gift that not many are given.
But this particular part gave me an experience that was new to me, because it opened a new dimension to my life:not just the acceptance of my own spiritual striving, but my ability to discuss it.
There is such pleasure in quietly moving away the barriers and sharing this part of you.By breaking down the barriers, you free yourself to acknowledge that we all have the same secrets and the same fears, that we are all going in the same direction.
Your spiritual gropings can be funny, very human and wonderful, and in talking about that you begin to have a new sense of humor about yourself and a lack of concern about hiding from others.They are just like you.
Another aspect of researching this role that was very satisfying was in understanding certain rituals, like confession.It was an aspect of the Catholic Church that had always seemed suspect to me.
In my discussions with Father Sweeney, he explained the process of confession, which is for the penitent to inventory his deeds, decide which he should repent, and then to acknowledge both the sin and his sorrow at having committed it.In the process, there is a psychological freeing and a personal, as well as spiritual, forgiveness.It is a healing process.
I tend to a very eclectic spirituality.I see so much good in so many different ideas.But I do envy the radiance that emanates from a spiritually developed being like Terry Sweeney.I feel that we all are capable of that if we choose to work and develop it.I think the world would be a much more interesting and rewarding place if we did.
I’ve been lucky in my acting career.I have been given parts that allowed me to grow. I went from Dr. Kildare, which was limiting, to performing the works of Henry James, Edmond Rostand, Christopher Fry and Shakespeare.It’s not all been Shakespeare since I did the series, but each part has been rewarding to one end or another.
With his TV mini-series debut as Scottish trapper Alexander McKeag in the lengthy adaptation of James Michener’s “Centennial,” handsome Richard Chamberlain won the type of notices he rarely (if ever) received during his years as “Dr. Kildare” in the ‘60s. However, his early detractors really had to take notice when the actor starred as English navigator John Blackthorne in the ambitious and successful video version of “Shogun.” For several years, one of the most sought-after roles in Hollywood has been that of Father Ralph de Bricassart in the much-loved Colleen McCulough novel “The Thorn Birds.” After his “Shogun” triumph, Chamberlain became the logical choice for the part.
Though “The Thorn Birds” is largely the saga of a family on a sheep ranch in Australia, at its heart is the passionate and often frustrated love story of Ralph and Meggie Cleary (Portrayed by Rachel Ward). Their affection for one another runs deep, yet Ralph experiences a relentless conflict between his priestly vows and the inescapable desire he feels for her. The tales of other Cleary family members surround this; among the stellar performers who make up the supporting cast are Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Simmons, Richard Kiley, Christopher Plummer, Ken Howard, Mare Winningham, Piper Laurie, Earl Holliman, Bryan Brown and Philip Anglim.
As with each role he tackles, Chamberlain has a clear view of Ralph: “He is a man of tremendous potential and genuine vocation in the Church whose heart is split in three, and irrevocably split until the very end of the drama, when be figures himself out. He’s divided between three totally incompatible loves: He’s given himself to God, he loves Meggie in the most profound way one human being can love another, and he also loves the glamour and power of the Church. At the most basic point, he’s a man torn asunder, torn apart.”
By covering more than four decades, “The Thorn Birds” allows Chamberlain to probe numerous elements of Ralph’s personality, some of which are not readily evident in the first three-hour installment. “That’s the great advantage of the mini-series,” says the actor. “I love the form; it can be expanded or contracted according to the needs of the material, and doesn’t have to be puffed up just to fill time. You can really get into the characters. It’s funny, because you take such a long time to do one of these, it almost becomes as real to you as real life.”
Chamberlain feels that the countless readers of the book will be pleased with its film translation. “It’s even faithful in its additions,” he points out. “A few additional scenes are really wonderful; when I first read them in the script, I wondered why they weren’t in the book. There’s a confrontation between Meggie and Luke (her eventual husband, played by Brown) at the end of their relationship that’s really dynamite.” Though anxious to see the results in context, Chamberlain is trying to forget that legions of viewers are waiting to see how he’ll fare in his first major role since “Shogun.” “I’ve always refused to think in those terms,” he claims, “because it just makes you too nervous. If I had really concerned myself with what the world was going to think, I never would have done it in the first place.”
That cautious type of approach also characterizes the way Chamberlain chooses his roles, especially when they’re geared toward the small screen. “You have to be really careful about what you do in television. I like to do good stuff, and I’ve been lucky in finding it to do. I’ve also bought my own company in conjunction with Warner Bros., and we have a deal to make two two-hour movies for CBS. That’s taken up a great deal of my time, finding properties and developing them. It’s a fascinating aspect of the business that I hadn’t really thought much about before.”
Sex And Sin In The Outback
Seen any good novels lately? Windy novels about World War II, labyrinthine novels about medieval Japan, libidinous novels about the auto banking and cosmetic industries all unwind before us, courtesy of the networks’ conviction that mini-series offer a proven alleviative for their ratings anemia. Now comes ABC’s “The Thorn Birds,” and once again Nielson’s audimeters are sure to register a giant tremor. This 10-hour family saga, adapted from Colleen McCullough’s 1977 mega-seller about sin and retribution in the Australian outback, does exactly what it sets out to do: blend the themes of forbidden love, corrupting wealth, hubris, ambition, treachery and tragedy into a habit-forming fantasy feast. “The Thorn Birds” pushes many of the same emotional buttons as “Pug Henry Goes to War,” but it will provide viewers with twice the fun for half the time.
It will help if your notion of fun is feeling good when watching someone else feel miserable. The leitmotif of McCullough’s novel was, in the words of its priest-protagonist, a belief that “the best is only bought at the cost of great pain.” There’s enough physical trauma and romantic heartburn in this television epic to make “Gone With the Wind” seem like a Disney frolic. Chronicling three generations of an Australian sheep-farming clan named Cleary, the mini-series mercilessly flogs its characters through a catastrophic fire, an accidental drowning, two extramarital pregnancies and a sanguinary goring by a wild boar. Everyone yearns to either get something or escape something, especially Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain), a charismatic parish priest wrenched between his devotion to God and his passion for the Clearys’ gorgeous niece Meggie (Rachel Ward). It is their “will they or won’t they” sexual minuet that gives the story most of its steam.
