The Sound Of A Man On Top Of The World
One day last October as the TV cameras rolled, an intern stepped into a hospital elevator, smiled down at a little girl who was being taken to surgery and spoke the lines, “This is the big day, eh?” It was a bigger day than television’s intern Dick Chamberlain ever dreamed-for that very night the first episode of his series, “Dr. Kildare,” was shown to the nation. Immediately, the world exploded for Dick, and promptly rearranged itself at his feet. And he’s been sitting on top of the world ever since! The impact that Dick made on the millions of viewers is second only to the impact the viewers have made on Dick.
A close friend of Chamberlain’s says: “Dick was literally assaulted by success. And what made the explosion all the noisier is the simple fact that he is such a modest guy he didn’t have the faintest notion that he had lit the fuse.”
Every single person in Chamberlain’s large, happy circle of friends can understand why this slightly reticent 26-year-old bachelor is a smash. But one person can give you no explanation at all—and that one is Richard Chamberlain himself. Dr. Kildare himself.
Until he flashed across the TV tubes that autumn evening, Dick was a man who envisioned for himself no more than a reasonable steady future as an actor. He had hopes of becoming a competent actor, quietly; of earning a comfortable living at it, quietly; of falling in love with the right girl, then marriage and children—quietly!
Today he is the only calm and composed figure in a world of screaming mimis who surround him.
His every waking hour is jammed with requests for interviews, photographic sittings, personal appearances, hysterical hordes of autograph hounds, agents, salesmen, women, girls, Scripts, rehearsals, bundles of telegrams, pleas for help, sympathy, money and medical advice.
In the last two months his mail has increased from 300 letters a week to 2,000—and at this writing, the figure is still rising—rapidly.
And his “top secret” private phone number has been changed three times in three months. This is a sure sign of Hollywood success.
Still, “Chamberlain,” according to a friend who works with him, “is the only sane inmate in the madhouse they’ve made of his life.”
One of the most difficult things to believe about Richard Chamberlain is that he is a man who, while riding the crest of a wave of success, is much more concerned about others than himself. This preoccupation with the needs and opinions of his mentors and his fans was at first believed to smack of the “old humble bit,” a pose frequently taken on by some young stars in recent years.
But you have only to sit down with Dick to realize that this interest in the world and people around him is as genuine as his slow smile.
He impresses others instantly with a peculiar sincerity because he makes no pretense whatsoever of being hip, hep, flip or sharp. He responds readily to some questions and dawdles mentally over others. Dick is absolutely devoid of delusions of self-importance. And in a world where everybody pretends to know everything, it is almost startling to hear him say, “I don’t know.” He told me that every time he realizes he doesn’t know something he is facing reality.
“The more I think about what’s happened to me,” Dick says, “the more fantastic the picture becomes. And the thought of what people are going to expect of me—simply because I become Dr. Kildare once a week—scares the hell out of me. It’s too much—even for Kildare.
“It’s easy to assume that because the series has become popular I should live in an interminable State of ecstasy. I do, and I don’t. I have my moments, but just when I’m getting too high with happiness I suddenly realize that I have a large bag of responsibilities on my back.
“But I guess one of the happiest aspects of it all is the joy it has brought to those close to me, my parents in particular. Like all parents, they lived in the hope that their son would fair well in the world once he matured. It was such a pleasure for me to go to them and tell them not to worry about how I’d get on in the world . . . to tell them that I was sitting on top of it.”
Did he never have even an inkling that he might suddenly find himself on top of the world in one of the hottest TV series in the last ten years?
“No,” says Chamberlain. “When they showed the first ‘Dr. Kildare’ to the press at the studios a few months back, I couldn’t believe that it had turned out as well as they said it had. I went home that night and gave myself a hundred reasons why the reaction had been so favorable. They’re all being kind to me, I thought. No one, I figured, would walk up to me and say, ‘Chamberlain, you re bad, the series will never go, it’ll fall on its face.
“But as the days went by and the veterans at M-G-M all agreed that ‘Dr. Kildare’ had been examined and pronounced a healthy prospect for TV viewing, I couldn’t help but feel an extra heart beat.
“It was just about then that, without any warning, my whole being was swept by a wave of gratitude. I know it sounds corny, but I had a sudden impulse to write thank-you letters to everyone in my life. Just out of curiosity, I made out a list of names. I stopped after I got to one hundred. The point is that you go nowhere in this world without everybody. I think I know that better than I know anything.”
Another aspect of Dick’s new life as a whopping success, however, is a strange mixture of disappointment and humor.
“Once I saw that the series was going to be on the air a while,” he says, “I told myself, ‘Well, Chamberlain, now you don’t have to worry so much about money. You can invite a girl out to dinner, get a decent car, wear presentable clothes and stop sweating when the waiter brings the check.’
