EARLY in his career, Richard Chamberlain recognized the benefits of trying all kinds of roles in all kinds of media. "I didn't want to be stuck in a rut," says the actor, who came perilously close to that during five years in the 1960s as television's "Dr. Kildare."
Since Kildare, Mr. Chamberlain has done Shakespeare, movies, and a string of acclaimed TV miniseries. He's again trying something different: playing Prof. Henry Higgins in a Broadway-bound revival of Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady."
Musicals aren't new for Chamberlain. He has long had an interest in singing and once tried his hand at a musical rendition of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," starring with Mary Tyler Moore. It was a flop. Judging from the reviews and the response of audiences during its Boston run, "My Fair Lady" is likely to be Chamberlain's first musical triumph.
When the show's producers came looking for an American who could pull off the Higgins character, this leading man, usually associated with heroic roles that are anything but professorial and stuffy, was ready. "I love the complexity of Higgins, I love his journey," Chamberlain said during an interview in Boston. "It's so enlightening in terms of what men are going through now."
The professor's reluctant recognition that Eliza has to be accepted as his equal is one reason the time is right for a new production of "My Fair Lady," according to Chamberlain. It's "pertinent" to the rise of women into positions of authority in society and to the new relationships evolving as a result. Beyond that, he says, the show is "marvelous escapist fare, fun and dripping in romance." That kind of thing usually does well in uncertain economic times, he says.
Even so, the actor says "You have to resist the temptation to become a lovable musical comedy character - Higgins is much more than that." He recalls seeing a London production of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," on which "My Fair Lady" is based. That Higgins was not lovable at all. Chamberlain doesn't go that far, but he says he wants to emphasize the distance the professor had to go to be changed by his "creation," Eliza. "And isn't that one of woman's destinies," asks Chamberlain, "to civilize man?"
The show's obvious star - no one else in the cast has Chamberlain's fame, though many shine in their roles - professes little concern about "My Fair Lady's" eventual return to Broadway. "That's fine," he affirms, but says his main enjoyment is simply bringing the musical to audiences. (It begins a West Coast run this Tuesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.)
Looking back on his career, Chamberlain says he has had to learn the hard way not to let other people in his highly commercialized, ego-filled line of work define success. "Hidden agendas are the rule," he says, remembering his experience with a failed TV series, "Island Son," set in Hawaii where he now lives. That project, which flickered out quickly in late 1989, was close to Chamberlain's heart. He has a strong interest in the islands' culture and natural treasures.
The series was killed before it began, Chamberlain says, because studio people kept telling him, "These ideas aren't testing well - and, Richard, neither are you." He acquiesced, but regrets it. In retrospect, he says, he should have told them what to do with their tests.
Chamberlain has other TV miniseries in mind, including what he dubs a "mid-quel" to "The Thornbirds." It will re-create a middle part of Colleen McCullough's novel, which was passed over in the earlier films.
Chamberlain keeps a close eye on Hollywood and says that a favorite among recent movies was "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray. "That was the best performance I've seen in a long time," he says, describing how Murray "transformed his character from a cynical pig into a guy who can actually feel and think about someone else" - kind of a "Higgins-like figure," he adds.
Breaking ranks with many colleagues in the business, Chamberlain says he sees a need for films that support positive values, which help glue society together, although he doubts that movies will return to the explicit social "propaganda" of the 1940s and '50s.