What elevates all this above daytime-serial bathos is the irresistible vitality and compelling humanity of McCullough’s people. Only one of them is irredeemably rotten. The Clearys’ malicious matriarch (played with inexhaustible relish by 75-year-old Barbara Stanwyck) spends half her days lusting after Father Ralph and the rest of the time tempting him with the inheritance of her vast sheep empire. Meanwhile, at the other end of the moral scale, Meggie’s highborn mother, Fiona (Jean Simmons), and her cloddish husband, Paddy (Richard Kiley), gallantly struggle to salvage their marital mismatch for the sake of their six offspring. Each generation of Clearys duplicates its predecessors’ mistakes, most tragically by rejecting the right lover for the wrong mate. Occasionally the characters lurch toward stereotypes but, so vividly are they etched, so realistically do they mature and change, that they never fail to engage our concern. Despite all our initial resistance, we come to genuinely care for the fouled-up Clearys.
Erotic Love Scene: In both its subject matter and scheduling, “The Thorn Birds” risks the wrath of the religious. Father Ralph personifies a flip of the Faust legend; in effect, he sells his soul to God in order to flee the outback for the Vatican. Moreover, the consummation of his passion for Meggie may be the most erotic love scene ever to ignite the home screen. On top of that, the mini-series, which has its premiere on Palm Sunday, runs during the Christian Church’s most sacred week. Still, any religious body that could stomach Hollywood’s smarmy “Monsignor” should be able to absorb “The Thorn Birds.”
The production values, at least, are immune to reproach. In the masterful hands of the men who developed “Roots” (executive producer David Wolper and producer Stan Margulies), this adaptation teems with riveting spectacle: simple country fairs and sumptuous dinner parties, rollicking sheep-shearing contests and haunting Vatican ceremonies. To create McCullough’s Australian sheep ranch, the producers of the mini-series transformed a pristine corner of California’s Simi Value into an elaborate mansion-and-corral complex stocked with some 1,500 sheep. There’s also a lone kangaroo named Sydney, but look for him only in the first episode. Sydney hopped so hard during his early scenes that he passed out and was given a medical discharge.
Fallen From Grace: Those who regard themselves as incurably allergic to Richard Chamberlain may be in for a surprise. For once, Chamberlain doesn’t wear an all-white hat (much less a doctor’s smock). As a complex man of the cloth who has fallen from grace, he projects an intuitive feel for his character’s moral ambiguity free of those soulful looks and mannered gestures that weakened his previous work. The relatively inexperienced Rachel Ward is only so-so as Meggie; she smolders sensationally but delivers her lines in an unsettlingly harsh monotone. Portraying Father Ralph’s jaded archbishop mentor, the usually brilliant Christopher Plummer is given little to do beyond uttering such cynical mouthwash as “You’re too humble, Father . . . but then, humility can be very useful to you.” The most engaging new faces belong to Philip Anglim, who originated the role of “The Elephant Man” on the Broadway stage, and Bryan Brown, a real-life Australian who appeared in the film “Breaker Morant.” As Father Ralph’s bastard son, Anglim is the perfect priest played perfectly, while Brown, as a fortune-hunting bounder, exudes the roguish charm of a young Rod Taylor.
Richard Chamberlain says his role in ‘The Thorn Birds’ taught him to be a more spontaneous actor and person
Richard Chamberlain, clenching his jaw and tightening his fist, stood between Jean Simmons and two young actors on a shaded veranda in the middle of a scorching orange desert. They were waiting for him to say something - anything to break the tension - tension that accentuated his soaring cheekbones and deepened the distant look in his eyes. But he said nothing. He was silent except when it was his turn to recite lines in one of the most sought-after television roles in years, that of Father Ralph de Bricassart in ABC’s $21-million version of the bestselling book “The Thorn Birds.” It was a role that everyone, including executive producer David Wolper, had said that Richard Chamberlain seemed destined to play. And now, when he recited those lines, everyone agreed he was flawless. Everyone but Richard Chamberlain.
He had been working a grueling schedule now for five months, here in California’s Simi Valley, an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. And, for him, what had begun as the perfect role had been transformed into an exercise in frustration. Chamberlain couldn’t wait to finish shooting. “I can’t get it right,” he had complained a while earlier. “My momentum is gone.” Nevertheless, he didn’t fidget, didn’t miss a cue. And although he was wearing the priest’s long black cassock, he didn’t even perspire. Perfect. It was Richard Chamberlain, demonstrating his trademark: cool.
Finally, director Daryl Duke called a cut, signaling a break in the shooting schedule. Chamberlain walked away from the cameras - and abruptly slammed his fist into a cameraman’s chair, breaking his hand. An hour later, holding an ice bag to his swollen hand, cool Richard Chamberlain reflected on the results of a moment that was so puzzlingly hot. “I haven’t done anything this stupid,” he said “in 10 years.”
Richard Chamberlain without cool is like Walter Mitty without a dream or Perrier without time. His entire image is built around the impression that he is calm, reserved, distant, like a cathedral sheltered by fog. It is an image as fragile as, well, a hand smashed into a chair. “I am bored with my image,” Chamberlain says. “I want to be less remote and aloof. I want to get as far away from it as I can. I am bored with being Mr. Perfect.”
This is not a posture arrived at impulsively. It has taken eight years of intermittent Gestalt therapy; experiments with Rolfing; and sessions in intuition development and meditation. In the past, Chamberlain has tried shaping up spiritually in 17-day retreats in California’s Lucerne Valley. There, his courses with holistic healer Brugh Joy consisted of something called “energy transformation seminars.” But while all his inner communing was supposed to make him comfortable with reasonable imperfection, it was not, at bottom, supposed to lead him to transform his energy into a haymaker aimed at an indomitable piece of furniture.
