A Return to Drogheda in ‘Pioneers of Television’

Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward originally in “The Thorn Birds,” ©Judy Sloane.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—It’s been 30 years since “The Thorn Birds” co-stars Richard Chamberlain, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward have appeared together, but they finally got a chance to reminisce about their groundbreaking miniseries at the TV Critics tour PBS program “Pioneers of Television.”

Based on the popular novel by Colleen McCullough, the story was set in the Australian Outback, spotlighting three generations of the Cleary family. The romantic drama spanned over 30 years, from 1920 to 1962. Bryan Brown portrayed Luke O’Neill, a sheep farmer who married Meggie Cleary, played by Rachel Ward, and Richard Chamberlain embodied Ralph de Bricassart, an ambitious priest whom Meggie was infatuated with.

For Brown and Ward, their onscreen relationship turned into a real life romance, and they married on April 16, 1983, and have been happily together ever since. Meanwhile, Chamberlain, the one-time king of the miniseries, has retired to Hawaii and has revealed he is gay.

Front Row Features: What are your memories of becoming involved with “The Thorn Birds?”

Brown: It was very exciting for me to come to America and to do “The Thorn Birds.” It was the first job I’d been offered outside of Australia. I’d done a miniseries that went out on PBS Masterpiece Theatre called “A Town Like Alice,” which was very well received. And I did a movie called “Breaker Morant,” which gave me some attention. And then I got asked to come and do “The Thorn Birds.” So it was a fabulous opportunity for a young fella to get on a plane and come over here.

Front Row Features: Were you familiar with the source material?

Brown: I knew it was a huge book. I knew that the thing was going to be watched by a lot of people. But I never felt the pressure of that. To me I was just going to have a lot of fun. I had a ball. I got the chance to scream abuse at Richard. That was fun. I got to lay in bed with Rachel, that was fun. There was nothing that wasn’t fun. I got to shear a sheep. That was fun. I just had a very lovely time doing the show.

Ward: When I originally read “The Thorn Birds,” I didn’t want to do it, and my agent was very insistent that I go and audition for it. I was kind of half-hearted about it, because it clearly was a soap opera, and the dialogue was written in iambic pentameter and it didn’t have a naturalism that I wanted, liked and would feel comfortable with.

Front Row Features: What do you remember most about that time?

Ward: I was 23 at that point, I was very green and Richard was less green and incredibly supportive and darling to me.

Chamberlain: I loved working with you. We got along so well.

Ward: We did, didn’t we? I’d been in love with Richard actually for years.

Front Row Features: How did you feel about going from making movies and starring on a TV show to doing a miniseries?

Chamberlain: The whole structure of the miniseries is really wonderful. Series television is a little too fast, and movies are a little too slow, and the miniseries was just right in the middle, just like the porridge. “The Thorn Birds” and “Shogun” were extraordinary books that were just fabulous reads to begin with, so we got to work with wonderful material.

Front Row Features: There were a lot of rumors during that time that you and Rachel didn’t get on. Were they true?

Chamberlain: I was so in love with her and loved working with Rachel so much and couldn’t believe that there was any talk about our not getting along.

Ward: Oh, really. I never heard that before.

Chamberlain: There was, and it was totally made up.

Front Row Features: Bryan, can you talk about meeting Rachel on the set?

Brown: The things (actors) do, the places they take us to in most cases something happens that’s very defining for us. And what was defining for me was I met Rachel. My life changed. I then had to grow up. I became a man that was married, had children. And my life became far more fulfilling than it had been.

Front Row Features: How did Rachel change your life and what’s the secret of a long, happy marriage?

Brown: It was my turn to change, and Rachel did that for me. And so it was monumental in that respect. And the marriage is the same (now) as it was at the beginning. She decides what we’re going to do, which is the way to make a marriage work.

Front Row Features: You’re a filmmaker now, Rachel. Why the career change?

Ward: I got terrible reviews (for “The Thorn Birds”). I don’t know why. You need sensitivity, empathy and enormous guts to have a go at [acting]. You need enormous self-confidence. I had the other three, but I didn’t have self-confidence. So when I got thwarted, I really took it to heart. I went, “This isn’t for me.” I’m really much more comfortable behind the camera. So I went to Australia, married Bryan, had a few other goes (at acting), but I was never really that comfortable with it, and I never got my confidence back again after that.

Chamberlain: I thought you were fabulous.

Ward: It’s all good, because it forced me to look at it. I love being in the business, but for me I’m much more comfortable behind the camera.

Front Row Features: Richard, didn’t you break your hand on the set?

Chamberlain: I did break my hand at one point. I was having a lot of trouble remembering a line and it was a scene I think with Barbara (Stanwyck) and Jean Simmons. The dollies that move the camera around have little seats, I thought they were soft and I went (punches invisible seat) and I broke a bone. What a fool. What a stupid thing to do. But we carried on.