Chamberlain’s Benign Image Takes A Detour To Dark Side
Since 1961, Chamberlain has been the archetypical good guy: from “Dr. Kildare,” to the priest in “The Thorn Birds,” to “Aftermath,” a recent CBS movie in which he was the grieving husband. But all that is about to change - violently.
Chamberlain assumes the role of sociopath “Preacher” Harry Powell in the ABC remake of the film “The Night of the Hunter”. It is a role created by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 original production, the only movie ever directed by Charles Laughton.
If you were a producer casting about for an actor to play a murderer who seduces the widow of the man he has just killed, a heavy who terrorizes children in a relentless pursuit to steal their money, well, let’s face it, the name of Richard Chamberlain would not exactly leap to mind.
But this unusual twist of casting has paid off handsomely. Chamberlain delivers a riveting performance as Powell, a low-life criminal, with “L-O-V-E” and “H-A-T-E” tattooed across his knuckles, who passes himself off as a fundamentalist preacher.
In a phone interview from his home in Hawaii, Chamberlain said the role of Preacher was one of his most difficult. “I hadn’t realized how much of a departure it was going to be until I actually started doing it,” he said. “I didn’t realize how everything I’m used to doing didn’t work.
“The characters I usually play will have a certain nobility, certain leading man aspects,” he said in classic understatement. “They go out and save the community, or rescue the damsel. This guy is only totally out for himself. He’s twisted. He’s neurotic, possibly psychotic and he’s a destroyer - the kind of person I’m usually after.”
Longtime fans of Chamberlain will barely recognize him at first. The actor prepared for the role by creating his own image of the character’s background. He changed his way of walking and added a harsh drawl. The normally well-coiffed hair is slicked back, complemented by a tacky mustache and a stubble of beard.
The look of Chamberlain’s Preacher is different from the one created by Mitchum, who was 38 when he made the original film. Although Chamberlain saw the earlier version of “Night of the Hunter” many years ago, he opted not to take a refresher course, “partly because Mitchum is inimitable, there’s nobody like him.”
Although Mitchum used his on-screen animal magnetism to good effect in playing both heroes and heavies, this production marks the first time in more than 15 years that Chamberlain has taken on a total piece of scum for a character (he was an evildoer in “The Towering Inferno”). And the last time he murdered someone on camera was back in the ‘50s on a TV show.
Why did it take so long?
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I guess maybe I wasn’t fully ready to do it before.”
But with “Night of the Hunter,” Chamberlain has said he has discovered a new jolt of enthusiasm for his career and his life.
Chamberlain has enjoyed infinitely greater success than failure. “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds,” “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and others rank among some of TV’s finest moments. But when he has failed, he has failed big-time, as well.
“King Solomon’s Mines” and its sequel, “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold,” two big-screen action-adventure yarns, were dreadful flops. And last season, Chamberlain’s long-awaited return to series television, “Island Son,” was a ratings disaster.
Chamberlain said he viewed the cancellation of “Island Son,” which he also created and produced, as a deep personal failure. “That was a very, very, trying time - both because it failed and because I failed to make it the show I wanted it to be,” he said quietly.
“Aftermath” and now “Night of the Hunter” mark an evolution in Chamberlain’s career, from leading man to character actor. It’s a transition not every performer accepts with grace.
“I feel like I’ve discovered a new kind of power as an actor - really!” he said, laughing that the prospect of bumping folks off has been artistically liberating.
“Oh, yeah, it’s fascinating to explore,” he said. “Acting has a side benefit, it’s a kind of therapeutic exercise and you get to look into the dark side of things, the dark side of your own nature a little bit.
Richard Chamberlain in a menacing role made famous by Robert Mitchum seems plausible if you’ll also accept Jim Nabors as Jack the Ripper.
But the onetime king of the TV miniseries says he wants and needs an image adjustment. At age 56, he’s listing toward “character” parts after decades of pretty-boy heroism. ABC’s remake of Night of the Hunter is intended to be a giant step into TV’s badlands. Mr. Chamberlain plays the unredeemably evil “Preacher” 36 years after Mitch made him a screendom synonym for malevolence.