“What happened on the set is that I carried my anger too far. I would say that breaking my hand was going too far. It certainly wasn’t healthy. I hurt myself.” During the lunch break, Chamberlain had regained control. His voice was cultivated and genteel, his emotions benign. He played with a salad and cut himself a large piece of roast beef. “What I really wanted to do was to yell at somebody else. There is an area of the script that I have been complaining about for a long time. I’m not getting anywhere. I don’t feel I am being listened to. So, I broke my hand.”
Chamberlain had been upset about interpretations of his relationship, as Father Ralph, with Meggie, played by his costar Rachel Ward. In the plotline calling for Ralph to choose between his political ambitions and his sexuality, Chamberlain perceived Ralph’s sexual relationship with Meggie as a major crisis for the character. But, he told me weeks later, “The writer and director saw it as something very casual.”
Chamberlain eventually requested a meeting with the director and writer - Daryl Duke and Carmen Culver. “We argued for four hours,” he reported afterward. “It was what I had always wanted to do - release a lot of energy in terms of anger and frustration at the people who were responsible for this area of the script. After the argument I felt great. I made my points. They made theirs. We compromised, and the lull in my acting just disappeared.”
The leading man was back on track, comfortably in control. But only in terms of his role, not his life.
Richard Chamberlain is television’s leading “leading man.” It seems as if he has been that since becoming the star of a series in 1961. He played young Dr. Kildare then, a role that brought him nationwide recognition and made him a heartthrob to a generation of American teenagers. Monique James, his agent at that time and later head of West Coast new talent programs at Universal for almost 20 years, says: “He was just so gorgeous - not a line in that incredible face.” That was more than 20 years ago, and although the decades have altered that face, there is still something gorgeous about Richard Chamberlain that comes through the TV screen. The eyes are still the same startling blue-green; the face has changed, but not suffered. And the reputation as an actor/star has only increased. “What you get from Richard Chamberlain that you don’t get from most other television actors,” says Shogun producer Eric Bercovici, “is a true performance. He is a real pro. He worked 125 days of the 130-day shooting schedule on Shogun and he was never unprepared.” The only disagreement between Chamberlain and Bercovici was handled in a gentlemanly way: “Richard felt he had not done his best work in one scene and so he wrote me a letter, clearly and carefully outlining what we should do. He was right. We changed everything, but not because Richard used any kind of emotional threat. He does not throw tantrums.”
Similarly, producer David Victor enjoyed the five years he worked with Chamberlain on Dr. Kildare. “He never failed to be there for every scene, even if it was only to react to another actor, and he never stopped learning. At one point, early on, a magazine critic called Richard ‘a little bland bottle of milk.’ Now they call him the actor of the decade. I would say he has done strikingly well.”
Chamberlain has played Hamlet. And Edmond Dantes in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” He was one of the Three Musketeers. And the Man in the Iron Mask. And in his biggest television role before Father Ralph, he helped open feudal Japan when he played Capt. John Blackthorne in Shogun. As a next stop, The Thorn Birds fit perfectly into his career plans. It had everything he wanted: Romance. Conflict. Glamour. And a chance to portray a character through a 42-year span of life. “As an actor,” he says, “the biggest reason I liked the role is that it is a great challenge to portray a man in this extraordinary dilemma; a man whose heart is torn in half in a lifelong struggle.”
It was a struggle that hit home, that spoke directly to the actor’s inners. Father Terrance Sweeney, a Jesuit priest hired to counsel Chamberlain on the portrayal of a priest, says: “He seems to be on a personal quest. He has a very intense level of inquisitiveness. He wants to know the meaning of life. Who is God? How is God experienced? What is the meaning of relationships? How does his professional life affect his life as a human being?”
A cool, upper-middle-class WASP, Richard Chamberlain was as prepared for Hollywood as anyone could be. He grew up in Beverly Hills, was graduated from Beverly Hills High School, then in 1956 from Pomona College, where he was an art and history major and the star of college plays. His father was a successful businessman. “He never had a signed contract. Everyone trusted him. I picked up from him a sense of integrity.” Determined to be an actor, Richard turned down an offer to join his father’s business; but before he could reach the stage professionally, he had to serve in the infantry in Korea. Following that he studied with Jeff Corey, one of Hollywood’s leading acting teachers. “Millions of people auditioned me, nobody hired me,” he says. “I didn’t read well.” Then he met Monique James, and a year later he was starring in Dr. Kildare. And a star.
But not an actor. “He wasn’t satisfied,” said James. “He was as hot as you can get here in Hollywood. He called all the shots, and yet he wanted more.” He went to England to do Portrait of a Lady, a six-part series for the BBC. Then, Peter Dews, the director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, offered Chamberlain a chance to play Hamlet. “He thought it would be amusing if he could whip me into shape,” says Chamberlain. “Besides, he needed a little boost at the box office.” A week before the opening, Dews sent for his protégé. “He wanted to fire me,” Chamberlain says. “I still couldn’t speak much above a whisper. He was in despair. I told him I was sure things would come together during the run-throughs. At least, I hoped they would.” On opening night, a week later, even though Chamberlain was so frightened he could not bend his legs, the critics praised him. The star had become an actor.
Why, then, did he later do films like “The Towering Inferno”? And “The Swarm,” in which he was upstaged by 20 million bees? “For money,” he says smiling. “For instance, with ‘The Swarm,’ I was paid $300,000 for a couple of weeks and it helped me buy a home in Hawaii.”
Still, because of the success of Shogun, Chamberlain came to the part of Father Ralph with clout - as the ranking miniseries star. And with a reputation as a cold, emotionless performer - a brilliant technical actor who could move across the stage with grace, who understood makeup and lighting, who had a resonant voice and eloquent gestures, but who lacked passion. He wanted to break free, and the role of Father Ralph offered an opportunity. “When you need to work out something in your life,” he says, “you seem to attract the part that will help you do it.”
