Richard Chamberlain is not dull. He just wants to please, which makes him afraid of being dull, and one’s fears are, alas, picked up faster than one’s aspirations. This is a time when journalists have turned into raving masochists, and want to be put down, stomped on, spat at, told they’re daft, dumb, silly, and have bad breath as well as a deficient brain. Which is why they love actors from the North who will do all that, and more, in the course of a short interview. While all Richard Chamberlain does is try to be truthful and helpful, and give one the best of himself. Even after a hard day’s rehearsal at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Which is admirable and very kind.
His bones are rather amazing - he has a face which by rights belongs to L’Aiglon, not the healthy All American Boy he claims to have been before his British conversion in 1967. (Even in Doctor Kildare, I used to wonder what that archetypal Prince Charming face was doing with all those drip taps and things.) His hair sits like a very sleek, very fat, cat perching on top of his head and keeping a promise not to annoy him. He is wearing a green and beige striped sweater that must be American because the nubbles are just that much too nubbly and the green a little too bright. But it looks good.
And he is very happy, because Robin Phillips, who is directing him and Anna Calder Marshall in The Lady’s Not For Burning, hit on the idea today that Thomas Mendip, the war-weary wanderer (Fry makes me want to alliterate) should be an American GI. Of course there is no guarantee that by the time the play opens on July 19, he won’t be a deserter from the battle of Agincourt, but today he is a GI and that makes a lot of sense. Both to the play and to the actor.
“It’s like coming home again after a long time. As a character, Thomas reminds me of the soldiers who have been fighting in Vietnam, who are sick of that incredible violence which must be like the Middle Ages. He is an outsider - it’s made very clear that he’s nothing to do with that happy little parish. When I was doing him with an English accent, the lines sounded traditional, proper, poetic, and everyone said, ‘Oh it’s lovely.’ Actually he has some of the roughest dialogue - “the heart is worthless” - tough stuff. We’ll have to experiment, but it’s such a release for me - it feels so much more natural.”
He has loved the play ever since he got the record of the 1949 Pamela Brown-John Gielgud production, while he was still at Pomona College. (He makes a face for Pomona.) Ever since he’s been in England, he’s been trying to get the rights to it. Then John Clements invited him to lunch and he thought, “Please God I Hope He’s Going to Ask Me To Chichester,” which he did. The Lady’s Not For Burning turned out to be exactly the play that Clements had in mind, and Fry, who only allows it to be performed by certain companies agreed to a Chichester production.
In Act One of Lady, Thomas walks onstage demanding to be hung, a gesture of similar temerity to Chamberlain’s stage debut in Birmingham as Hamlet. But he did not get hung or otherwise slaughtered, and it started him off on what has been an impressive career as a ‘serious’ actor. He insisted that Peter Dewes work with him a long time before the play opened, so they rehearsed in America, while Dewes was doing Hadrian VII, then later worked in a garage in Whitstable.
“I had no idea - I was completely green. Trying to comprehend the enormous emotions of Shakespeare, and how to express the emotion in these huge arcs of speeches, was so difficult. American actors have no training in sustaining long passages, especially of poetry. Peter Dewes beat the part out of me - not physically, but mentally. He was terrific. But I have no idea what he would have been like as a director if I hadn’t needed such help.”
He reaches into the bowl next to him and pulls out a green wrapped liquorice. The house where he is staying in Chichester is, to his dismay, anything but the half timbered cottage he had hoped for. Instead it’s a cleaned up, modernized barn, so well done that you could never imagine anything but cocktail party guests being stored in there. The walls have a hue of approximate terracotta, the decorator’s nightmare (‘Tell the painter more orange, honey’) but he has taped up large prints which hide most of it. There are two frightening Dali landscapes, and two Burne Jones tearjerkers, and lots of photographs, including one of him and Mae West for which no explanation is offered.
It never occurred to him, he says through the liquorice, to be anything but an actor. At Art School he maybe wanted to be an art teacher, but before graduation he did Arms and the Man, many people seemed to like it so he thought “Ah! I can act,” and went on to his first part - in Gunsmoke. He found a very good agent after a couple of years of banging his head against the proverbial brick walls - Monique James, who loved starting out young people - but there were still the ups and downs. “It’s such an elusive profession - before you’ve ever had a job it’s just a dream, nobody around you believes it’s really possible. Unless you’ve got something like a mania inside, most people give it up, or get into that very bad position of taking any little jobs they can find, hoping against hope. I was very fortunate - I went to acting school with Sally Kellerman and although she was always a star, it was years before she blossomed into general acceptance.”
The acting school was run in Los Angeles by Jeff Corey, who taught a kind of method, but Chamberlain attended one session with Lee Strasberg in New York and ran from it. “They all took themselves too seriously! I would laugh at myself before I went that far.”
