In a year stocked with stinkers like Princess Daisy, The Thorn Birds not only drew the highest rating of any TV miniseries of the ’80s but established Richard Chamberlain as the king of the genre. With Centennial (1978) and the smash Sh?gun (1980) behind him, Chamberlain cinched the title—and hypnotized his fans—with his portrayal of a priest tortured by lust for a comely Australian lass played by Rachel Ward. About 110 million viewers tuned to ABC in March for at least part of the tempestuous 10-hour series, and its star was jubilant at reaching such a throng. “I was very hyped up,” he recalls. “I felt the energy of all those millions of people watching me on TV.”
Learning that his work had earned a third Emmy nomination in eight years was another high—albeit a briefer one. Tommy Lee Jones (The Executioner’s Song) was to beat out Chamberlain. But he was a good sport, declaring, “Awards—good grief, they’re not even the icing, they’re a candle on the cake. You can’t be in this business for awards.” Still, the loss stung. When Jones’ name was announced, Chamberlain admits, “it was like preparing for opening night and they decided to cancel the performance. It’s like careening into this black pit.”
Disappointment aside—with all his Emmy nominations, he has never won—Chamberlain, at 48, has had more hits than misses in his career. Fame struck at 26, when he became TV’s young Dr. Kildare. After five years in the series, he shook off the pretty-boy stigma of that role by moving to England, where he studied drama for three years. Lauded there for his portrayal of Hamlet, he returned to the States in an acclaimed production of Richard II and bolstered his credibility with the general public in movies like The Last Wave.
Television, of course, is still his staple: Last week Chamberlain was set to appear as explorer Dr. Frederick Cook in the two-hour CBS movie Cook and Peary: The Race to the Pole. In the course of the six-week shoot, he learned why those two explorers found the Arctic so alluring: “It must have been like walking into God’s house,” he says.
Now back in his Japanese-style home in Beverly Hills, Chamberlain is weighing more wide-ranging projects: a film, another miniseries, a play and a four-hour television romance. “I’ve been looking for a good love story,” he reports.
A confirmed bachelor, he claims that loneliness is not a problem. “I have a lot of wonderful friends,” he says. “This is a very heavily populated time in my life.” One of these days, surely, there’ll be a welcome newcomer among those friends. Call her Emmy.