One of the most memorable characters ever brought to television,
actor Richard Chamberlain, on Larry King Weekend.
LK: It is a great pleasure, our special guest for the entire program tonight,
on Larry King Weekend, Richard Chamberlain.
What a path, what a swath he has cut in American
entertainment on the stage, in movies, on television!
Richard Chamberlain, a lifetime Californian, who now lives in Hawaii,
whose new project is A River Made to Drown In. Are you doing that now?
RC: We just finished it last Saturday night, a most amazing experience.
LK: A River Made to Drown In.
RC: You have to look this up.
LK: Are you in it, are you the star, are you the producer?
RC: I am, I am one of the stars, it is a very ensemble piece, it is a small
movie, low budget, independent. It is one of my two favorite jobs
I have ever had.
LK: No kidding?
RC: Yeah, this kid, he is 26 I think, directing it, James Merendino.
LK: Who else is in it?
RC: Hmm, Hmm, I got to…
LK: It is like a small movie?
RC: Yes, it is a small movie.
LK: A River Made to Drown In. Why is it one of your two favorites and
I will ask what the other one was?
RC: Because, everybody is doing it because they want to do it, it is a
wonderful script, there is no money involved, nobody got paid much,
so everybody is doing it for the right reasons.
LK: Classic labor of love.
RC: Yes, and it is a wonderful part, very, very different from anything
I have ever done before. I play a guy who is about my age, in his late 50s -
I am actually past 60 - who is dying of AIDS and comes back to his old
Santa Monica Blvd. haunts to leave a legacy to the two hustlers that he has
fallen in love with in the past. It’s crazed, right? It’s some departure…
LK: So it is an original.
RC: Yes, it is an original script, it is a wonderful script and a wonderful,
wonderful movie, as far as I know, it has not been put together yet,
but I loved doing it. There was a kind of freedom about it, there was …
LK: You do not take small movies normally, do you?
RC: Oh I would, happily.
LK: If you like the part?
RC: If I like the part, I will do anything.
LK: What was your other favorite?
RC: The other one was a play at the Public Theater, in New York it was
written by Tom Babe, directed by Robert Allen Ackerman, it was called
Fathers and Sons and I played Wild Bill Hickok. Dixie Carter played
Calamity Jane. Have you ever had Dixie on the show?
LK: A long time ago…
RC: Yes, she is great. And we had an amazing chemistry together. And it was about this rotten kid, I am Wild Bill, and I am very past my prime, and he comes to kill me and he is sort of a bastard son of mine and….
LK: Your two favorite roles are generally roles that the public would not say
they know or actually know that you are in at all.
RC: Yes, funnily enough.
LK: You grew up here, and let us go back to the Chamberlain career,
because you touched so many bases, you grew up here right?
RC: Yes I did, I was born in L.A.
LK: And wanted to be an artist, right?
RC: Well, I really wanted to be an actor. I was kidding myself about the
art. I was almost catatonic with a kind of lack of confidence when I was
young, that I never thought I could make it as an actor. So I spent most
of my time in the drama department but I said - here is how practical
I am - well, if I can't make it as an actor I'll be a painter, I'll make
my living as a painter.
LK: Two professions that are highly employed.
RC: Yes, right, right.
LK: You went to Beverly Hills High School and…
RC: I went to Beverly High and to Pomona College, which is a great
little college out in Claremont, California, and my senior year in college
I suddenly had a kind of little kick, a collegious success in a Shaw play
and I thought “Aha! I can do this” and so I threw art out of the window
and decided to become an actor.
LK: You like being other people then? You like that?
RC: Yes, that was my main motivation in the beginning, because I did
not like myself very much and was great fun and more free to be
somebody else. That is not my motivation now, because I am much
more comfortable with myself.
LK: But you are trained enough at it to still get as much kick out of it?
RC: Oh yes, I went through a period, just after doing My Fair Lady in
New York, in 1993, when I thought I really do not want to do this
anymore, because I had been pretty premeditated about my acting,
not very spontaneous, I thought things out ahead of time and it was hard
work and then after that I did a little movie in Bulgaria. Strictly for the
money, because I thought nobody would ever see this and the offer
was terrific and I did not like the script very much. So I went over
to do this. The director was named Temi López, a little guy from
Venezuela; we got on right away, he was very sweet. We had
done a few rehearsals and he came up to me and said:
“Richard, you are so good looking, you are so charming, will you
please stop acting and just be yourself”. And I thought:
“What a curious idea! That’s what I should have been doing
all along”. That is what good actors do, don’t act, be yourself
as a character, listen and react; that is what all acting teachers talk
about and I had never been able to do that.