He rifles through the sweets again. The sun is beginning to slant at us from the French windows. He comes back to the day’s rehearsal. “When you’re on stage and something happens it’s very creative, it doesn’t feel like it ever happened before, it’s the best thing in the world, and a real thrill for me. No, don’t say real thrill. It sounds so silly. I always come out sounding like some idiot plastic dumb dumb in interviews.”
He is genuinely worried about this problem he has. He finds himself too bland. He didn’t say that, it’s just a guess. But it would explain why the characters he plays are such tormented, wracked men. Richard II, Byron, Tchaikovsky. Working with Ken Russell gave him tremendous admiration for the man: “He is not an actor’s director in the sense of being articulate about what he wants, but he creates an extraordinary atmosphere in which you find your mind racing, bubbling with ideas. He creates a great feeling of something important happening on the set - each chair, each table is there in anticipation of something exciting that’s going to happen. He is a genius, slightly mad, but his Delius on TV was one of the most beautiful and totally controlled things I’ve ever seen. He took extraordinary chances in The Music Lovers and came out smelling like roses, most of the time. Contrary to massive popular opinion, I think he was true to Tchaikovsky. Everything I’ve read indicated the most tortured, out of control human being I’ve ever heard of. Of all the people I wouldn’t like to be, he’s the first.”
In the recent Richard II which he did for 14 weeks in Seattle, Washington, and across America, Chamberlain suffered not only the role but also the physical exhaustion of having 80 pounds of costume to wear every night. “The poor people in the front row - aside from being spat on all the time because there was no time to swallow during the long speeches - were showered with sweat every time I turned around and I could see them flinching and ducking.”
The dangers which he sees always at hand are the easy traps of the time he was brought up in - the ease and sunny conformity of California, the image of Dr. Kildare lurking, grinning and no doubt holding a hypodermic with the biggest dose of anaesthetic ever, in every corner. “On stage you can get a whole map in your head and just go from point to point. It works but it never gets the kind of excitement that an actor commands who can venture into the creative area. I have experienced it now and then on stage and in films. It’s maddening in films because the times it goes well are usually the times something else goes wrong and they have to reshoot. The audience can tell when you’re in that special area. Today when Robin said just play it American, Anna and I did this scene from the Second Act and every line was a revelation, so different from what it had been before. And we kept breaking up because we hadn’t really listened to the meaning of the lines before.
“What’s exciting is to learn how to expand yourself in a spontaneous way, and that’s what I’d like to keep doing if possible. It’s a real battle because people are basically lazy, and it’s so easy to relax back into something you’ve learned to do already. One must never allow oneself to be comfortable. You start getting into dangerous ground when people are saying nice things about you. I remember reading an excellent review for Richard II and going on stage that night thinking I was terrific. Nothing happened. I couldn’t do anything because I was out there to show them how good I was and that just doesn’t work. It’s those nights that it’s a real struggle that are the good nights.”
He has tremendous admiration for the creative qualities of Robin Phillips. “The air tingles with a good director. He loves the play, and is open with us about its difficulties. He’ll have us sing lines or read someone else’s part, or read like another actor would. All kinds of devices to jar us out of little ruts. It’s so easy to get into them - you read a scene three times and you’re in a rut.”
Chamberlain doesn’t compare his Thomas to Gielgud’s - he does not care to compete with anyone’s career - but he is very attracted to parts that he can play when he’s about fifty (right now he’s thirty five-ish) and would like to do some “Modern stuff.” He’s been living in the past, as he puts it, for 2½ years, and before that was in the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany’s that had them rolling in the aisles in Washington and almost destroyed everybody’s career. (Again my comment, not his.) He believes that “being perfectly honest in an interview is impossible, and unattractive in print. I’m not verbal. I haven’t a clue how to describe what happens, I’m very instinctive and it’s a strange blind search.” For which he makes what he hopes is a grotesque face, but the effect is, unfortunately, charming.
He came over in 1967 to get some theatrical experience, which he had missed out on before, and during, the Kildare years, all five of them, and that was the year that Petulia came out in which he was acclaimed for his performance as Julie Christie’s sadistic husband - a part which to him had a sound psychological basis. He did Ralph in Portrait of a Lady for British television, and started getting a lot of work, and by a process of assimilation, he is becoming a British actor. A flat in London, British plays in little English towns, dedication and hard work helped by his admiration for the way of life, the lack of material affluence, and a huge respect for the Idea of the stage.
“I always wanted to be what I thought was an actor. The fun of acting is changing around, playing different parts, being different people. If you just want to play one part of your life, you might as well sell insurance. I was playing a good American clean cut fella and it was pretty much my game anyway, so it didn’t jar too much with my lifestyle.”