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DR. KILDARE DECIDES TO BRUSH UP HIS SHAKESPEARE

When I interviewed Richard Chamberlain for The New York Times in 1968, I thought him charming and modest, and it did seem to me that he was on his way to major stardom. He has yet to make it truly big in movies, though he's worked steadily and respectably on TV. --GUY FLATLEY

 

“I’ve just been reading ‘Richard III’ again, and I’d love to have a go at it.”

Who said that? John Gielgud? Laurence Olivier? Nicol Williamson? Guess again. Dr. Kildare, or as he is more properly known, Richard Chamberlain.

“I have always hated hospitals, with their room after room of people in pain.”

Who said that? Yes, that too was Richard Chamberlain, the sometimes surprising actor for whom “to operate or not to operate” will never again be the question. He was stopping in New York the other day, fresh from his triumph as “Hamlet,” with England’s Birmingham Repertory Theater. Decked out in impeccable Carnaby Street duds, and wearing his hair longer and darker than he ever dared at Blair General Hospital, he suavely discussed his career – where he has been and where he hopes he is going.

“I’ve forgotten Dr. Kildare,” the tall, leanly handsome, 34-year-old bachelor said of the all-American medic he had played on television for five years. “Actually, I rather liked ‘Ben Casey’; it had a toughness about it. We may not want to admit it, but hospitals are more like the one on ‘Ben Casey’ than the one on ‘Dr. Kildare.’ I did research for the show at General Hospital in Los Angeles, and once I saw a lady brought into a ward, shaking and weeping, frightened at finding herself in a strange place. Nobody came to hold her hand. They just left her sitting there, weeping. They didn’t have time.

“Doctors in the operating room don’t sweat, either. They’re just as likely to be discussing a baseball game. And the way they handle people’s insides! Yanking organs out, throwing them here and there.”

Chamberlain’s blue eyes grew enormous as he scooped up imaginary innards and tossed them over his shoulder onto the carpet of his Plaza suite.

The show that was supposed to make the public stop thinking “Dr. Kildare” and start thinking Richard Chamberlain was the 1966 Broadway musical of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” But David Merrick, the show’s producer, closed it before it had a chance to open.

“The preview audiences had come expecting a lighthearted musical, and what they got was a tragic story with a few songs. So they laughed us off the stage,” Chamberlain said, wincing at the memory. “Mary Tyler Moore gave a closing-night party at her place. We were all very manic – laughing a lot, drinking a lot. After the party, I walked by the theater; I wanted to see my name on that marquee one more time before they took it down. When I saw it, I started to cry, and I wept most of the night. But then it was all over. I shake things off easily.”

For a while, Chamberlain’s movie career, too, seemed to be in grave peril. True, he had signed a seven-year contract with M-G-M in 1961, but they gave him only two minor films, “Twilight of Honor” and “Joy in the Morning.” It wasn’t until 1968, with Richard Lester’s “Petulia,” in which he persuasively played the small but meaty role of Julie Christie’s cruel, neurotic husband, that the prognosis brightened. After that came the young romantic lead in “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” with Katharine Hepburn, and soon he will be off to play Octavius Caesar in a new film version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with Charlton Heston and John Gielgud.

“I was also up for a role in ‘Catch-22’ – I would have loved working with Mike Nichols – but nothing happened,” Chamberlain said, a trifle gloomily. “But if I had done that, I would not have been available for ‘Hamlet,’ which accomplished more for me, career-wise, than ‘Catch-22’ would have.

“Everyone said that Peter Dews, the director of the Birmingham Repertory Theater, was insane when he asked me to do ‘Hamlet.’ And for the first three weeks of rehearsals, it was very depressing. I just sort of lumbered about the stage, whispering my lines, when what Peter really wanted was to have the walls come tumbling down in great bursts of emotion. But after that, everything was all right.

“I saw Nicol Williamson’s ‘Hamlet’ in London, but it was a somewhat down performance that evening. My interpretation and his are poles apart. I see Hamlet as a romantic prince. He sees him as just the opposite. God, he’s a clever actor.

“My Hamlet varied from night to night, because the character is hard to pin down. On some nights, there would be this dreadful three hours of silence from the audience, and I didn’t know if they liked me or not. And then, at the end, there would be a great noise of applause. It was super.

“My mother came over to see the play, and afterward she came backstage. Her eyes were red and tears were still streaming down her cheeks. I said, ‘Mother, you cried! I bet it was during the death scene, wasn’t it?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘It was during all that applause!’ ”