Almost from the moment he read Colleen McCullough’s book, Chamberlain knew he had to play the role. “Something turned in my gut,” he remembers. “Only later did I realize the amazing parallels. Ralph’s big problem is his image. Like me, trying to live up to an image. Ralph falls into that trap of wanting to be the perfect priest and wanting to have the perfect relationship with God, and I really relate to that. It’s a crucial problem for Ralph and it’s a crucial problem for me. Ralph strives for this image of perfection and he keeps failing and it drives him crazy. Finally, he gets chopped down and he realizes he is a flawed human being. And then he is free.”
To play the role, Chamberlain spent considerable time questioning Sweeney, reading up on Catholic theology, puzzling the question of celibacy, asking himself tough questions about human love. Finally, he lived for three days in a Jesuit novitiate.
“I was by then very interested in what motivates a person to be a priest. What motivated Ralph. I watched these men get up at 6 in the morning and pray and meditate and attend class and then go out into the community and work with very hopeless people - the sick, the jailed, the druggers, the underprivileged. I watched them care about these people, and try to enrich their lives. I can’t explain it but it was powerful stuff. I believed their prayers were working. I was deeply moved. I had this incredible respect. And I began to draw from this experience and to understand that Ralph truly had a vocation and that he didn’t have a perfect relationship with God. But he was striving. And so am I.”
What lessons has Chamberlain applied to his own life? Mostly, the capacity to take risks. For the first time in his long career, for example, he risked doing scenes spontaneously. “I did not plan every movement, I let it just unwind.” In his personal life, he says, “I walked into parties and just let it rip. Me. I let me rip. When normally I would have been formal, now I asked questions, I gave opinions. I just wasn’t so defended.” He took a raft trip. He totally renovated the Beverly Hills home he owns and lives in with the two dogs who accompany him on his daily runs. Also, “I began my own production company simultaneously with The Thorn Birds, and I’ve watched my evolution as a producer. I gained a new kind of confidence in my mind. I started to trust my intellect as much as my emotions. I started to develop projects. I didn’t back down easily.”
This tough-mindedness has given him the strength to hope for a successful theatrical-film career that has so far eluded him: A movie he made in 1980, “Bells,” with John Houseman, is still gathering dust on a shelf. His latest attempt at big-screen stardom as the lead in the film version of Erich Segal’s “Man, Woman & Child” fizzled when the film’s shooting schedule conflicted with the shooting schedule of The Thorn Birds. As a first step toward a more active film career, Chamberlain recently fired his longtime William Morris agent, Flo Allen. “Richard wants to do movies more than anything else.” says Allen, “and he thought that by firing me, changing agents, maybe he would have a better chance. He is frustrated. He has so much more emotion now, he is so much more opened up, he has so much more passion, he wants to let it out on the big screen.”
And what might he do differently if he were criticized today, as he often was years ago, for being too withdrawn?
Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown Bring A Steamy Best Seller To Life In A Sultry Paradise
The Hollywood cast and crew of 160 stood on a hilltop on Kauai, Hawaii’s “Garden Island,” as nondenominational Rev. William Kaina bestowed a traditional blessing on their project. “May you be free from jealousy and danger and help to look after each other, “intoned the minister, dipping bunched ti leaves into a wooden bowl of salt water (“it purifies”) and sprinkling the assembled masses. Production heads and actors wore malle-leaf leis “to give strength and courage and leadership.” Even props and cameras received a gentle baptism. On cue, as the ceremony wrapped, clouds parted and a rainbow appeared. Cracked an onlooker to the art director, “Nice job with the sky.”
It was an appropriately epic beginning for the Hawaiian location filming of The Thorn Birds, ABC’s $21 million, nine-hour miniseries based on author’s Colleen McCullough’s 1977 best-seller about lust on the Australian frontier...
A muddy Kauai sugar plantation will double for Queensland, Australia, circa 1935. The lust will be supplied by Richard Chamberlain, 47, as Father Ralph, the Catholic priest torn between God and the flesh; Rachel (Sharkey’s Machine) Ward, 24, as Meggie, the woman who has loved him since childhood; and Breaker Moran's rugged Bryan Brown, 35, as Luke, Meggie'’ cuckolded lug of a husband. “People think Luke’s a bastard for abandoning her to work in the cane fields, but you’ve got to remember, she never loved him,” said Brown. “That seems to be a pretty big point people skip over rather lightly.
During the 10-day shoot, Ward and Brown skipped lightly between their roles and real life, holding hands and smooching on and off camera. “He’s a lot of laughs,” said Ward. “Rachel is totally around the bend.” quipped Brown, “Relationships are formed on location, love affairs flare up and die,” said producer Stan Marguilies, commenting generally on Hollywood tradition. “It’s like being on a cruise-only you can’t get off the bloody boat.”
Chamberlain found a spare moment to get on a boat-a small sailing catamaran-but for the most part stayed immersed in Father Ralph’s pending love scene with Meggie and confrontation with Luke. “Until I get past this part in Ralph’s life, I won’t get out and play,” said Chamberlain. “Ralph serves God and the Church through an image of himself as a perfect priest. After his affair with Meggie, he goes back to Rome torn apart. He is like an open wound, but he has found a genuine humility. The story is about achieving greatness through great pain. It is not about happiness.” . . . .
Nonetheless, Chamberlain was not above a little between-takes sacrilege, jokingly requesting a propeller for his scarlet biretta, or lifting up his black soutane in the muggy heat to reveal a pair of tan corduroy running shorts. After muffing a scene repeatedly (“Sorry, I’ll get it right next time-I promise!”) he sat under an umbrella during an interrupting rain squall and rehashed a crucial line as it will never be heard on TV: “If you can’t give her a decent life, if you can’t take care of her, if you can’t give her a little
nooky . . .”
Taste aside, the producers’ concern with verisimilitude alone would have nixed the quote. To advise Chamberlain on ritual and raiment, director Daryl (Payday) Duke engaged Father Terry Sweeney, a Los Angeles Jesuit, “I sensed Richard is a person on his own quest,” says Father Sweeney. “There is an intensity to his questions-about God and people and what love means to a priest and being in love with a woman-that was refreshing and moving.”
At a considerably more secular level, the producers hired four-time world sheep-shearing champion Charles Swaim of Drakesville, Iowa, to teach Brown and other actors how to clip with precision.
