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Richard Chamberlain Returns to the New York Stage After 15 Years

The star of Dr. Kildare and The Thorn Birds revisits the priesthood in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones at the New Group.

Richard Chamberlain returns to the New York stage in David Rabe's Sticks and Bones, directed by Scott Elliott, at the New Group.
(© Seth Walters)

It has been 15 years since Richard Chamberlain last appeared on the New York stage, as Captain Georg von Trapp in the 1998 revival of The Sound of Music. So rejoice, fans of Dr. Kildare and The Thorn Birds: Chamberlain is back on the East Coast and once again treading the boards, this time in the New Group's revival of David Rabe's Vietnam War-era drama Sticks and Bones at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

As Father Donald, the priest who's called in to straighten out a blind Vietnam War veteran suffering from the aftershocks of battle, the 80-year-old screen legend (whose dashing good looks still make hearts go pitter-pat) has only 20 minutes of stage time, but he's having the time of his life acting opposite Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter, and Ben Schnetzer. In a recent conversation with TheaterMania, Chamberlain discussed portraying priests, learning to be himself, and getting recognized by people too young to have seen him on TV.

It's been 15 years since you've done a show in New York. Why is Sticks and Bones the play that brings you back after all these years?
I thought the play was very exciting. It's funny and heartbreaking at the same time. And I just loved my part [Father Donald]. This guy is so sure of his self-image. He's never been busted, ever. He's never met up with anybody remotely like David [played by Ben Schnetzer]. He goes in to really straighten David out and all hell breaks loose.

Were you looking for a stage role when this came your way?
No. I wasn't looking for anything. My manager called and said, "They're doing a David Rabe play at The New Group." I didn't even know about the New Group; I'm a wastrel from Hawaii. Bill [Pullman] and Holly [Hunter] were already connected, and I thought, To get to work with them? I had seen Ben Schnetzer in a wonderful movie called The Book Thief. When I heard we would have this big scene together, I looked him up and discovered he was this wonderful guy. So I was thrilled about that. [The director and I] met at some coffee shop and we liked each other, and he said, "Let's do it," and I said, "Great."

Aside from your role in the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds, how many times have you played a priest at this point in your career? Do you gravitate toward roles like that?
I've played priests left and right, at least five. I [recently] did a version of The Exorcist at the Geffen [as Father Merrin]. It specifically took place in a church. It was very interesting. One has to remember [priests are] just human beings like everybody else.

For a play like Sticks and Bones, which is very much ensconced in the time period of the Vietnam War and dissects the Ozzie and Harriet perfect-family archetype, did you do much research?
Not much. I just don't find it that helpful. Sometimes the stuff doesn't even apply to your character. The historical Richard II, for instance, isn't anything like the Shakespearean Richard. I played the Duke of Windsor once, with Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Simpson, and we both looked at tons of films and things about them, so that helped. It's really scary playing a person who is almost living and everyone is very familiar with [as opposed to a character]. Even though it was written in 1971, Sticks and Bones is incredibly relevant today, especially the storyline of David returning from war with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.'''

Unfortunately, it's very relevant. I think the play is really about Ozzie [Bill Pullman's character] and the terrible effects of an American idea of manhood. He's missed out on his dreams of being somebody. It's just makes me cry just talking about it.

Why is that?
I can look back with considerable regret at living so long not knowing what I know now in terms of how to be myself and how to really be with people. But I've been so lucky, in terms of the opportunities that have come my way. So unbelievably fortunate. I didn't have to wait tables in Hollywood. Kildare popped up and that was totally amazing.

Do you still get recognized on the street from that TV show?
Yes! Usually people talk about Shogun and The Thorn Birds, but I get Kildare a fair amount. From people who seem too young to have seen it. [laughs]

Will we be treated to more Richard Chamberlain stage appearances in the near future?
Not at the moment. I don't want big roles anymore. This role is just right for me. I'm there for twenty minutes, I have a lot of good stuff to do, and then— I'm eighty. Eighty is different from seventy. I remember reading a late interview with Paul Newman. They said, "Why aren't you working?" and he said, "Memory." I can still remember the stuff, but it takes more work.

Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald battles with Ben Schnetzer as David in Sticks and Bones.
(© Monique Carboni)