Richard Chamberlain had 20 years of acting experience by the time he was cast as the lead in “The Thorn Birds” (1983). The central conflict in the story is Father Ralph’s torn soul between his passion for Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward) and his devotion to God and the church. In the screenplay, the character is portrayed as an opportunist but Chamberlain saw Father Ralph differently and altered the role. “I thought he would be much more interesting if he really did have a true vocation in the church, if he really did want the power, and if he really did love Meggie with all his heart,” Chamberlain explained.
Besides playing opposite love interest Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward), Chamberlain had a charged scene with screen legend Barbara Stanwyck, who played Meggie’s wealthy aunt. Though Stanwyck was known throughout Hollywood as the “consummate professional,” she forgot her lines in a scene in which Chamberlain has stripped of most his clothes. “She went up [forgot] in her lines and everybody was totally amazed,” Chamberlain remembers. “ She said, ‘it’s been so long since I have stood next to a naked man.’ It was just so sweet,” Chamberlain added.
Richard Chamberlain ‘The King of the Miniseries”
Chamberlain’s experience in miniseries predates “The Thorn Birds.” In 1980 Chamberlain was determined to land the role in the popular miniseries, “Shogun,” by author James Clavell. Clavell wanted Sean Connery for the part, but Chamberlain convinced Clavell he could play the masculine part just as well, “by lowering my voice and wearing lots of T-shirts under my sweat clothes so I looked bigger and more Sean Connery-ish,” Chamberlain said.