By Dan Jewel
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Richard Chamberlain is relaxing in his rented apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side when a commotion breaks out in the hall. He peeks out the front door just in time to glimpse a couple of police officers handcuffing his next-door neighbor and hauling him away. “My God,” he bellows. “I hope no shots come zinging through the door!”

But minutes later, the actor seems almost pleased by the hint of danger. Chamberlain, who has been starring since March as Captain von Trapp in the Broadway revival of The Sound of Music, lives year-round on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. “On the island, nothing ever happens,” he says. “In New York, everything happens. I was ready for an ‘everything happens’ kind of experience.”

He has been getting plenty of them. Thirty-eight years after he first made hearts palpitate as TV’s Dr. Kildare, Chamberlain, 65, has become a sex symbol all over again. Every night, throngs of women wait outside the Martin Beck Theatre hoping to meet their idol. “Except now they’re not teenagers,” he notes. “Mostly it’s middle-aged women, moms. They feel comfortable with me. They wouldn’t mind having me over for dinner.”

At the very least. While most of his fan mail is restrained, Chamberlain reveals, “Sometimes they’ll write, ‘Do you realize you’re the father of my child?’ And I’ve gotten some nude pictures.” Not that he really minds: “That’s part of the business.” Chamberlain, who has never married, credits his continuing appeal to daily meditation, exercise (yoga and swimming) and a diet low in red meat and high in fish and vegetables. “I inherited some really good genes,” he adds, dismissing the idea of plastic surgery. “My mother died at 92, and she didn’t look like an old woman at all.” Music costar Laura Benanti, 19, says his charm captivates her generation as well. “He’s sensitive, handsome, smart, funny,” she says. “I see girls my age fall in love with him and girls my grandmother’s age fall in love with him.” As for the huge age gap between costars, Chamberlain says, “I persist in the illusion that I look considerably younger than my years.”

Born in Beverly Hills, Chamberlain, the second of two sons, inherited his love of performing from his mother, Elsa, a homemaker and amateur pianist. He also inherited a deep insecurity from his father, Charles, a salesman. “He was an alcoholic until I was 14,” says Chamberlain. “I had very little confidence in myself growing up, and I think that might be common in alcoholic families.” Even after his father recovered, he says frankly, “I never did fall back in love with him.” He began acting as an art major at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. After a two-year stint as an Army sergeant in Korea, he landed the title role in NBC’s Dr. Kildare in 1961. For the next five years, “my face was on pillowcases,” he says. “Women would grab at me and want a piece of my clothes. It was complimentary—and a little frightening.”

He also feared being typecast: “I knew I didn’t want to be hospitalized forever.” So the TV idol made a surprising move to London to establish himself in the theater, eventually landing on Broadway in 1976 in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. But he found mass adulation again as an English sailor stranded in Japan in the 1980 mini-series Sh?gun. Three years later, Chamberlain was crowned King of the Miniseries when he played Father Ralph de Bricassart, a priest tormented by forbidden love, in The Thorn Birds, a role that remains one of his favorites. (As if to prove the point, he clutches a reporter’s hand and slips into character. “Oh, Meggie, Meggie,” he moans. “What’s happening to my heart? What’s happening to my loins?”)

But theater, with its challenge of a live audience, still beckoned. In ’93, he appeared as Henry Higgins in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, and he will remain in Music until July, before starting a yearlong national tour with the show. Until then, he’s enjoying city life. “New York and Hawaii,” he says, “are a wonderful contrast—the idyllically beautiful nature and sweet, friendly people in the Islands, and all this razzmatazz in turn New York.” Besides, he adds, “I’m a hot-dog-on-the-street kind of guy. The best food in the world is a New York hot dog.”

Aside from the culinary shortcomings, life in Hawaii is ideal for Chamberlain, who moved there from L.A. in 1989. He divides his time between a beach house and a home near Honolulu; days are spent walking his dog Bartley—”I like animals on the whole better than people”—and painting. And he never has to sign autographs. “Local people don’t care about showbiz, which is a great relief,” he says. “The big event of the day is watching the sunset with a mai tai.”

Dan Jewel

Natasha Stoynoff in Manhattan