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Classic Hollywood: Richard Chamberlain is as busy as ever

He’ll attend an American Cinematheque tribute to him Friday and Saturday at the Aero Theatre. He also has an upcoming role in ‘Leverage’ and might do a play in England this summer.

April 28, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

During his long, successful career, Richard Chamberlain has played a wide variety of roles. But who knew that he could also do a pitch-perfect impression of Katharine Hepburn?

Chamberlain played opposite the legendary actress in the 1969 film "The Madwoman of Chaillot." He recalls that Hepburn demanded to meet him before he could get the role of Roderick in the comedy.

"I had to fly to France for her to OK me for the part," says Chamberlain, still "Shogun" handsome at 76. "She loved to fool around. We did a scene in this park where I had just tried to drown myself. I was lying with my head in her lap on this park bench. They were lighting the scene and she started fooling around with my hair."

And his ears. Conjuring up the spirit of the late, great Kate, Chamberlain mimics her, saying in her distinctive patrician style, "Oh, little pig ears. Close to your head. Just like mine. It means you are very selfish.' "

Chamberlain is relaxing in the living room of his three-bedroom West Hollywood apartment. His primary residence has been Hawaii for the last 25 years, but last July he moved back to Los Angeles — he's actually a Beverly Hills native.

"This is my hometown and it's great being back," he enthuses. He seems to be busier than ever. The next day, he was flying to Oregon to appear as the world's greatest thief on the TNT series "Leverage."

"My agent just called from England; they want me to do a play there this summer," says Chamberlain, who came to fame nearly 50 years ago as the idealistic "Dr. Kildare" on the NBC series.

"Tomorrow I am going on an interview for an independent film. I am absolutely thrilled with all of this activity. All of a sudden, I am getting all of these phone calls. Life has become really nice."

Especially since Chamberlain, who was king of the miniseries in the 1980s thanks to such classics as "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds," came out seven years ago in his book, "Shattered Love: A Memoir."

"When you grew up gay in the '30s, '40s and '50s, it was a terrible thing," he says. "You absorb all of this negative stuff and it becomes a part of you. It wasn't until I was writing my book …. I remember the moment, actually. It was almost like an angel came into the room and put her hand on my head and said, ‘Enough of this nonsense.' It's the most benign, meaningless fact being gay. What does that tell you about a person?"

Though he feared what everyone would think, says Chamberlain, "Everybody was so wonderful. It didn't change a thing." In fact, it's given him a "great freedom. It's really wonderful."

Chamberlain will be bringing his charm, good humor and delightful stories to the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre this weekend at a two-day movie tribute to the actor.

Screening Friday is Peter Weir's scary 1977 supernatural thriller "The Last Wave," in which Chamberlain plays a lawyer hired to defend an aboriginal man accused of murder.

Playwright-director Neil LaBute will discuss Chamberlain's career with the actor on Saturday in between the screening of 1968's "Petulia," in which he plays Julie Christie's abusive husband, and Ken Russell's 1970 biopic on Tchaikovsky, "The Music Lovers."

"Petulia," directed by Richard Lester, was his first post-"Kildare" motion picture. Lester had some unusual words of encouragement for him.

"He said, ‘You are perfect for the part,' " Chamberlain remembers. " The character is an empty Coke bottle. He looks great on the outside, but there's nothing inside."

"Petulia" was a blast for Chamberlain. "We had night shoots in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco with Janis Joplin and everybody hanging out," he says. "We were all living in houseboats in Sausalito. It was in the middle of the flower children time and everybody was beautiful and kind of loaded."

He then headed to England in hopes of going to drama school there. But as soon as he walked off the plane, his agent told him he was wanted for a six-hour BBC adaptation of "Portrait of a Lady."

"That's how I started my training in England — it was on-the-job training," he says. "I was there four and a half years."

In 1969, he took on the role of "Hamlet" at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. "It was an ordeal to come up to snuff in the play," Chamberlain says. But it worked out so well that the Hallmark Hall of Fame taped it in 1970.

That same year, he appeared opposite Glenda Jackson in the outrageous "Music Lovers."

Russell, he says, was brilliant "but kind of rough. It's like working with a dragon or a huge crocodile. He's unbelievably charming, but on set he … gets sort of dangerous. You didn't want to fool around with him."

As for "The Last Wave," Chamberlain had never heard of Weir and when he saw a draft of the script that he called "very underwritten," he was worried. Then he watched Weir's atmospheric, eerie "The Picnic at Hanging Rock" and he was sold.

"I thought it was brilliant," says Chamberlain. "I said, ‘I am willing to work with this director for free without a script.' "

For information, go to http://www.aerotheatre.com.

susan.king@latimes.com

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