“I’m very curious to see how people react to it,” Mr. Chamberlain says from his home in Hawaii. “They’re going to be shocked, no doubt about it. But I feel if you’re really convincing in the part, you’ll get them in the first four or five minutes. And they’ll believe you in it.”
Mr. Chamberlain’s on-screen physical appearance is a jolt. His hair is slicked and combed straight back, providing preliminary evidence of a widow’s peak. A mustache, stubble, beady eyes and puffy cheeks also make a good, worst impression.
“It just seems to be the right time to expand into character work,” Mr. Chamberlain says. “I’ve always had my eye on parts like these, because they’re often more interesting than the leading man parts. With leading men, the parameters are rather tightly defined, and the expectations are much more clear. You find yourself limited. So there’s a lot of fun to be had in character work. The Preacher is totally off the beaten track for me.”
He is reminded that he played a twisted character in the 1968 film Petulia. At that time he was trying to distance himself from five antiseptic seasons as the star of NBC’s Dr. Kildare, canceled in 1966.
“He wasn’t villainous. He was deeply neurotic,” Mr. Chamberlain says of his role in Petulia. “His crime was beating up Julie Christie. He did it because he was frustrated about appearing to be perfect. Of course, nobody’s perfect. I would say he was neurotic. Well, he was more psychotic than neurotic. He was a very bent-out-of-shape character.”
Mr. Chamberlain says he saw Night of the Hunter when it was released in 1955. In preparing for the redo, he “as much as possible ignored the original altogether.”
“My memory is that Mitchum was very frightening and very good in it. I admire him tremendously. And I also know that I’m absolutely nothing like him. Consequently, I knew I’d come in with something very different than he did.” . . .
Mr. Chamberlain began the 1980s by reigning over Shogun, the highest rated miniseries in NBC’s history. He also played a preacher of a far gentler bent in ABC’s The Thorn Birds (1983), another ratings giant. Each “event” took a week to unfold in times when the three major networks still had lots of money and little competition.
“I would be happy to be involved in one again, but I think the chances are slim,” Mr. Chamberlain says of the sprawling miniseries of yore. “The networks’ piece of the pie has grown smaller and smaller, and the audience’s attention span seems to be shorter and shorter. So I doubt they’ll be making many more, if any, of the gigantic miniseries. Which is too bad. I like ‘em.”
Last season, Mr. Chamberlain returned to series television - again as a doctor - in CBS’ short-lived Island Son. He objected to the network’s handling of the show - “CBS was in one mood and I was in another” - but found a permanent home in Hawaii.
“I love living here,” he says. “It’s very low-key and a wonderful antidote to the business itself, which is extremely competitive and tough. It’s nice to come to a place that’s far away from the wars. Also, you can breathe here, as opposed to Los Angeles.”
Mr. Chamberlain says he hopes to spend the summer “tooling around” the continental United States in a motor home. He also plans to star in a pair of four-hour TV movies, pending network negotiations for the rights to the novels in question.
He never has made a film in Texas, but did play a Texan in a 1959 pilot for a series titled Paradise Kid. Sent to college out East, Mr. Chamberlain’s character returned to run a Texas ranch after his father was killed.
This remake of a 1955 film based on Davis Grubb’s novel about a murderous preacher offers a compelling performance by Richard Chamberlain and a realistic approach from director David Greene. Written by Edmond Stevens, “Night Of The Hunter” is quite good until its clumsy, disappointing ending.
Chamberlain plays an aging, hardened ex-con who hears a dying man’s confession about a robbery and decides to search for the money. The ex-con easily poses as traveling preacher giving his last respects to the robber’s widow.
Director Greene, aided by Charles Bennet’s production design and Jai Galati’s costumes, has imbued the telefilm with a great sense of the rural South in the ‘50s as Chamberlain’s character ventures into a tiny town where religion and gossip are the only entertainments.
Such an atmosphere provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s con man, who spews the Lord’s message with oily conviction.
Chamberlain plays the ultimate con on the confused widow - he marries her.