But the pride of the production is Drogheda, the $2.5 million replica of a turn-of-the-century Australian sheep station built 30 miles north of Los Angeles, where the series films before and after moving to Hawaii. It comes complete with a “Georgian vernacular” main house, corrals, shearing shed, 30 cattle, 80 horses, 1,500 sheep and a kangaroo named Sydney, who hopped so hard during his big moment on camera that he fainted.
Director Duke says the rest of his cast fared better. He thought Chamberlain and Brown were naturals for their leading roles. Barbara Stanwyck, Christopher Plummer, Philip Anglim and Jean Simmons, in supporting roles, round out a strong cast. Duke notes that Ward was “very so-so” in her first audition, but later came back to win the role over Jane (East of Eden) Seymour. “She had a youthfulness and ingenuousness that we liked, something exciting and fresh,” says Duke. “She had that edge and we had to go with her.” Ward admits she’s still nervous: “I always think I do shitty work.”
It is the clinch of a lifetime. After years of forbidden longing, the handsome Irish priest finally consummates his relationship with the brown-haired Australian beauty who has charmed him since she was a child. But according to Richard Chamberlain, making love to Rachel Ward in the climactic sequence of The Thorn Birds was no easy task. “There’s a microphone hidden in the armpit and another in the sheets,” he says. “There’s a wig to worry about, a shadow, an angle. Your arm is giving out because you’ve been sitting above her for three hours on the same elbow, and you’re trying not to smear her lipstick or make slurpy sounds while you’re kissing,” insists Chamberlain, 48 this month. “Love scenes are difficult.”
As Father Ralph de Bricassart, the hero of ABC’s 10-hour, four-part, $23 million version of novelist Colleen McCullough’s 1977 mega-seller, Chamberlain faced problems from the start. Although the producer insists he wanted Chamberlain, other contenders were said to include Christopher Reeve and Peter Strauss. When Richard learned that he had snagged himself an encore to NBC’s enormously popular 1980 Shogun, he threw a party in a L.A. restaurant. But the celebrating stopped as soon as the five and a half months of filming began last June. Playing the ambitious, tormented priest occasionally put Chamberlain into a solitary funk. “I was in a funny place,” he admits of some scenes, “where I really didn’t want to be with people.” In a fit of frustration over his acting one day, Chamberlain smacked a camera seat and broke his hand. “The complexity of the situation made this performance more difficult than Shogun,” he says.
The situation on the set didn’t help. As on Drogheda, the Australian sheep station that is The Thorn Birds setting, personal feuds flared. Barbara Stanwyck, 75, who came out of retirement to play manipulative landowner Mary Carson, enchanted cast and crew but clashed with producer Stan Margulies when he cut some of her lines. Says Stan, “I’ve had my ass chewed out by people over the years, but she ranks in the top two percentile.”
There were also persistent reports of trouble with Chamberlain’s co-star, Rachel Ward, the 25-year-old English model turned actress who plays Meggie Cleary, the put-upon heroine. “She was scared to death the first couple of weeks,” says Chamberlain. Gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote, “Rachel simply made herself thoroughly detested by her high-handed attitude.” Ward recently conceded, “I was miserable a lot of the time.” Chamberlain claims that Rachel’s behavior was not unprofessional and that he did not break his hand in anger over her antics, as one published report insinuated. But, ever diplomatic, he adds, “She has extremely high standards for herself, so there were times when I could tell she was not happy.” Of their chemistry, he says, “I loved her.”
So did co-star Bryan Brown, 35, the craggy-featured Australian actor (Breaker Morant, A Town Like Alice) who plays Ward’s wayward husband. In writer McCullough’s love triangle, Brown loses Ward to Chamberlain. But off camera, he got the girl. In fact, the couple will wed April 16 in a small English church (60 guests) near the Oxfordshire estate where Ward was raised. Jokes Brown, “She came begging me to marry her. How could I turn the poor girl down?” Says Rachel, “Bryan’s given my everything. I’ve got it all.” Including an engagement ring of pink sapphire surrounded by diamonds.
Bryan and Rachel were strangers until they met on the set. But the attraction was almost instantaneous. “Bryan was smitten,” recalls a colleague. “I’ve never seen two people more in love,” says Chamberlain. “I think they wanted to be left to themselves.” However, when the company trekked to Hawaii’s Kauai, which doubles for Australia’s Queensland, Brown and Ward went public, often strolling on location hand in hand.
The behind-the-scenes romance had on-camera repercussions. With only four previous acting credits (including Sharky’s Machine and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), Rachel was apprehensive about her work. “It’s real hard to play that heightened drama every bleeding day,” she notes. But Bryan calmed her fears. Observes Chamberlain, “She seemed to get happier and happier, and her work got better and better.” Says Rachel simply, “It certainly helped having Bryan there. He may be rotten to Meggie, but he’s great to me.”
When Bryan finished his eight-week Thorn Birds stint, he went to England, where he recently wrapped a part as Paul McCartney’s manager in the upcoming movie musical Give My Regards to Broad Street. Six weeks later Rachel finished and headed home, skipping the wrap party, which did not further endear her to Thorn Birds’ cast and crew. (“I was in love, for heaven’s sake. Any girl would have done what I did,” she says.) Reunited in London, the pair decided to marry. “Aren’t I the lucky girl?” asks Rachel.
In fact, the two are something of an odd couple. She comes from England’s upper crust. He comes from working-class Sydney stock. She favored jet-set nightclubbing. He preferred jeans, beers and hanging out with the blokes.
As the eldest daughter of aristocrat Peter Allistair Ward, 57, and niece of the Earl of Dudley, Rachel was raised with a younger sister and brother in comfort at Cornwell Manor, her father’s 1,800-acre estate. But at an early age, she rejected the decorum expected of society’s child. As she once joked, “My parents saw it coming when I stopped doing my homework and did not get in until 7 in the morning.” At 16, she left school to pursue a modeling career. Recalls her London Agent, Laraine Ashton, “She was quite nervous about her work. She never really thought she would be any good.”