LK: And you are saying you had never done that?
RC: No, I am not saying I never did, I am saying I often did not do
it and consequently acting was very hard work for me.
LK: Let us go back, we all got to know you through Kildare, you were
not known before?
RC: No, I had done maybe 12 parts on television before.
LK: Were you guested?
RC: Yes, guested.
LK: How did you get that role?
RC: Well that is an interesting story, there was an executive…
LK: This was like 1960, wasn’t it?
RC: Yes 1960, there was an executive at MGM who I had been in
High School with, his name was George LeMaire, I did not know
him really, but he had been Student Body President and stuff like that.
But anyway, as time passed I went in the army and I went to
college and he went to MGM. And then when I got out of college
and got out of the army I got my picture in the Players Guide
and all stuff and started looking for work. And he saw my picture
in there one day and remembered me and thought: “I wonder what
this kid is all about”, and so he got me an interview. Because they
were trying to cast a series called the Paradise Kid, a western,
it was like the last of the westerns - the westerns were on the
way out at that time. So I came out for an interview and they
liked me and I did a pilot of this show, which never sold, but
then when Kildare came up about a year later….
LK: The famous movie series, Kildare was a name.
RC: Kildare was really a big, oh yes, it had been 12 very,
very well-known movies. They had been trying and trying
and trying to cast it and couldn’t, they had seen everybody
in town. They pulled out that old test that they had done for
the Paradise Kid and thought that is what we are looking for.
I do not know why they thought that, but that is what they found.
LK: Who was the older man on the show?
RC: Raymond Massey.
LK: What a combination the two of you.
RC: Yes, we were wonderful together. I loved him and he
really liked me and the reason he approved me - he had
approval of the part - was that my second job was an
Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I played one of Ray’s sons
and we had gotten on very well, so he said okay.
LK: For how long did Kildare run?
RC: Five years.
LK: So Kildare was the big break?
RC: Oh absolutely, an incredible and it came rather early, too.
LK: And how were you able though, after 5 years of that,
a very successful television show, to break the mold
and do so many other things Shakespeare, films, miniseries,
you did Thorn Birds, I guess the most successful ever done.
RC: It was one of them, yes.
LK: How did you break the mold? Vince Edward was
Ben Casey, no matter where he was?
RC: It wasn’t easy, because once you have been in people’s
living rooms for five years and become part of the family,
they do not want you to be anything else.
LK: You are Dr. Kildare.
RC: Yes, I was Dr. Kildare, period. And the business I think
probably would have been hesitant to put me in anything else.
There were other series offers and things, but I had this hunch
that if I went to England…. I met at Ray Massey’s house
once, for lunch, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he looked at me
and he said: “You know, you’ve become a star before you know
how to act”. He did not mean it unkindly, it was very true,
and so I thought I got to go to England and get in a rep
company or something, and do my homework,
I mean my basic training.
LK: Like here is a big star coming over to learn what is a star.
RC: Right, right, so I went to England. First I did Petulia a film
with Richard Lester, which was an all English crew,
all English people.
LK: Oh, that was fun.
RC: It was a good movie. I got the sense of England partly
through them. And then I finally went and thought I would
find a coach, I would join one of the great acting schools or
something but I got a part right away, in Portrait of a Lady,
my first miniseries. It was a six hour British miniseries,
of a Henry James novel, playing Ralf Touchett. It was
a magnificent experience, wonderful director, wonderful actors.
The press said, what do you know, the kid can act, surprise,
surprise. Peter Deuce at Birmingham Rep saw the
show and he was on the sofa with his wife watching and
he said “I think that boy can play Hamlet”. Actually they
needed some box office at that time, really, they had other
motives, so he approached me about that, about playing
Hamlet at Birmingham Rep and…
LK: And you did that?
RC: Well, I did it but [first] I turned it down. I had several
months to make up my mind and studied with everybody
I could find and they all said “Dick, don’t do this”, don’t’ do it”.
You know I had never played Shakespeare before except
five lines in King Lear. So I turned it down but, at the
absolute 11th hour, I woke up in the middle of the night
- this is true - going “I got to do it, I got to do it”, like
somebody was shaking me. So I called my agent and
said “If they will still let me do it, I will do it, if Peter
will work with me for weeks before we go into rehearsal”,
which he did. I went back, he was directing Hadrian VII,
in New York at the time, a wonderful play,
and he agreed and we worked in his garage and…
LK: How many performances did you do?
RC: We played for about six weeks I guess.
LK: Did you enjoy it?
RC: After I got into it, yes, the opening night was a time
of such terror I cannot tell you.
LK: The hardest role ever written?
