Richard Chamberlain treats fellow actor Heather Tom abominably. Without apology. Night after night.
On stage, that is.
The tall, silver-haired veteran of stage and screen is heading the cast of “The Heiress,” the classic drama by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on the 1881 Henry James novel, “Washington Square,” running through May 20 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Chamberlain plays Dr. Sloper, the wealthy, domineering father of shy Catherine (Tom), who can't compare in his eyes to the vivacious mother who died giving birth to her. When impoverished suitor Morris turns up, Dr. Sloper believes that he can only be interested in Catherine for the fortune she will inherit.
“His relationship with Catherine is extremely complicated,” Chamberlain said of his character during a recent interview. Even within the context of the patriarchal and puritanical Victorian era, he said, Dr. Sloper “is very controlling and possessive.”
And when Chamberlain's cutting remarks to Tom's sensitive and vulnerable Catherine elicit audible disapproval from audiences, he couldn't be more pleased.
“Playing unsympathetic is very rewarding,” Chamberlain said, laughing. “If you can get them hissing at you, it's a nice feeling.”
A rich character study, “The Heiress” is widely known as the Oscar-winning 1949 Universal Pictures film adaptation that starred Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. The drama received the 1995 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in its most recent Broadway outing.
In director Dámaso Rodriguez's fresh new staging at the Pasadena Playhouse, Chamberlain and Tom are joined by Julia Duffy as foolishly romantic Aunt Penniman and Steve Coombs as Morris, the enigmatic suitor.
A handsome and remarkably youthful 78, Chamberlain is a commanding presence on John Iacovelli's opulent set depicting the interior of the mid-19th-century Sloper home and the doctor's own cold masculinity. It was a very different kind of physician, however, that kick-started the actor's career more than 50 years ago.
Chamberlain was the Brad Pitt heartthrob of his day after landing the title role in the “Dr. Kildare” TV series that ran from 1961-66. That “great training ground,” he said, gave him the entrée he needed for a bold and risky career move: playing Hamlet on the English stage in the Birmingham Repertory Company's 1969 production of the Shakespeare classic. The performance received warm critical acclaim.
“I was terrified they were going to tear me to pieces,” Chamberlain said. A year later, he reprised the role in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production opposite Sir John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Leighton.
During his varied career on screen and on Broadway, Off Broadway and in regional theater, Chamberlain has also played Richard II, Tchaikovsky, Lord Byron, Cyrano de Bergerac and Henry Higgins. He was Reverend Shannon in “Night of the Iguana,” Wild Bill Hickok in Joseph Papp's production of “Fathers & Sons” and starred in Peter Weir's “The Last Wave.”
Among the actor's iconic TV mini-series and movies are “Shogun,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Wallenberg: A Hero's Story.” More recently, he has appeared on the BBC series “Hustle,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Nip/Tuck,” “Leverage” — and the Adam Sandler comedy, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
Born in Los Angeles, Chamberlain always knew that he wanted to be an actor.
“I was fascinated by fantasy,” he said. “I didn't like real life much. I loved going to the movies and I thought, whoa, that's where I want to live. I don't want to live in real life at all.”
Chamberlain, who came out publicly as gay at age 69 in his autobiography, “Shattered Love: A Memoir” — a profound experience that gave him “a whole new freedom just to be” — has also talked openly about his childhood with his own domineering father, an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety and became a force in Alcoholics Anonymous. The senior Chamberlain remains a rich source of inspiration for roles like Dr. Sloper, the actor said.
As a Pomona College student, however, Chamberlain was “too shy and inhibited” to enroll in the theater program there and became an art major instead, “moonlighting” in the drama department. After “small acting successes” in his senior year, “I thought, boy, I can do this,” he said.
In 1959, Chamberlain and other students of noted acting coach Jeff Corey co-founded Company of Angels, a theater ensemble still active today. Chamberlain said he would like to look the company up after finishing “The Heiress” and his next theater project, “The Exorcist,” opening July 11 at the Geffen Playhouse.
The actor has pursued art as well. “I'm attracted to visual beauty and a certain meaningfulness that might lurk underneath,” he said of the creative impulse that feeds his pastel, watercolor and oil works of figurative and graphic art.
“You can tell that Richard is loving the work and this time in his career,” said director Rodriguez. “He has fun every day, and with him as the leader in the rehearsal room, the energy for the entire process is very warm and collaborative.”
The admiration is mutual. “Dámaso has done a wonderful job with this play. He has a stunning visual sense, and he's great at working with actors,” said Chamberlain, who is equally complimentary about his co-stars. Heather Tom “is superb, Julia Duffy is very funny and sweet, and the young man, Stephen Coombs, is terrific. The whole cast is wonderful.”
Not that the behind-the-scenes love fest prevents Chamberlain from being decidedly unpleasant to his co-stars on stage.
“It's quite fun,” he said, laughing. “Actors get to explore parts of their personality that bank tellers don't. It's part of our job. It's very interesting to actually let loose one's cruelty and malevolence in a safe situation. But,” he added, “I would never do it in real life.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
“The Heiress,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends May 20. $20-$59; premium seating, $100. $15 rush tickets subject to availability. (626) 356-7529, www.PasadenaPlayhouse.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times