In 1966, after five years of surgical gowns and stardom in TV's high-rated Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain decided it was time to learn how to act. The series had already set him up beyond his boyhood dreams of avarice, and he hied himself off to apprentice in the classics in England. Today, at 39, Chamberlain has it both ways. He is an acknowledged international-class actor (the first American to dare Hamlet in Britain since John Barrymore) and a more substantial star as well. He plays the slithery villain in the new Newman-McQueen barnburner, Towering Inferno. And on Jan. 10, Chamberlain is billed above the title in NBC's sleek re-do of The Count of Monte Cristo (and well above Tony Curtis who took a slightly different career route).

"Basically I'm a romantic at heart," says Chamberlain. "Walking around in a cape is my idea of a good time. I'm a cape freak." Thus he couldn't resist the part of Aramis in last year's frolicsome Richard Lester film, The Three Musketeers (and its upcoming sequel), or as Lord Byron the year before in Lady Caroline Lamb. On recent TV specials, though, he's played King Edward VIII and Scott Fitzgerald with performances suggesting he was out of his century. "I was so obsessed with trying to be like Fitzgerald that I forgot to make a person. I'll never do a recent historical figure again."

With his powerful voice and stage presence and preference in roles, Chamberlain is more of an old-fashioned matinee idol than a modern star. "My fantasy about an actor," as he explains it, "is being able to move people in a particular performance in a theater and not be recognized walking down the street the next day." He's vain, though, about his appearance, reportedly spending more time primping in makeup before a talk-show taping than most actresses.

Back in his native Beverly Hills ("I was born on the wrong side of Wilshire") and into the tennis, riding and hiking he neglected during his English period, Richard remains a semi-recluse when it comes to the Hollywood social circuit. "There's something about a highly competitive atmosphere I don't like. Going to a party to impress people seems false to me," he says.

Never publicly entangled in a serious romance, he remains a bachelor, "married to my work." The speculation about Chamberlain and Taryn Power, the 21-year-old daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian, who makes her American acting debut in The Count of Monte Cristo, was a figment of press agents, though Chamberlain has called her "the most beautiful girl I have ever seen."

For four years he saw a woman shrink but quit. "I sent all my friends to her. She finally went crazy from the strain. She didn't even answer my Christmas cards." Chamberlain lives in the elegant Coldwater Canyon house that Kildare bought. But he keeps an apartment and part of his heart in London: "In England they are a lot more sophisticated about actors. They know that we play different kinds of parts." Chamberlain sees his mission as bringing that expansive view home to Hollywood.