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.
Advocate.com: 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?
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.
Since coming out, you’ve played gay roles on Nip/Tuck, Desperate Housewives, Will & Grace —
My character wasn’t gay in Will & Grace. They all thought he was gay, but he was actually straight.
OK, but it was still a part that played off of your newly out public persona. You were initially scared that your coming-out would end your career entirely. Once you started to work again, were you concerned about being pigeonholed into gay parts?
No, because that just hasn’t happened. Yes, I’ve played a few gay parts, but most of the characters I’ve been playing have been straight. It’s fine either way. I just did a wonderful movie called We Are the Hartmans — I’m praying that it gets a good release — in which I play an aging hippie with an interesting family who runs a music club that’s in danger. He was a great character, and it was just a wonderful experience. So no, I don’t see typecasting as a problem at all.
Your roles on Chuck and Leverage also come to mind as recent straight characters. But do you feel a certain comfort or freedom when you get to play a gay character?
Hmm. Well, that’s very interesting. But no, not really, because I like thinking that it’s all sort of the same. I mean, love is love and attraction is attraction. I did have a very interesting realization during one scene on Brothers & Sisters that we filmed recently — well, no, I can’t talk about it because I’d be ruining the plot, so forget I said anything!
You released some popular albums in the ’60s, and you starred in the Broadway musical revivals of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music during the ’90s. Since you’ve already worked with Ryan Murphy on Nip/Tuck, maybe you should call him to ask if any glee club students might need a singing grandfather on Glee.
Oh, that would be interesting. I only saw Glee for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it was cute. Sure, why not? I’d love the opportunity to sing again.
You were a wildly successful closeted actor during a period of time when coming out was unheard of, but the climate of acceptance has significantly changed in recent years. How do you feel about gay actors who still remain closeted as we near 2011?
It’s complicated. There’s still a tremendous amount of homophobia in our culture. It’s regrettable, it’s stupid, it’s heartless, and it’s immoral, but there it is. For an actor to be working is a kind of miracle, because most actors aren’t, so it’s just silly for a working actor to say, “Oh, I don’t care if anybody knows I’m gay” — especially if you’re a leading man. Personally, I wouldn’t advise a gay leading man–type actor to come out.
When can a leading man come out — when he’s 69 and promoting a memoir?
I have no idea. Despite all the wonderful advances that have been made, it’s still dangerous for an actor to talk about that in our extremely misguided culture. Look at what happened in California with Proposition 8. Please, don’t pretend that we’re suddenly all wonderfully, blissfully accepted.
It was widely reported in April that you had split from Martin Rabbett, your partner of more than 30 years, and had moved to Los Angeles from your shared home in Hawaii. How are you doing?
Well, we haven’t really split. In other words, we’re still very, very close. The essence of our relationship has remained the same; we just don’t happen to be living together. I went home for Thanksgiving and had the most wonderful time, and we’ll be spending Christmas together with friends in New York. So we’re not split, really. I just moved to L.A. because I wanted to work more. Martin, unfortunately, doesn’t like L.A. at all, but he’s thinking of moving to San Francisco.
Wow. I thought you were newly single and looking.
At 76? You’ve got to be kidding.
The press spun this alleged breakup as having stemmed from your renewed career ambition. I’m surprised that you didn’t respond to that media attention with some sort of official statement.
I had no idea that the media was interested at all. Well, I guess I was aware of one report, but I don’t look at the Internet much.
Back in the ’90s, in response to rumors that you’ve had several face-lifts, you publicly said you’d give $10,000 to any plastic surgeon who could find the surgical scars to prove it. Has anyone ever taken you up on that bet?
No, no one has. Because the other side of it is that if you don’t find anything, then you have to give me $10,000. I think it would be fun to go on a talk show and have some famous plastic surgeon come examine the backs of my ears. The offer is still on the table.