Instead, she was a surprise hit. In the late ‘70s she left England for a successful career stateside appearing in major ads for Revlon and Faberge. But as a lady-about-town, she was seen at discos more often than on magazine covers. She ran fast in a fast set. “Coke was nice when I was modeling a lot,” she once said. One evening at Manhattan’s trendy Xenon disco, she inspired a brawl between Princess Caroline’s then husband, Philippe Junot, and David Kennedy, RFK’s son, whom she dated for five months prior to his 1979 drug scandal.
By contrast, Brown’s life halfway around the world was not so colorful. His mother, Mary, helped support Bryan and younger sister Kristine by taking in ironing after their salesman father walked out when Bryan was 3. After high school, Brown worked for an insurance agency, but acting beckoned. He apprenticed with London and Australian companies, appeared in numerous films, and won international attention as the rakeshell soldier in 1980’s Breaker Morant.
With a confident swagger, lean frame and rugged looks, Brown personifies Australia to the rest of the world, but despite his popularity he maintains a low profile in Sydney. Before Ward, he enjoyed a 10-year relationship with Australian actress Julie McGregor. He lives next door to sister Kristine, a teacher. When his 1963 Chevrolet was stolen, he didn’t bother to replace it. His mother said recently, “He has waited a long time to get married, but I think he wanted to wait. He’s seen so many marriages break up in the acting world.”
Ward appears eager to play the wife. “I’m going to concentrate on being married,” she says. “I’m going to be a good wife and look after my hubby and have lots of babies.” First, however, she’s about to co-star with Mel Gibson in a caper flick, The Running Man. Bryan is in Australia completing Eureka Stockade, a TV miniseries about a gold miners rebellion in 1854.
After marrying, the couple plan to divide their time between homes in L.A. and Australia. Chamberlain suggests, however, that living Down Under could pose a problem, as it did for Meggie and her husband in The Thorn Birds. Says he, “From what I’ve observed, there’s an enormous rift between men and women there. Men don’t seem to count women as full-blown human beings.” In Rachel’s case, though, “She’s too independent to fall in love with somebody who didn’t recognize her for herself,” he says.
While Brown and Ward plan their wedding Chamberlain, a longtime student of spiritual matters, returned earlier this month to Kauai to join a 17-day retreat with his holistic teacher, Brugh Joy. For years Chamberlain has planned a TV movie based on his mentor’s book, Joy’s Way: A Map for the Transformational Journey. Richard contends that six years of training with Joy has changed his outlook. “I used to be very self-conscious and inhibited,” he recalls. Observes a longtime friend, “He has a kind of inner calm that is unusual for a working actor.”
Despite his TV popularity, Chamberlain consistently avoids the Hollywood crowd. A confirmed bachelor, he lives in a three-bedroom Beverly Hills home that he’s remodeling with Japanese-inspired designs. He also has residences in Oahu and Manhattan. In the wake of The Thorn Birds, he intends to stay put for a while in New York City. Playing Father Ralph took a toll. “This story,” he says, “is not about happiness.”
According to legend, there is a bird that leaves its nest in search of a particular thorn tree; finding the tree, it impales itself upon the sharpest thorn.In dying, the thorn bird sings a beautiful, tortured song, the only song it ever sings.
In her lengthy and heralded 1977 novel about a sensual Catholic priest and his non-secular and secular relationships with an Australian outback family, author Colleen McCullough drew upon the thorn bird legend for both her title and the dolorous analogy that seems to predestine her story’s people.
The novel is rich in scope and settings as well as in its characters, among them:Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain), an elegant ecclesiastic confused by his lust for a young woman; Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck), a regal and imperious widow who rules her outback duchy with Cromwellian sternness; and Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward), whose emotional seduction of Father Ralph begins when she is 10 and continues throughout his life.
Hollywood filmmakers looked at this soap opera and drooled, anticipating another epic in the style of “Gone with the Wind.”
Warner Bros. snapped up the rights to the property before it had its first North American hardcover printing, and the studio turned it over to several of the film industry’s most ingenious directors, including Herb Ross, Arthur Hiller and Peter Weir.
Each wrestled with the challenge of turning the 700-page paperback, which spans some 50 years, into a workable 2½-hour screenplay.Each failed, and the studio had to abandon its plan for a theatrical release.Instead, it turned the property over to the Warner Bros. television department, which approached producers David Wolper and Stan Margulies, who had pioneered miniseries television with Alex Haley’s Roots.
Margulies had followed the property’s journey with interest, never completely convinced that the story could be told in such a limited time frame.Wolper was no less interested.When Alan Shayne, president of Warner Bros. Television, finally sat down with the pair to discuss development of the project as a television miniseries, agreement was swift and enthusiastic.
“I had read ‘The Thorn Birds’ five years ago, sitting on a beach in Tahiti,” says Margulies.“And after I finished reading it, my wife read it.Three times.When Warner’s approached David and me about doing the book as a miniseries, both of us were delighted.”
The first problem was getting a workable script, and both Wolper and Margulies wanted a female writer.“A particular woman, actually,” says Margulies.“Carmen Culver.Carmen had received an Emmy nomination for her writing on ‘First You Cry,’ and we admired her work.She is a meticulous researcher.”Culver completed the script for “The Thorn Birds” in six months.
With a working script and a $20-million production budget, line producer Margulies then had to decide where to shoot.In the fall of 1981, he and his wife, Lillian, boarded a jet bound for Sydney, Australia.On the ride into town from the airport, Lillian looked at the lush roses, creeping jacaranda and evergreen eucalyptus and commented on the botanical likeness of Sydney to Los Angeles.After a thorough scouring of a great deal of Australian real estate, Mrs. Margulies said she felt she’d never left Southern California.Stan agreed.
Returning to Los Angeles, he considered all the problems involved with shooting on location:It would cost upwards of $2.5 million to relocate cast and crew; soundstages were inadequate for his needs; and he had been unable to find Drogheda, the sheep station in New South Wales that serves as the setting for most of the story’s drama.