RC: Yes, it is pretty hard. I couldn’t bend my knees,
I was walking around like this, my voice was going all up here…
RC: Furthermore, I did not think the critics were coming
all the way from London. They all came, I found out the day before.
LK: Did you get wrapped?
RC: No, funnily not, they came for blood, they
really came for blood. Who is this pretentious little
person from television, playing one of our great parts?
And they actually took me seriously. They did not say
I was great, but they took me seriously, which is
the most I could have hoped for.
LK: The difficulty in that part is that you could play it a
1000 ways and all be right or all be wrong.
RC: Yes, yes nobody has ever found the definitive Hamlet,
I am sure, it is a wonderful part, full of mystery.
LK: Then you appeared in a movie, right, playing who,
Octavius? Who did you play in Hamlet?
RC: Octavius, that was in Julius Caesar with Charlton Heston,
and a lot of people.
LK: Oh, in Julius Caesar. Did you enjoy that too?
RC: Yes, it was fun, but I do not think it was a good film.
LK: Did you enjoy Shakespeare?
RC: Yes, extremely.
LK: What makes him different?
RC: Well, he has a profound heart, I mean he really
knows human beings, he really knows the human condition
and he writes about it with such majestic poetry that is so right,
it is so right on, it is so wise. First of all it is easy to learn
because there is no other way to say the things
he said, you cannot substitute anything. It is not
easy to play, you have got to learn how to handle your energy
so you can handle those huge arcs of speech….
LK: In Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard you really get a sense of it.
RC: Yes fabulous, that was a great movie.
RC: Great movie.
LK: Fabulous movie, that’s the sense of what Shakespeare
is, it confounds you.
RC: Yes, yes, you dig and dig and it is endlessly rich.
It is just the most wonderful material.
LK: Therefore to play must be a hoot?
RC: Yes, once you have got hold of it, once you have got
hold of it, it is wonderful.
LK: Because the lines are so rich.
RC: Exhilarating, it carries you with it, this wonderful
wisdom and poetry.
LK: So you are in England you are doing all this,
what brings you back?
RC: I lived in England …….
LK: Did you like it? You must have liked it?
RC: Yes, I lived there for 4 1/2 years and I loved every second
of that, I made wonderful friends, I had wonderful work
opportunities there, but suddenly American producers were
saying things like “Do you think you can play an American part?”
Because having lived there….
RC: I sort of got a fake British accent, talking like that
[faking a British accent] all the time.
LK: You do that when you are with someone?
RC: Yes, yes, I thought it is time I went home. Also,
I felt like a treasured guest at a club, who would never
quite be a member. I had wonderful friends there, wonderful
times, but I would never really be a Brit, I was an American and
I thought it is time to go home.
LK: And just picked up and went home or did you have
a job waiting?
RC: I can’t remember. I may have.
LK: And how did Richard Chamberlain get to be miniseries
king? If there was a major novel turned into a four-
day miniseries, you were the star.
RC: I was real lucky. I waited in line for a lot of them,
that is the one thing I learned from being in the army,
that is to wait in line with a certain amount of ease.
For instance, the Shogun, they wanted to make a movie of it
- I mean a theatrical movie, - they did not want it to
be television. Robert Redford and all these big stars
were thought up for it and after months and months
and months not being able to condense it, because
it is such a huge story, they ended up saying okay,
we want to do it for television, but we want Sean Connery.
Well, Sean Connery got a movie for a lot of money,
thank God. The network at that point wanted me,
James Clavell wanted a British actor. So I had a
whole lot of meetings with him at which I wore thousands
of T-shirts under my clothes, because I knew he wanted
someone a little brawnier and bigger. He finally, against
his better judgment, said okay. He hung around shooting for
two weeks, watching me like a hawk, and then thought
the kid can do it.
LK: It was an enormous set, too.
RC: It was enormous, enormous.
LK: Did Shogun therefore do it for you, did that now
make you back major in demand?
RC: Yes, and then the Thorn Birds came along.
LK: Right after that?
RC: No, there was about a year in between, which is okay.
LK: Not bad.
RC: Not bad, and so those two really did it. In Europe,
I was not even known in Europe before those two.
I was not known very much.
LK: And then you would do movies, too, right?
RC: Yes, sure, I’m always happy to do a movie.
LK: And where did this singing come from? When I read
you are doing My Fair Lady, I said are you going to talk
it like Rex Harrison or are you going to sing it?
RC: You have to talk it, pretty much. He actually, if you
listen to the record carefully, is much more musical than
you might think, a nicer voice than you remember,
and a more musical presentation.
LK: Yes, he had a little bounce.
LK: But he did not have a great range.