“That’s what I said. It didn’t work out quite that way, for the simple reason that I just don’t get the time to date as often as I want to. I met a girl the other afternoon in the commissary. Just my type. I’m all set to make the first-date pitch. But I asked myself, when? The only night I’m not studying a script is Saturday. But I already had a business appointment for that night. The following Saturday I’d be out of town and the third Saturday was out because of an informal rehearsal for the Arthur Freed TV spectacular.
“So I wound up just looking at her and wishing there were eight days in a week.”
Nevertheless, Dick, being very much male, does manage to date beautiful girls. The first beauty with whom he was linked was TV’s much publicized “bride,” Myrna Fahey. But insiders point out that the very press-minded Miss Fahey wasn’t too pleased with the extra attention given to Chamberlain on their dates.
Vicki Thal. once John Saxon’s flame of love, is Dick’s most recently reported romance. But despite what some writers have tried to make of it, it is strictly a friendship with only an outside possibility of developing more seriously.
“I know it’s been said before,” says Dick, “but I couldn’t fail in love these days if I wanted to. I honestly don’t have the time.”
Dick’s appeal is intangible. Some girls swoon over his eyes, some over his lean, but muscular physique, some over his mouth (“. . . it’s so sexy!”), others claim his voice makes them “vibrate.”
Six months ago Chamberlain could have walked down the street and be noticed only as a handsome young man who moved with the easy stride of a track star (which he was in school). There would have been a few side glances from a girl or two, but it would have been a silent casual thing.
He cannot walk down a Street today. He runs. His track training comes in handy when he’s forced to sprint from a restaurant to a parking lot, the quarry of an army of autograph hounds shouting and bustling after him, waving their flags and staffs . . . sheets of paper and pencils.
It is now impractical for him to even so much as go to a store to purchase the simplest articles such as shaving cream, clothes and items for the house.
One visit he made to a drug store left the establishment virtually a wreck after a sharp-eyed woman spotted Chamberlain and shrieked, “Oh, Doctor!” She was kidding him goodnaturedly, but a swarm of teenagers sipping sodas at the fountain swiveled their heads as one, and with cardigans and shirttails flying they went for him like a living arrowhead, leaving the store floor littered with bottles, boxes and bows.
The scene, as it developed, got funnier as one observer saw it:
“First, out of the drugstore comes this fellow Chamberlain. He is holding a tube,
shaving cream, I guess it was. He is headed down the street at a dead run. Then bursting out of the drug store entrance a horde of girls screaming their heads off, yelling, “Wait a minute, Dick! Oh, Doctor!’
“Then after the girls comes the druggist. He’s holding unpaid checks and yelling, too. ‘Come back! Come back!’ For everyone else it was ‘Oh, Doctor!’ But for him it was ‘Oh, Brother!’
“Anyhow, Chamberlain gets into his little car, a Fiat, and drives off, the girls still shrieking and moaning.
Despite these incidents which go off like firecrackers almost every day in Chamberlain’s life, Dick is ready, willing and able to take on all of the crazy unpredictables that his sudden success has promised.
“I’m a happy man,” he explains. “I’ve gotten the breaks in a town where breaks are not easy to get. If I can keep my head on straight I can look forward to a reasonably happy future.”
Chamberlain puckered his famous mouth. A strange expression came into his eyes.
“You know.” he said softly, “the other night I put on my decent suit and drove my new car over to a spot on Mulholland Drive. I don’t live far from the spot. It was a warm breezy evening. On either side of where I parked there were other cars, a guy and a girl in each.
“I remembered the nights when I’d take a date to the same spot for a little light romancing. I don t get a chance for that any more. For a moment or two, I must admit, I felt lonely.
“I looked down at the lights of Hollywood spread out like a million shining diamonds on a great piece of black velvet. I knew that down among those lights there were thousands of guys like myself, trying, hoping, maybe even praying a little, for the same kind of a chance that I got. I found myself hoping for them too. And I had to smile. For I knew that down there somewhere in a small restaurant there was at least one guy sweating a little, figuring desperately in his mind whether he had enough money in his pocket to pay for his girl’s dinner. I hoped for him, too, whoever he was.
“Then it occurred to me that I had an obligation, a curious responsibility, that I had never considered before. Here I was, literally almost, standing on top of the world. I was one of the lucky ones. What about the guys who might never make it?
“All those young actors who were trying and hoping. some of them would never get the break I did. That’s when I knew I was indebted to them, too, in a way. What I had to do was to make something of what had been given to me and denied them. I had to be sure from now on that I didn’t waste the opportunities that would have meant so much to them. I owed it to them.
“And as I drove back to the house I didn’t feel quite so lonely.”
It is unlikely that Richard Chamberlain will ever be lonely again.
Be sure to see Dick in “Dr. Kildare” on NBC-TV every Thursday, 8:30 P.M. EST.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1962