The telefilm’s major weakness is that it opts for a quick ending and leaves lots of strings untied. While the con man is undone by his own greed, the story’s other characters are left in limbo.
Chamberlain deserves kudos for his driven, evil performance. Diana Scarwid also is notable as the no-nonsense mother who gets entangled in Chamberlain’s scheming. Reid Binion and Amy Bebout bring expert craftsmanship to their children’s roles.
Mary Nell Santacroce does a nice turn as the mother’s compassionate employer, and Ray McKinnon has a small but impressive role as the bank robber.
Burgess Meredith appears in a cameo as a wizened old man, but it’s a role that (like many of the telefilm’s characters) goes nowhere.
Romantic Hero Plays Murderous Preacher
Usually a romantic lead, Chamberlain plays a murderous preacher whose search for stolen money sends him in pursuit of two children. It’s the same role that Robert Mitchum played so effectively in the 1955 original.
ABC’s movie doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. The part of the psychopathic preacher is considered among Mitchum’s finest work. The script came from James Agee, and it was directed by actor Charles Laughton.
But tonight’s “Night of the Hunter” also represents some of Chamberlain’s best work in years, and the movie is scary enough to satisfy the thrill-seeking who aren’t familiar with the original.
ABC’s version is set in the present - although you’d hardly know it. People talk about satellite TV, and some drive late-model cars. Otherwise, this could be the dirt poor South of any era.
A young father, out of work and desperate to support his family, attempts a robbery. He gets the money but he also dies, setting in motion the preacher’s arrival in the life of Widow Harper and her two children.
The widow Harper, played by Diana Scarwid, is only too happy to have a man in her life, even if, as she tells a friend, he smiles at the wrong times. But her son, John (Reid Binion), is immediately suspicious of the stranger, who has the word love tattooed across the knuckles of one hand; the word hate on the other.
Role Reversal Richard Chamberlain steps out of character
After 30 years of roles as a hero, actor Richard Chamberlain has gone bad.
Chamberlain, the epitome of the TV swashbuckler, plays the evil “Preacher” Harry Powell in ABC’s “Night of the Hunter”. It’s a remake of a 1955 movie that starred Robert Mitchum.
“It’s certainly the biggest departure from the norm I’ve ever attempted,” Chamberlain says. “I wasn’t a nice guy in ‘Towering Inferno,’ but this character is really bent out of shape.”
“Night of the Hunter” is a psychological thriller based on the novel by Davis Grubb. Preacher is a man who kills without remorse while making others feel guilty about their own minor trespasses. He poses as a man of God to find money stolen in a robbery.
The movie, filmed on location in North Carolina, also stars Reid Binion as a young boy who confronts Preacher, Diana Scarwid as his mother, Amy Bebout as his sister and Burgess Meredith as a townsman.
Chamberlain, who first came to prominence in 1961 as the boyish Dr. Kildare, even looks different. He has a mustache, and his light brown hair is cut short and slicked back.
“When we started filming, I found nothing in my actor’s vocabulary that worked,” he says. “I had to invent and experiment. It was so totally different from anything I’d done before.
“It took about a week for me to feel comfortable. Then I began to relish this guy - his mannerisms, his tics. It’s like developing a character as a novelist. The character begins to take over and tell you how to do it.
“I can vaguely remember Mitchum in the original. But I didn’t want to look at it. The only way to do a remake is not to look at the original. But now that I’ve finished the picture, I’d like to see the original.”
The 1955 movie, the only film directed by Charles Laughton, also starred Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. The current movie is closer to the book than the 1955 screenplay by James Agee.
Chamberlain moved to Hawaii two years ago, although he travels frequently to work in various projects or to visit friends. For 15 years, he has owned a beach house on the western shore of Oahu. He sold his home in Los Angeles when he started “Island Son,” a series which quickly folded.
In his last series, he also played a doctor, although he was not young and idealistic as he was in “Dr. Kildare.” In “Island Son,” he was a physician who occasionally practiced island medicine learned from his adoptive father, a native Hawaiian.
Chamberlain is the narrator of the current PBS documentary series “The Astronomers.”
