STAR TURNS: The actor who finally got to play himself

Richard Chamberlain (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

The actor Richard Chamberlain - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

One thing you find doing interviews is that everyone has something they don’t want to talk about. I’d known there was something about Richard Chamberlain ever since I’d been a kid in the 1970s. My family were then close to the owners of the Bear hotel at Woodstock. Kenneth More knew them, too, and was there a lot during the making of the film The Slipper and the Rose as Broughton Castle, not far away in Banbury, was used as a location.

Chamberlain was the star and my sister had a crush on him since she’d seen him in the long-running television series Dr Kildare. She was older than me and I remember her cheekily asking More if he could introduce her to him. He chuckled and said she’d better not get her hopes up as “women aren’t his thing”. Although I was too young then to understand, I remember the awkwardness of the silence that followed.

Years later, I was tasked with interviewing Chamberlain when he was making a television film in London called The Bourne Identity. I was reminded of what More had said as I leafed through the newspaper cuttings. What had at first seemed unthinkable in relation to him – when he was the all-American embodiment of heterosexuality in a series of romantic leads – had started to be gently hinted at and then spelt out more obviously and cruelly. This was the 1980s when the Aids epidemic was at its height and just about all the tabloid newspapers were homophobic.

The day of our interview there was a story in one of the them about how Chamberlain had not gone to the funeral of a man who’d died of Aids. The piece implied he had been a lover of Chamberlain, and, if this was true, I could well understand why, at that time, he’d decided to keep away. I could understand, too, why he had never chosen to make any kind of declaration about his sexuality. 

We’d met over two servings of fish and chips in the canteen at Twickenham Studios in south west London. His white shirt was covered in ‘Kensington Gore’ – fake blood – after he’d just done a fight scene and I remember making a joke about how it looked like he’d had a terrible accident with the ketchup.

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He laughed but he was tense and his hand was trembling. It was as if he was in a psychological brace position ready for the dreaded question. Of course I’d thought about bringing up the funeral, and knew what value journalistically there would be in any comment from him about it at all, but, in the event, I couldn’t face it. 

Chamberlain was then in his early fifties, still strikingly handsome and he had about him all the grandeur that comes with long-term Hollywood stardom. It was clear, however, that he didn’t enjoy press interviews. Looking back at what he said, there was a painful subtext to just about every word he uttered. “I enjoy the acting,” he said, “but not the fame. It’s a pity you can’t have one without the other.”

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He recognised that he owed Dr Kildare for helping to make his name, but he said if he’d ever met him he could gladly have decked him. “I used to argue with the scriptwriters and ask why he had to be so exasperatingly perfect all the time. It made it boring for me as an actor and it created a whole generation of fans who had an idea of me that bore absolutely no relation to the truth.”
Chamberlain had since managed to play the occasional baddie - he’d had a lot of fun as the purveyor of dodgy electrical cables in The Towering Inferno - but he understood the importance of preserving an image. When a photographer from my paper showed up, he spent several minutes contorting his facial muscles, which made for a comical spectacle. The photographer explained to me afterwards he’d seen a lot of American actors doing it: the idea was they could temporarily iron out the lines on their faces before a picture was taken.
At the age of 68, Chamberlain finally admitted to an unstartled world that he was gay. He seemed a happier and more relaxed person to finally get it off his chest. He was asked if he regretted not doing it earlier, but he’d said that given his career was all about playing romantic leads, and the years he’d lived through, it simply hadn’t been an option. 

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