The station includes a formidable two-story Georgian main house with exotic fenestration and smartly painted shutters.There are 12 other buildings on the property, including a sheep-shearing shed that had to be used for interiors as well as exteriors.They would have to shear sheep in it, and Margulies could not find such a shed still housing the turn-of-the-century equipment appropriate to the story.“It became clear,” he says, “that we could create a more realistic Drogheda from scratch in Southern California than we could by trying to find an actual place in Australia.”
So a helicopter search began for a location in Southern California.“We found a perfect spot in an area called Calabasas:The right hills, no planes overhead, no utility poles or wires,” says productions manager Hank Kline.“But the owner wouldn’t give us a lease.”(It was just as well:Several months later, during what would have been the peak of principal photography, a brush fire ravaged the entire area.)
A new spot in the Simi Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Warner’s Burbank studio, was finally chosen by the producers; a place where fast-food emporiums and shopping malls disappear, and only barley fields – many unfenced and naked of civilization’s accoutrements – roll for acres.
By January 1982, construction of the $2-million Australian sheep station was begun by workmen using production designer Bob MacKichan’s scrupulously researched plans.His work has been associated with the Wolper/Margulies group since MacKichan recreated the entire town of Henning, Tennessee, for Roots:The Next Generations.
For the director, Wolper and Margulies again had a particular person in mind:Daryl Duke, owner of CKVU-TV in Vancouver and, like the producers, an Emmy-winner.
He liked the screenplay the producers showed him, finding it “socially relevant, with something to say about our lives:parents betraying their children, and men who use women.There was a toughness and honesty about the script that you don’t find often.”Needless to say, he said yes.
Duke was also elated to be working with Chamberlain, who, he says, “is absolutely perfect for the part.Richard is an actor of range and depth and also has those diverse qualities of sensitivity, sexuality and humor that are demanded.”
By May 1982, Duke was assembling the cast at Warner Bros. for readings, and principal photography began in June at the Drogheda location.The magnificent mansion looked stately and grand, as well as properly aged.Four hundred bare-foot roses, specially grown in Oregon for the Drogheda garden, began to wilt in the summer heat, and silk roses augmented them, looking more real than even the real thing.
The shearing shed stood at the end of the property and was authentic and working, with the proper turn-of-the-century equipment procured and installed.Bryan Brown and three other cast members had received a three-week crash course in shearing, and the shed’s authenticity was vouched for by a visiting Australian couple, who said it looked exactly like the one they’d used for the Friday-night dances in their native New South Wales.Horses were in the stables, and the 500 sheep with “speaking parts” ensconced.One thousand more were brought in for background in long shots.
The look of the production was further enhanced by couturier William Travilla, known for his designs favored by American First Lady Nancy Reagan, as well as his award-winning theatrical wardrobes.“A designer can emphasize aspects of characters in subtle ways,” says Travilla.“For example, when I designed Father Ralph’s riding clothing, I used a plain cotton for the fabric, as befits a priest, but I cut it in such a way that when he removes his jacket, you can see every muscle in his body, a reminder that although he’s a cleric, he’s a sensual man as well.”
When creating Mary Carson’s wardrobe, Travilla scoured old magazines and books for high-fashion styles appropriate to the time.“She (Stanwyck) has the body and carriage of a 20-year-old,” says Travilla, “so creating gowns to show her off as a commanding, sensual, proud woman is a pleasure – gilding the lily.”By looking at his completed designs, says Travilla, “it should be easy to read the script and then tell which character wears which of these outfits.The clothing should give away their personalities and situation.”
Travilla also had to deal with the characters’ aging process.“When a woman ages, her arms may become less firm, her bosom is lower, and she may have a slight hump at the top of her spinal cord.You work with different undergarments, padding the hips and the back of a dress slightly, by using a different brassiere and padding the sleeves.Men go to pot.They tend to develop a paunch, and the hips spread.Their muscles tend to turn to flab.The right kind of padding can age a person tremendously.”
Not everything could be shot at the Simi Valley location.For the third episode, in which the action moves to North Queensland, the cast and crew flew to the Hawaiian island of Kauai.The scenery is almost identical to that in the idyllic islands on the Great Barrier Reef, but the weather – which has a habit of changing every 15 minutes – was a challenge for director Duke.
Shooting was often held up by unexpected showers, but the cast amused itself with water sports and each other.Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward seemed to get on much better off-screen than on – where they have a short-lived and unhappy marriage – but when a journalist asked Brown if the relationship was serious, he quipped, “Good Lord, no, that woman’s round the bend.”Duke smiled when he heard about that exchange:“Sounds like his lines from the script.Right in character.”
Locations are always a strain on the director.He’s often looked upon as a kind of camp director.At the Kauai location, the beautiful scenery and the union’s allowance of a six-day shooting schedule rather than the normal five days relieved some of the pressure on Duke, but he says he still heard not only about the horrendous productions problems, but about the dreadful coffee.
“I try to designate my first assistant director as holder,” says Duke.“People tend to forget that when their shooting day is over and they are heading for the aloha hour at the hotel bar, I’m just sitting down with the next day’s script to figure camera angles.And I’m always getting complaints about early calls, but I’m the one who has the 4:30 a.m. alarm setting.”
Still, the atmosphere on location seemed genial, and location humor was rampant.Top spot for favorite anecdote was agreed to be the one about Duke and his Roo.
In one scene, a kangaroo was to hop around in front of the camera. But when given the cue, the animal, named Sydney, wouldn’t budge. Someone suggested a well-placed boot to the backside, but Duke said absolutely not. “He will jump when he’s ready.”
Finally, Sydney decided to give it his all: He hopped such a distance and with such gusto that he passed out. Duke sent a car around to fetch him.
Back to Los Angeles
There, when pickup shots with Chamberlain in church interiors were completed, production shut down. There was no more reason for the Drogheda location to stand, and the order for the striking of the set was given. Every trace of actors, horses, sheep, fences, sheds, flowers and the imposing main house was erased from the terrain.
