March 31, 1934– Richard Chamberlain:
Over a long period of time, living as if you were someone else is no fun.
Should I be embarrassed that I once shared a crush with my mother? 58 years ago, my mother and I would settle in to watch Dr. Kildare (1961-66) on our black and white television set that was the size of a Buick. It aired on Thursdays at 8:30 pm, a school night. I am not sure how I got away with that, but I was thrilled at watching dreamy, creamy Richard Chamberlain. He made my head spin, my heart thump and my pajamas stir… all in black and white on NBC.
Chamberlain has had five decades of working in film, on stage, pop music and television. Beverly Hills born and raised, he co-founded a Los Angeles-based theatre group, Company Of Angels in the late 1950s, and then in 1961. Blue eyed, swoon-worthy Chamberlain gained fame and the attention of little gay boys everywhere as the young heartthrob intern, Dr. Kildare. The series established the unnaturally handsome Chamberlain as a top romantic leading man, and made him an overnight sensation. His pin-up status was solidified by his singing ability which led to several hit singles in the early 1960s. I owned his album Richard Chamberlain Sings and I would listen to him warble The Theme From Dr. Kildare, and Love Me Tender, while getting all moony and sticky over his album cover shot.
Never really breaking into films, Chamberlain became the queen of miniseries, appearing in some of the most widely seen and best projects in Television History: Shōgun (1980), Centennial (1978-79), and, of course, The Thorn Birds (1983). 200 million viewers watched the tale of catholic priest Father de Bricassart’s doomed love for Meggie, an Australian sheep rancher, making The Thorn Birds among the highest rated mini-series of all time, plus it co-starred Barbara Stanwyck!
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Chamberlain finally had a nice little run in films, consisting of a crazy mix of projects: The Madwoman Of Chaillot (1969), Ken Russell‘s The Music Lovers (1971) as the tragically gay Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky; The Towering Inferno (1974) with fellow hotties Steve McQueen and Paul Newman; Richard Lester‘s The Three Musketeers (1973) and my favorite Chamberlain performance ever in Peter Weir‘s weird and wonderful The Last Wave (1977).
Deeply closeted for most of his life, Chamberlain was outed by the French magazine Nous Deux in 1989, but it wasn’t until 2003, ironically at 69-years-old, that he acknowledged his gayness in his memoir, Shattered Love (which by crazy coincidence is a chapter title in my own memoirs, Jockstraps And Vicodin: The Early Years).
Chamberlain has continued to work in television, including gay-ish series: Will & Grace (1998-2006), Nip/Tuck (2003-10), Desperate Housewives (2004-12), and as the HIV-positive love interest of Ron Rifkin on Brothers & Sisters (2006-2011), all of which I can’t help but mention, are the creation of gay men.
After the hit Dr. Kildare ended in 1966, Chamberlain moved to England to pursue a stage career. In 1969 Chamberlain performed the title role of Hamlet with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, becoming the first American to play the role there since John Barrymore in 1929. He earned excellent reviews and reprised the role the following year for television.
Chamberlain had a significant decade-long affair with a younger actor, Wesley Eure who was on the NBC soap opera Days Of Our Lives . Eure was fired from the show when his gayness became an issue for the network, even though Earl Greenburg, head Daytime programming at NBC, was a gay man. Eure:
We’d go to parties at private homes, because we couldn’t go anywhere in public. I remember being told about set designer Jacques Mapes and producer Ross Hunter. They were at a big private party in pre-1950s Hollywood. One was Tyrone Powers‘ boyfriend, and the other was Errol Flynn‘s plaything, and they were the two handsomest boys in town on the arms of important closeted celebrities. I remember I was at the top of the stairs, and there was Jacques. Our eyes met, and we left the party, dumped our famous boyfriends, and we’ve been together ever since. There was this whole subculture, a hidden culture of gay socializing. I used to go to those parties, and the most famous people you can imagine were there. If the public had any idea…
After Chamberlain ended his relationship with Eure, he was with handsome actor-writer-producer Martin Rabbett for 40 years. Chamberlain had legally adopted Rabbett to protect their shared assets. In spring 2010, Chamberlain left their house in Maui and moved back to Los Angles. Later that year, Chamberlain told The Advocate:
Well, we haven’t really split. In other words, we’re still very, very close. The essence of our relationship has remained the same; we just don’t happen to be living together. I went home for Thanksgiving and had the most wonderful time, and we’’ll be spending Christmas together with friends in NYC. So we’re not split, really. I just moved to L.A. because I wanted to work more. Martin, unfortunately, doesn’t like L.A. at all, but he’s thinking of moving to San Francisco.
In the Raiders Of The Lost Ark ripoff Allan Quatermain And The Lost City of Gold (1986), Chamberlain and Rabbett played brothers.
After the Maui house sold for $18 million, Rabbett did indeed relocate to San Francisco, and in 2012 Chamberlain said:
We’re curiously not living together at the moment, but we’re better friends than we’ve ever been.
That same year, Chamberlain appeared in the Pasadena Playhouse production of The Heiress. He has also starred on stage in a successful Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, in the title role in Scrooge: The Musical, and as King Arthur in Spamelot.
Yet, Chamberlain still complained to the press:
I still wouldn’t advise a gay leading man-type actor to come out of the closet. There’s still a tremendous amount of homophobia in our culture. For an actor to be working is a kind of miracle… so it’s just silly for a working actor to say, ‘Oh, I don’t care if anybody knows I’m gay’, especially if you’re a leading man… Please, don’t pretend that we’re suddenly all wonderfully, blissfully accepted.
In our era, when gay soldiers serve openly in the military, when people of the same sex can legally wed, Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris, Zachary Quinto, Matt Bomer, Portia de Rossi and Kristen Stewart play straight on television series and in films, Ellen is the number one daytime show, and musical artists like Sam Smith and Frank Ocean come out with complete nonchalance, Chamberlain’s words leave me just a little cold. Maybe the key is stay in the closet until you are too old for leading man roles, and then hope that the publication of your memoir will give you a career a boost.
Still, I have to admit that I stood at the stage door after his potent performance as Richard II at The Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1971 and nearly fainted from his handsomeness and talent. I so wanted to show him my special appreciation when I was 17-years-old, and I think I might still go for the chance. Maybe this year, we could star opposite each other on stage in The Gin Game, On Golden Pond, or The Vagina Monologues.