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," airing Sunday. 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 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 that quickly folded.
In his last series he also played a doctor, although he was not young and idealistic as 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 co-starred Chamberlain. 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. Miniseries today rarely go beyond four hours.
"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."
"Night of the Hunter" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC. "The Astronomers" airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and at 9:30 p.m. on KVCR, and on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on KOCE.