There is an interesting contrast in how the backwaters of television were perceived in the 1970s, compared to the wealth of high quality productions you see across streaming services today. Richard Chamberlain, often labelled the ‘King of the Mini-series’, was a household name during the 1960s, gracing the screens as Dr. Kildare (1961-66) when television was at its height. However, unlike alpha male movie stars, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, who had also all become household names in their own shows, Chamberlain never hit the stratosphere of his contemporaries. Instead, he became part of ensembles in disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974) and Richard Lester’s bisected Musketeers film.
It would seem that Chamberlain’s next platform was to be forged, and with Lester’s swashbuckling adaptions, he was now pigeonholed as the ‘go-to guy’ for Alexandre Dumas. In light of his closeted homosexuality; French outlaws, prisons, masks and duality seemed the perfect platform to express an uncomfortable and challenging time for the actor.
In the first of his TV movie adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ work, The Count of Monte-Cristo (1975), Chamberlain plays the falsely imprisoned Edmond Dantès who, after escaping his incarceration – supplied with the location of a hidden treasure – rebuilds his life, seeking vengeance on those who imprisoned him. Declined by Lindsay Anderson, TV stalwart David Greene directs a sharply realised rendition bolstered by Tony Curtis, a trio of Bond villains (Donald Pleasence, Anthony Dawson and Louis Jourdan), and Harryhausen girl, Taryn Power.
Mike Newell’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1977) is another supremely confident TV movie that shows off an incredible supportive cast, including Sir Ian Holm, Sir Ralph Richardson, Patrick McGoohan, and Jenny Agutter. The sets and costumes are lavish; its camp nature all part of the charm as Chamberlain is given the opportunity to once again shine amongst the ensemble and the return of Jourdan; this time as Musketeer mentor, D’Artagnan.
Guilt is key here and Chamberlain’s flawed heroes perhaps say more today in light of his closeted homosexuality. His roles – due to the fear of never working again – may seem to have taken a side-line via the small screen but during a time where homosexuality was still not as widely accepted, gay characters were still depicted as dangerous misfits who needed to be cured or killed. This is a stark reminder of Chamberlain managing to retain a rare dignity displayed through his choice of roles; retaining the presence as a small screen actor into the 1980s in two of the most ground-breaking mini-series of all time, Shogun (1980) playing an Englishman turned Samurai and The Thorn Birds (1983); his most controversial role to date playing a Priest at odds with his devotion to the Church and love for a woman.
In contrast, Dumas’ work is adventurous, courageous and flamboyant; perfect stories for wide, universal appeal where Richard Chamberlain’s films find their audience. In the words of Chamberlain himself, ‘Being gay tells you nothing about an individual’; character is defined by action, of which Monte-Cristo and Iron Mask are two of his best examples.
Rich Johnson is a Lecturer in Film Studies and Graphic Design. He contributes to Little White Lies magazine, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. His book on the film Bone Tomahawk is out this year.