The very nature of miniseries can make casting them an onerous proposition: For one thing, they’re lengthy – The Thorn Birds runs 10 hours – which means that a poor casting decision becomes increasingly apparent as time goes on. Producers Stan Margulies and David Wolper, however, must be pleased with the job done on The Thorn Birds: The cast is full of both critically acclaimed and popular stars.
The one actor they wanted for the part of the multifaceted Father Ralph de Bricassart was Richard Chamberlain.Says Wolper, “Many fine actors had shown great interest in the part:Robert Redford – when Warner’s first purchased the property – and, later, Christopher Reeve, Peter Strauss and Ryan O’Neal.But once Richard was interested, that was it.We couldn’t see anyone else.”
The part of Mary Carson, the grande dame of Drogheda who causes Father Ralph’s star to rise by bequeathing her sheep station to the Catholic Church, had Barbara Stanwyck’s name written all over it.“She was the only one who came to mind,” say Margulies.“The only actress with both the command and sensuality to play her.Mary Carson is still practicing seduction at the age of 70.”
There was little hope of getting her to do it.Stanwyck was retired – not available – or so went the Hollywood party line.And certainly not for television.Margulies sent her a rough script anyway.She invited him to tea.Negotiations began in earnest when Stanwyck asked to see a complete script.Satisfied, she agreed to the part.
Then, with the aid of casting agent Lynn Stalmaster (Roots), the search began for Meggie Cleary, who as a teenager falls in love with Father Ralph and endures a lifetime of unrequited love because of his commitment to the cloth.“We read a lot of actresses,” says Wolper.Among those considered for the role were Lesley-Anne Down and Jane Seymour.Finally, Rachel Ward, a young former model from England, was chosen – despite giving what Wolper calls “an awful” first reading.
The turning point for Ward, whose credits include “Sharkey’s Machine” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” came when she was asked to return for a reading with Chamberlain.Says Wolper, “She was very beautiful, and we loved the incredible vulnerability she projected.”
Jean Simmons was asked to play Meggie’s mother, Fiona Cleary – who tries to hide her past from her children – and for once, says Margulies, “she didn’t tell me she could think of four other actresses who could play the part better.”
Emmy- and Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer was cast as Cardinal Contini-Verchese, the papal legate in Sydney to whom Ralph turns in his moments of doubt.Bryan Brown (“Breaker Morant”) agreed to play Luke O’Neill, whom Meggie marries, believing that Ralph will never leave the Church for her.Other roles were filled by Emmy-winner Mare Winningham (“Amber Waves”), as Meggie’s daughter Justine; Piper Laurie and Earl Holliman, as the couple who befriend Meggie when she and Luke go to live in North Queensland; Ken Howard (The White Shadow), as a German diplomat; Richard Kiley, as Mary Carson’s brother; and Philip Anglim (TV’s “The Elephant Man”), as Meggie’s son Dane who Ralph suspects may be the outcome of his and Meggie’s first romantic interlude.
Counting sheep could keep producers of The Thorn Birds, an ABC television miniseries, from going to sleep rather than sending them off to dreamland.
In fact, it could almost give them nightmares.
Part of the story is being filmed in a new area about an hour out of Hollywood. The place is called Simi Valley. It is reached by travelling a single-lane dirt road through tall dry grass. This represents Drogheda (pronounced dro-ghe-dah) in the television version of the Colleen McCullough best-selling novel.
The cost of trivial items is what should keep producers awake. When we were there in June, hundreds of sheep were in pens. The company, according to David Wolper and Stan Magulies, co-executive producers, pays $5 each sheep per day just for rental.
They said that 500 sheep were on the property the day we were there. They expected them to be used 30 days this time, which means, unless our computer is wrong, $25.000 for sheep for those 10 days. And they didn’t even get to eat them for that.
The co-producers noted they would have to have about 1.500 sheep for a couple of days later in the filming because 500 sheep would not appear enough on the open range. You can add that cost yourself.
With the sheep are four dogs, which rent for $50 per day. They were about 10 of them when we were there. Then there must be more as the number of sheep is increased.
These items, of course, are just starters. There is the rental of property and other minor expenses.
Then we come to the big ones like building and rebuilding the Cleary House in the story. Because of fire dangers, the house had to be burned by Aug.13. This was accomplished a few days ahead of schedule, like about 10 days ago. It had to be burned to the ground.
Even before the fire, ABC was preparing for the next location spot – in Hawaii. The company has been there shooting for a few days and will return the first of September to the location in Simi Valley to continue filming. When the company returns the Cleary House will have been rebuilt at considerable cost, and filming will go on there again. We’d better back up on this. The cost of burning down the house was sizeable because the neighboring fire departments had to be paid so they could have equipment on location in case the flames spread beyond that particular spot. Everything went along without a hitch.
We haven’t included the cost of the actors, directors, other technicians and everyone else connected with this production which will run for nine hours on Ch. 4 in the spring.
That will be a fortune, especially for the cast.
Among the performers are Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Barbara Stanwyck,
Jean Simmons, Richard Kiley, Piper Laurie, Earl Holliman, Bryan Brown and
Mare Winningham. The cast seems to be increasing nearly every day as ABC announces
During the visit by Hollywood writers to the set in June, some of the cast was available for interviews. Chamberlain, whom we had seen earlier at a PBS dinner (just long enough to say “hello and goodbye”) was available for an interview on this set.
He said he would like to play a guest role on Dynasty some day. “It’s the only commercial show I’m totally addicted to.” He declared during the table-hopping for interviews with the writers. “I love people running into their swimming pools and breaking their heads or selling their jewels and having to wear paste.
“We take ourselves so seriously. I love my life right now, but I’m taking it a lot less seriously than I used to.”
He added he would like to play an evil person, “who can successfully tempt Linda Evans away from John Forsythe. That’s the role for me. I would gladly appear on Dynasty if I
could have that type of role.”
Chamberlain, who has climbed the ladder to superstardom since he used to be clean-cut
Dr. Kildare, said he believes he has escaped the type-casting of that series. That he has,
in a series of major roles and particularly in the Shogun series, which will be rereleased