Richard Chamberlain: Sibling Revelry

Now starring on Brothers & Sisters, the Dr. Kildare heartthrob explains why other gay leading men would be unwise to follow in his footsteps.



A former TV heartthrob beloved for the 1960s series Dr. Kildare and the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds — though perhaps better known to younger gay viewers for his post-millennial guest spots on Nip/Tuck, Desperate Housewives, and Will & Grace — Richard Chamberlain officially came out in 2003 with the release of his memoir, Shattered Love. Now 76 and playing an HIV-positive love interest for Ron Rifkin’s Uncle Saul on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, which returns January 2 after a holiday hiatus, Chamberlain explains why other gay leading men would be unwise to follow in his footsteps. Congratulations on your new role on Brothers & Sisters. Were you a fan of the show before you got the part?
Richard Chamberlain: I liked the show a lot, but I hadn’t watched as regularly as I do since I got the job. It’s an incredible show. What an unbelievable cast! Ron Rifkin is an actor of astounding ability. He’s so good that when I play a scene with him, I find that I almost get distracted just watching the wonderful things that he’s doing. We had mutual friends, but we hadn’t met before this. We’ve been getting along extremely well.

Tell me about your character, Jonathan.
My character met Ron’s character, Saul, back in the ’80s. Saul was a serious kind of guy, but Jonathan was a heartbreaking playboy at that time. As revealed in my first episode, Jonathan may have been the one who gave Saul HIV in the ’80s, though Jonathan didn’t even remember that they had slept together. Saul isn’t at all happy about seeing me again. That’s about as much as has been revealed on the show so far, and I’m told that I mustn’t reveal anything else.

It’s been reported that Michael Gross from Family Ties will appear in an upcoming episode as a gay character who somehow comes between Jonathan and Saul. Did you ever imagine that you’d be involved in a gay love triangle on prime-time TV at the age of 76?
[Laughs] That’s very funny. No, it hadn’t really occurred to me until now. But I can’t say much more about it.

David Marshall Grant, head show runner of Brothers & Sisters, is also a gay man. Has he helped you develop your character?
Yes, everybody’s been incredibly helpful. Everyone over there is so into each other and for each other. It’s a real family.

You’ve played an HIV-positive gay character before, haven’t you?
Have I?

In the 1997 straight-to-DVD indie A River Made to Drown In.
Oh, of course. Along with everyone else, I’d almost forgotten that.

It must be a different experience to play an HIV-positive gay man as an out actor in 2010.
It’s actually not different at all. I’m just playing a human being. One of the things I love about Brothers & Sisters is that all the characters on the show are absolutely equal and, in a sense, like everybody else. The audience sees gay people and straight people on a very leveled playing field, and that’s very useful for the American public, who sometimes doesn’t see things that way.

But when playing an HIV-positive character, do you feel an added sense of responsibility to represent that community truthfully and respectfully?
No, not added, because I play a character with truth and respect anyway. There’s no other way to approach a character. From an actor’s point of view, all characters are totally worthy of loving respect. Besides, both Saul and Jonathan are quite used to taking their meds and feeling healthy, so I don’t think it’s something that they think about that much. Once we deal with the original possibility of Jonathan having given it to Saul, I don’t find myself thinking about being an HIV-positive character at all when I’m playing scenes.

You were a sexually active gay man long before you came out. How has the AIDS crisis affected you personally?
I’ve lost a couple of friends, but not many, thank God.

Tags: television