The Premiere Portfolio of Celebrity Art
“Memories of Sussex”
by Richard Chamberlain
The career of Richard Chamberlain on television, film, and the stage has been one to try the ingenuity of the critics and the celebrity-watchers alike. For five years he was not only TV’s
Dr. Kildare, but for all practical purposes “Richard Chamberlain, M.D.” - so linked was this one role with his entire professional career. For five years he was the “up-and-coming young medic,” the television idol who received as many as
12,000 fan letters a week.
But within another five years, Richard Chamberlain finds himself acclaimed on the British and American stage in a variety of parts, from contemporary playwright Christopher Fry
to the Bard of Avon himself.
Chamberlain obviously has the critics puzzled. Some may come to scoff, but all remain to praise. While everything did not begin with the Kildare series, this was an important milestone for the young actor, if eventually it did become a millstone, as well. Chamberlain says he looks back on Dr. Kildare with a great deal of nostalgia now that he is free of that image. It seems so recent that TV viewers in the hundreds of thousands watched, wanting their young doctors to look, act and dress exactly like
Untouched by the growing furies of the sixties, his stock in trade was the neat haircut, the white coat, a stethoscope carelessly suspended from the collar for constant use, the proper hospital manner and a handsome face. “It was a terrific experience. A great break for a young actor who had done very little professionally. But it was never satisfying in terms of being an ultimate goal because I had my eyes on other things.”
Perhaps the Kildare formula was not one destined to last forever, and it collapsed in 1966. Chamberlain, summarily deprived of his “medical degree,” did not.
There was, however, a professional disaster that followed shortly after. Chamberlain appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and when it closed during the previews, he was deeply struck by the “barrage of audience hostility.”
Therein lay a new beginning, a period of self-analysis, a withdrawal from the familiar American scene, and learning. Really learning about acting - by studying and performing. Chamberlain remembers that during his Kildare heyday, the distinguished British actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke told him, “You’re doing it all backwards. You’re a star and you don’t know how to act.”
His professional turning point, Chamberlain admits, was a transfer to England. It is from this time, this creative period, that Chamberlain’s watercolor Memories of Sussex stems. The painting is an important recollection of a rich and fertile personal and professional experience. Perhaps it represents an unfolding of talent, a renaissance.
Painting was one of Chamberlain’s early interests. He was first of all an artist, and majored in art at Pomona College where he “just dabbled” in dramatics. (“I did five lines from King Lear.”) A Los Angelino by birth - “but,” he claims, “from the wrong side of Wilshire Boulevard” - he excelled in track; and then, as an army draftee in Korea, he rose to the rank of a sergeant. After the army he thought of being a painter but decided it was too lonely. “So I waited on tables, worked as a chauffeur, collected unemployment checks. I didn’t have much money. My mother owned a small percentage in an oil well that only produced enough to send me through college before it ran dry. I started doing bits on television. Then I sort of fell into the Kildare series. That’s when I first started thinking seriously about acting.”
After Kildare and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Chamberlain starred in Petulia for English director Richard Lester. (“It made me want to work more for the British.”) In London he appeared on British TV in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, playing the complex tolerant, kindly, unfulfilled and doomed-to-die Ralph Touchett. Another important change of dramatic pace.
It is interesting that Henry James, an intensely American writer, found his niche as an expatriate, and that Richard Chamberlain, an intensely American actor, found his new start in England as an actor and as a painter.
The early and total identification in the public’s mind with Dr. Kildare left its mark on Chamberlain, and he is obviously determined to avoid future type casting. His current movie is a romantic period piece, Lady Caroline Lamb, in which the actor plays George Gordon, Lord Byron, the arrogant and aristocratic author of best-seller poems who gave his name to the Byronic way of life and behavior: in the words of G. B. Shaw, “a brooding, cynical, half-tragic, half-ironic, scornful playing with life
and the emotions.”
Indeed in the intervening years Chamberlain has provided the public and critics with rich fodder by playing an acclaimed Hamlet with the Birmingham Repertory Company . . . this in Shakespeare’s very own county of Warwickshire; also by doing two separate and distinct readings of King Richard II, one in Seattle and one in Los Angeles.
Richard Chamberlain has really had two professional careers. First in American television, and then - all that followed.
As an actor, Chamberlain has now reached a sufficient level of critical approval to belie any charge of an undeserved early success. His performance as Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers was hailed. More recently he has sought a variety of rolls - singing and dancing in a Chicago production of The Fantasticks (his second musical) and playing King Edward VIII, opposite Faye Dunaway as Wallis Simpson, on the TV special
The Woman I Love.
Today, Richard Chamberlain is a divided man. He spends some of his time in England, the rest of it in the United States; when he is not acting on the stage, he is working on a film.
That’s the way he likes it.
In all, Chamberlain has had little time to pursue his original choice of the visual arts. Memories of Sussex is one of the rare watercolors that he has recently completed. Sussex was painted from memory back in California, and portrays the view from a peaceful and quiet country retreat on the Sussex Downs, the rolling hills stretching from the outskirts of London to the English Channel coast, facing the Continent. The painting took several weeks to complete and was done as a tribute to Britain where Chamberlain found such strong empathy. “I sat for hours trying to perfect the flower garden in the foreground,” he relates.
Sussex is a pastorale and the Sussex Downs seem as far from Chamberlain’s native California hills as it is possible to imagine. The flower garden would not have surprised Shakespeare, for it is a perfect sixteenth-century tapestry of carefully drawn shapes and colors. Perhaps this same tradition inspires Chamberlain’s renderings of stained glass windows - an additional accomplishment of his.
In his watercolor, the Sussex fields are orderly and manicured. Spotted bovines browse and drowse in a field to the right.
All is peace and quiet.