He says he expects to return soon to Japan, where he did the miniseries “Shogun” in 1980. He will be the on-camera host for a documentary on Japan for Turner Broadcasting.
“Shogun” was one of six miniseries that Chamberlain starred in. The others were “Centennial,” “Dream West,” “Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Bourne Identity.”
“That was the great era of the miniseries,” he says. “Centennial” ran 26 hours, “Shogun” was 12 hours. “I don’t think anyone’s doing the big shows now.
“I don’t know that people would watch 12 hours today. And the networks certainly don’t have the money to make them. The economy’s changed.”
For a time, Chamberlain had few rivals as the king of the miniseries. He starred in the TV movies “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Cook & Peary: The Race to the Pole.”
He carried his swashbuckling onto the big screen for “The Three Musketeers,” “The Four Musketeers” and “The Return of The Three Musketeers.” He also starred in “King Solomon’s Mines” (a remake of a remake) and “Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold.”
Unlike most actors, Chamberlain has no desire to be a film director.
Give Richard Chamberlain credit. He’s got leading-man looks and a persona that would allow him to coast through enough projects to keep the Jacuzzi hot and the chardonnay cool for the rest of his career. But the guy actually likes to act.
He first proved that when instead of cashing in on “Dr. Kildare” (1961-66), he headed for England for classical training. A triumphal “Hamlet” was the result.
Now the king of the romantic miniseries takes on a role of pure evil and villainy. And he does it quite well.
This Davis Grubb novel was first filmed in 1955. Directed by Charles Laughton, that justly celebrated version was, literally and figuratively, a black and white allegory about the contest between good and evil.
This remake, directed by David Greene (“Fatal Vision”), has altered the plot a bit and is more of a straightforward thriller. It remains a gripping, chilling story . . .
The film opens with a desperate young man robbing a check-cashing operation for $50,000. He’s shot in the process but makes it to his house and shows his young son where he has stashed the money just before the police arrive and take him away.
He dies shortly thereafter, an event hastened along by the rather brutal attempt of Chamberlain’s character to find out where the loot was stashed. Chamberlain is a convict who has gotten wind of the story about the missing money and taken the bed next to the young robber in the prison infirmary.
With “love” tattooed across the fingers of one hand and “hate” on the other, Chamberlain’s self-styled preacher gets out of jail and heads for the rural Appalachian town where the crime took place and where the money remains.
After a seemingly selfless, nearly miraculous, incident puts him in the good graces of the village elders, Chamberlain begins wooing the widow of the robber. The widow is a good part for Diana Scarwid, who played Christina Crawford in “Mommie, Dearest.”
While the town and the mother are taken in by the fire-and-brimstone act, the young boy - played by Reid Binion - is not. What starts out as a cat-and-mouse game between the two over the location of the stash eventually turns into a brutal confrontation.
Though this “Night of the Hunter” lacks the evocative moodiness of Laughton’s version, it nonetheless keeps your attention. The clash is not drawn as stark confrontation between absolute evil and pure innocence but as a battle between a manipulative madman and a youngster too rooted in common sense to be taken in by this preacher’s act.
That’s not to say that this “Night of the Hunter” doesn’t deliver its share of messages. They abound with everything from “A little child shall lead them” to “The love of money is the root of all evil.” It’s just that this “Night of the Hunter” seems more intent on entertaining than mesmerizing.
It has its flaws. Burgess Meredith’s character of an aging river rat seems superfluous, perhaps indicating something ended up on the cutting room floor. And the final chase sequence lacks the punch the rest of the film has set you up for. But it’s a well-made, nicely directed, finely acted movie.
It is interesting to contemplate the message delivered by this story in 1955 and how that changes 35 years later. The original can be seen in part as one of the skein of films such as “Inherit the Wind” that denounced rural ignorance and superstitions.
Moreover, its allegory about the man who preaches good to hide his evil ways can be placed in the context of the McCarthyism that was still a powerful force in 1955.
In 1991, denouncing the pursuit of money above all other ambitions is certainly a pointed message in the post-junk bond, post-Michael Milkin era. But a more specific subtext can be found in the voice that Chamberlain gives to this character.