BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
In his Dr. Kildare heyday, heartthrob actor Richard Chamberlain received 12,000 fan letters a week, from “mostly young girls.”
And a few boys.
“Some of that, too,” giggles Chamberlain, now 78, still handsome and co-starring in Kathleen Turner’s new film, The Perfect Family.
The Thorn Birds star (as Father Ralph de Bricassart) plays another priest, Monsignor Murphy, who nominates Turner’s character as Catholic Woman of the Year for her church dedication and perfect family. Of course, no one yet knows that her alcoholic husband Frank wants to move out, married son Frank Jr. (played by Jason Ritter) is having an affair and daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is a pregnant lesbian.
“I was interested in the overall tone of hypocrisy,” Chamberlain says of the film. “The ‘perfect family’ bulls---. Perfect woman of the year. And all the pretense involved.”
Chamberlain knows all too well of pretense. For decades, he was among the world’s most-famous romantic leading men.
“The general public didn’t know I was gay,” he says. “People in the business did. Apart from a little gossip, they didn’t talk about it. It was great. They let us have our lives.”
Chamberlain spent much of his career being “discreet and careful.”
“You get used to it. My self esteem was shaky all my life,” he says. “To be gay in a time, the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s when it was absolutely not an option [to be out], one gets used to this feeling a certain way — worthless. That feeling sticks.”
At age 68 — “realizing it was nonsense” — Chamberlain announced he’s gay.
“It’s as if, for instance, you were used to some kind of chronic pain. You just get used to it and you don’t think about it anymore. When it goes away, when the pain ceases, my God it’s a f---ing miracle. It’s just wonderful. ... I was living a very nice life. Had a wonderful relationship, but I had a nagging sense that something was wrong with me. Even late in life. Then it just vanished.”
Chamberlain, who shared his experience in the 2003 autobiography Shattered Love: A Memoir, says “the actual business of coming out is secondary.”
“The first is to realize there is nothing wrong with being gay. Then coming out is a sort of sideline.”
He and partner Martin Rabbett have been together 32 years. For decades they lived in Hawaii. Two years ago, Chamberlain returned to Los Angeles.
“I wanted a little more action in my life, in the sense that not much happens in Maui, except it’s so incredibly beautiful. I wanted to work and be with my friends here and be a part of the city,” says Chamberlain, adding that he and Rabbett, 20 years younger, are “closer and better friends now than we ever were.”
“It took time and growing up,” Chamberlain says. “I needed to have my own place and own work. I’ve done that and now we’re very close again.”
Chamberlain says it’s important to talk about his life experience.
“I would be delighted to talk to anybody about these areas of abysmal ignorance in our culture,” he says. “It’s extremely important to educate people that it’s not important. It’s not an issue worth their time. Of course gay people should be allowed to marry. Why not? All the reasons are made up. Don’t get me started on the Catholic Church. If a gay group or a straight group, really, — any institution — would want me to talk to them, I’d be delighted to do it. They don’t ask.”
The Perfect Family opens Friday at AMC Aventura 24, AMC Sunset Place, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Tropic Cinema in Key West.