Lucking Out. It’s the title Richard Cham- berlain would give to a movie about his life. “I’ve been so lucky, so, so lucky,” he explains, picking a young Ryan Gosling as the actor to play him. Sure, luck may have played a part in Chamberlain’s quick and fortuitous rise to fame and celebrity heartthrob status, but certainly his talent, charm and good looks were key factors to
his success, too. In the early stage of his career, Chamberlain dominated television with the title role in Dr. Kildare during the ’60s, and as lead actor in the hit mini-series Shogun and The Thorn Birds in the early ’80s—all of which he won Golden Globes for. These days, the Hollywood royal is not so much under the spotlight as he is in the sunlight, enjoying life in Hawai‘i, where he’s called home for more than 30 years.
“My first visit (to Hawai‘i) was in the early ’70s,” recalls Chamberlain. “I had a friend who was working for Elton John and they were all on Maui. I was invited to come and join the festivities … and had a lot of fun.”
On that trip, Chamberlain also made a stop on Kaua‘i, fell in love with the is- land, and in the ’80s, decided to move to Hawai‘i “sort of permanently” with some friends. They settled in a house on the beach in Wai‘anae, a small town on the leeward side of O‘ahu.
“It was wonderful,” he remembers. “Tourists didn’t go there because it didn’t have the best reputation, but for us it was terrific. The local folk were great, and the view was magnificent.
“We’ve stayed here ever since then, in different locations, and have lately been living part-time in Los Angeles where I have a little apartment, and I just came back here (a couple of months ago) and plan to stay for, maybe, ever.”
Throughout the years, Chamberlain seems to have grown accustomed to island life. His daily attire consists of “T-shirts, shorts and slaps,” and he enjoys bodysurfing at Makapu‘u. You might also catch him eating shaved- ice or dining at his favorite local eateries, such as Roy’s in Hawai‘i Kai, Mariposa at Neiman Marcus, or Akasaka for sushi.
In support of the Youth Outreach (YO!) House, a program jointly operated by Waik?k? Health and Hale Kipa, he took part in a fundraiser on the historic Mighty Mo battleship in Pearl Harbor a few years ago, benefitting Friends of Youth Outreach, a nonprofit helping homeless and at-risk youth.
In 2012, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from EuroCinema Hawai‘i at its awards gala on the oceanfront lawn of the regal Moana Surfrider. And in 2006, he starred in Hawai‘i Opera Theatre’s The King and I by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
“It was one of the big events of my life,” says Chamberlain about The King & I. “It was directed by Martin Rabbett, a dear friend of mine, and he did a bang-up job. It was one of the most beautiful productions ever …
“(The late) Jan Maxwell played Anna, she’s a big Broadway star and a dear friend, and oh golly, I loved play- ing The King and I loved working with her, and I loved the whole experience of Hawai‘i Opera Theatre. It was an immensely successful production. People absolutely loved it.”
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Beverly Hills, Chamberlain grew up with dreams of becoming an actor and performed in a few plays in high school, but acknowledges he was a shy kid short of self-confidence.
“All I ever wanted to be was an actor,” he says, reflecting back to his child- hood. “I didn’t like real life much when I was a little kid. I certainly didn’t like going to school. But, I loved going to the movies and I thought, gosh, that’s what I want to be. I want to be up there on that screen and living that life.”
Thinking he was too timid to make it as an actor, he chose to study art at Pomona College, with plans of becoming an artist. Then, in his senior year, he was cast as Captain Bluntschli in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, which led him to change career paths.
“I brought down the house,” he explains. “I was suddenly really good at it (acting), on a college level. The audience applauded, stopped the show, this grand exit line, they all laughed, and I thought, whoa I could do this. So, I sort of threw art out the window and decided to become an actor.”
However, his march toward showbiz was stopped short as he was enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. Fortunately, he never lost sight of his dream, and shortly after he was discharged, made his way to Hollywood without missing a beat.
“I’ve been so lucky, I got started very quickly after the army,” he says. “It’s unusual for a green, young actor to have as many little breaks and serendipities as I had, and luckily, I started to work almost right away, which was great.”
Six decades later with hundreds of film, TV and theater credits to his name, Chamberlain recognizes he’s had many career highlights but lists the “terrifying experience” of playing Hamlet at The Birmingham Repertory in England as the high point. It was his first time performing Shakespeare, and he agreed to do it with the help of the director, who spent weeks working with him on the difficult part.
“I thought I was safe from the critics, it was way up in Birmingham and I thought they’ll never come to see me in this,” he recollects. “Well, I found out two days before opening night that all the critics were coming and they were, of course, coming for blood. You know, who is this TV American pretty boy interloper coming to England to play Hamlet for heaven’s sake?
“I was so terrified that I actually I went up in my lines in the first scene and was standing there dumb and terrified. My fellow actor sort of whispered in my ear what I was supposed to say and I got on and then proceeded and did OK. The reviews, to the unhappiness of the reviewers, were pretty good, not great, but pretty good actually, so I was pleased with that.”
While he doesn’t have any projects lined up at the present time, Chamber- lain did travel to Athens a couple of years ago to film a scene for Echoes of the Past, which at presstime, was not yet released.
“My phone is still attached if it wish- es to ring and offer me a wonderful part in something fabulous,” he shares. “But at the moment, I’m quite happy to be here in Hawai‘i, painting pictures and making mobiles, and spending a lot of time with very dear friends.”
He also occupies himself by reading (he likes The New Yorker and Vanity Fair), writing haikus and watching TV (a current favorite is How to Get Away with Murder starring Viola Davis).
At age 86 (he turns 87 in March), Chamberlain shares the secret to his youthfulness: a lot of exercise, eating reasonably well, sleep (he tries to get 8 hours a night) and play.
“When I was young, I didn’t particularly like grown-ups, they seemed kind of boring to me,” he says, sounding like a real-life Peter Pan. “So, I sort of decided on an unconscious level, never to grow up. I’m actually still a very old kid and I find it fun … I’m interested in new things. I’m interested in noticing what’s going on around me, sort of like a kid does, and playing one way or another.”
As for his legacy, it’s a simple message of love.
“The book I wrote a long time ago (Shattered Love) was largely about love—the presence of love and the power of love, not from a religious point of view but just from the point of view of the presence of love … ,” he says. “Love is present. It’s a noun. It’s not just something we do … It’s actually a presence of wisdom and connectedness and wholeness that you can invite into your life.
“It’s free. There’s no price. It’s totally available. It will be present for you if you just invite it and listen to it and feel it. I think that would be the main thing I would like to say to the world.”