RC: No, not great range, but it was written for him. I started
taking singing lessons just out of college, before I even
went into the army and then I continued to take them
afterwards for years, mainly for speaking voice.
But I made some records, I made a couple of albums
when I was doing Dr. Kildare, which weren’t thrilling.
LK: Richard Chamberlain sings love songs, just to put
you in the mood.
RC: Exactly, yeah exactly. They weren’t bad…
RC: That was not happening, I wish that were happening,
but they sold very well because of the series.
LK: How did the Fair Lady thing come about?
RC: My Fair Lady, I love My Fair Lady and I had
been thinking about it, I love Shaw, I like acting
Shaw, I know how to speak it - somehow - and I had
thought of doing it, "if ever I need a few bucks,
maybe I can do that." And then these producers called
me from New York and said “Why wouldn’t you do
My Fair Lady” and I thought: “Why not”? So, I did it
and we got into rehearsal and I found it a thousand times
more difficult than I expected, singing the songs….
RC: Well, how to present the songs, who this
character was, the accent is a difficulty, because
Americans tend to get rather arch when they do
British and you do not have to, but an American tends
to do that. So I had a lot of trouble finding the character
and a lot of trouble figuring out how to present the songs.
We had a wonderful musical director, Jack Lee, who helped
me a lot with that. But right in the middle I was
practically suicidal, I really was looking down from
my window thinking I am going to jump, I am never going
to get this part, I am just going to jump, I was really
depressed. I just couldn’t get it somehow.
LK: Henry Higgins.
RC: Actually, looking back, I was not getting the right
kind of help from the director either, but mostly it was my
responsibility. I passed a shop on the way home from
rehearsal one night and they were selling these outrageously
expensive ties and I went in and bought about 15 of them
and suddenly felt better, they are really great ties.
LK: The difficulty, once you got it, when you look back,
was what? What was hard about Higgins for you?
RC: I do not know how to answer that. I just could not
find the quality in him that would hold the whole
performance together. I actually did not really find it ,
I think, until I did it again in Germany not too long ago.
I did five months in Europe.
LK: Really, you were better there?
RC: I was much better there. I think, yes.
LK: Is it because he was so austere yet he
really had a heart?
RC: No that part was easy, I like that part, because
in my life I have been like that, to some extent,
though that was not so hard, it was getting lost
in the charm. The character needs a lot of charm and
I think I played more charm than substance for a long
time. Maybe that was my problem.
LK: It was the easy way out?
RC: Yes, was the easy way out.
LK: What about doing those songs, that
had to be a hoot?
RC: Yes, it’s a hoot, and especially “I’ve grown
accustomed to her face“ at the end, because it is
the one time he finally has found his heart to a some extent.
You know he is one of those guys who does not like women
because they feel things you know.
RC: Yes, he likes Pickering.
LK: Forgot your silly birthday.
RC: Yes, right. And he finally at the end, when Eliza
walks out on him, realizes that he loves her, and finally
begins to find his heart. The final “I’ve grown accustomed
to your face”, the way they have written it, the way
they have constructed it for the show, is just a wonderful
exposition, because he fights it all the way and yet you
know that love is going to win out for him.
LK: Do you like theater?
RC: Yes I do, I love theater. It is a lot of work. It is really
a lot of work and I would think twice before taking a big part.
RC: In a revival. I would happily entertain the idea of doing
a new play now.
LK: Oh really?
RC: Because it is so much more … I have only done one,
the one I was talking about “Fathers and Sons”, and you
are in on the writing, they changed the ending, they changed
this and they changed that. And nobody has ever played
the character before.
LK: The fun must be though the curtain goes up at 8.00,
you start and go somewhere?
RC: Yes, yes.
LK: And the audience let you know how they feel.
RC: Yes, instead of doing it all backwards, for instance
in this last movie I did, I played dead, - I had died at the end
- before playing anything else in the movie. You know
it is all backwards and upside down.
LK: Let us go back, what is the secret of a successful miniseries,
since we know if you do not get them the first night you lost,
because you are going to have two or three bad nights in a row.
RC: Yes, you got to have a powerful story that hits people
where they live, to begin with. You have got to have actors
who can really interest the audience in their character.
LK: And sustain?
RC: And sustain that interest. And it has to have a tremendous
amount of entertainment value to keep people’s attention
anymore, because I think our attention spans are shrinking
by the minute.
LK: Roots was the biggest risk of all, to risk seven nights
on an enterprise?
RC: Yes, well Centennial was 25 hours, the first miniseries
I ever did.
LK: That was 25 hours?
RC: It was 25 hours!
LK: When you miss on the first night there…
RC: You are right.
LK: …. you’re going to take a hit in the ratings.