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Richard, reconciled

In his new book, leading man Chamberlain reveals he is gay, and it's liberated him.

June 13, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

Richard Chamberlain is ready for his close-up. Buffed and preened, he far outshines the tacky tan blandness of his Century City hotel room. Chin up, chin down, head slightly left, now right. As a photographer clicks, he makes the tiny robotic shifts, and switches brilliant smiles on and off like a light bulb.

Chamberlain has finally aged a bit, after decades of what some incorrectly perceived as surgically induced youthfulness. But he is still the matinee idol, king of what used to be called "prestige television," the world's reigning crowned head of the mega-hit TV miniseries. To millions, he remains indelible as Father Ralph de Bricassart, the conflicted young priest of "The Thorn Birds" (1983). And John Blackthorne, the conquering hero of "Shogun" (1980), both still popular enough to air 20 years later. ("Shogun" starts July 13 on the Hallmark Channel.)

To millions of others, who saw him on worldwide theatrical tours through the 1990s, he is Baron von Trapp or Henry Higgins. Or maybe Cyrano, Richard II or Hamlet, whom he played in England to excellent reviews.

He is also something else, as of this month. Richard Chamberlain is Out. He has outed himself, after decades of pretending he was something he is not: heterosexual.

Why now? And does he think anyone really cares?

Just ask, and he'll answer. After decades of eluding questions and fudging replies when interviewers inquired about his private life, Chamberlain now seems eager, in fact elated, at the prospect of talking. His answers are sometimes surprising -- especially for those who think that "coming out" is no problem for actors nowadays, and that the kiss between two men on this week's Tony telecast signifies some sort of end to industry homophobia. Not to Chamberlain.

In fact, he says, just weeks ago, before the release of his new memoir, "Shattered Love," he worried what would happen on the tour to promote it. "I expected to be shunned, stoned, expected crosses burning on my lawn," he says only partly in jest. "I expected people to hate me.... " Old fears die hard.

Would his fans see him as a fraud and deceiver who'd feigned emotions he couldn't possibly have felt as he clutched the exquisite young Rachel Ward to his manly priest's chest and whispered, "Oh, Meggie, Meggie. What's happening to my heart? What's happening to my loins?"

In fact, Chamberlain had no intention of outing himself when he sent a five-page book proposal to Judith Regan, of Reganbooks, who published the memoir.

All five pages were about spirituality, he says. "They described my belief system ... a kind of philosophical treatise on how we might learn to live our lives more fully." Regan must be some smart cookie. Chamberlain says she told him it was all "very interesting but needed to be a little more personal. Readers have to see how these ideas grew out of your life experiences."

Did she know he was gay? "Of course she did," he answers with a laugh. "The whole industry knew. And I knew they knew. But I didn't think the general public knew about it."

So there he was, at home in Hawaii with Martin, his partner of 26 years (who prefers his last name not be used) -- and with no great job offers coming in. "The phone had stopped ringing. It was as if fate had given me the time and fortitude to do what I had never imagined doing."

Writing the book turned out to be "the biggest learning experience of my life," he says. "I suddenly realized that being straight or gay is a total nonevent. If you tell me you're straight, what does that say about you? Nothing but the general category of people you choose to sleep with. Period. Nothing about whether you are good, bad, smart, dumb, entertaining, boring. I suddenly realized that saying I'm gay is no big deal. Who cares? The only people who care are the ones who have the same wrong ideas in their head that I've always had. That being gay is a terrible, dirty, horrible thing to be."

And how have his fans reacted to the news? "Everyone has been so supportive, so positive, so friendly on this tour. In New York, people walked up to me in the street, and in theaters. Strangers gave me the thumbs-up, wished me well, said, 'Good for you.' I am just awestruck by the change in the way I feel about life now."

Chamberlain says he'd hated himself all his life for being gay. "I was as homophobic as the next guy." This duality caused him to become two people, he says. He was "the good Richard," who is a handsome, straight leading man, and "the bad Richard," who is gay and, therefore, beyond contempt. Of course, the good Richard got the roles, in Chamberlain's tortured perception. But it was hard to act them with any authenticity, he says, because all his true emotions and feelings lay within the bad Richard, "whom I didn't even want to know."

Getting past his own prejudices

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