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"I was terrified of doing Shogun," admits Richard Chamberlain. "But that sense of danger was what made me want to do it." The idea of Dr. Kildare swinging a samurai sword also frightened James Clavell, the author of the best-seller about feudal Japan as well as the executive producer of NBC's five-night blockbuster adaptation. No one questioned Chamberlain's professionalism, but as a leading man, he's been tagged as pretty—and passionless. Clavell made no bones about preferring the more rugged Sean Connery or Albert Finney to play the shipwrecked 17th-century English seaman who struggles heroically to become a Japanese warrior. But Connery was not available, Finney was not offered the role, and, as Chamberlain puts it, "I just stayed in line longer than anyone else." That may be too modest. "As it turned out," Clavell says now, "Chamberlain was the perfect choice."

NBC plunged $22 million on the property in desperate hope of regaining ratings parity with the other two networks. If Shogun doesn't deliver, it will be less the fault of its only American star than of the 12-hour script with its tedious stretches of straight Japanese dialogue. Chamberlain can't lose. Whether or not the swashbuckling character that he calls "the role of a lifetime" gives him a whole new public image, playing it has deepened the sea change Chamberlain perceives in himself at 45.

"I always thought you had to be well-behaved and never let people know when you were upset," Richard explains. "Now I have learned to express anger. In Japan they value repression. They avoid confrontation because they revere inner harmony, or wa. I find wa at the moment by letting whomever I'm angry at know it." Chamberlain's samurai assertiveness training, he says, was just the follow-up to four years of Gestalt and other therapeutic approaches. He is much less self-absorbed now, and says he is considering the possibility of marriage—and even children.

Chamberlain attributes his new assurance to friend and holistic healer Brugh Joy, 41, his guru for the past three years. "I feel more comfortable with myself, with fewer violent ups and downs," says Richard, who shapes up spiritually in 17-day retreats at Joy's Sky Hi Ranch in the Lucerne Valley desert of southeastern California. Courses consist of yoga-like exercises from the lower abdomen (the home, says Joy, of creative as well as sexual energy) to the top of the head (cosmic awareness). "Brugh can know you by your energy field, and balance your energies out to the point that you feel incredibly wonderful," testifies Chamberlain. "I have much more positive and creative directions, a much better flow in my life, and my relationships are more fun and have more depth."

Beneath the California mellowspeak, the actor is expressing a new appreciation for wedlock. "I think marriage is an experience I might have before too long or," he vacillates, "might not." The attraction for a man who has accomplished almost everything he sought professionally is the new personal challenge of raising children. "What's it like having a little human being that looks like you, who is part of your own evolution?" Chamberlain wonders out loud. "I've had to do a lot of growing before I could have the kind of marriage I would like to have, and before I felt I could have anything to offer children. I don't want to have, by accident, noisy things around the house that have to be fed—maybe you like them and maybe you don't. But I'm getting to the point where I can imagine myself coping with kids on a daily basis. Having kids takes your mind off yourself." He does have some experience, Richard laughs. "I'm very committed to my two cats. If I don't mind cleaning their litter box, maybe I wouldn't mind diapers."

Neither marriage nor new offspring are paramount with the closest lady in Chamberlain's life, actress Dixie Carter, 39, an actress and divorced mother of two. They met two years ago playing Off-Broadway to good notices in Thomas Babe's Fathers and Sons. "It all boils down to warm and cool," Richard theorizes of their stage chemistry. "Cary Grant is cool, Ingrid Bergman is warm, so they were electrifying together. I had that with Dixie. She's warm—she's a real woman." Earlier this month, Dixie played hostess to Chamberlain at her Hudson River retreat, and observes, "Richard doesn't give himself easily in life, and when he does he's irresistible. He has a raucous, earthy sense of humor that's devastating—it doesn't exactly match his patrician good looks."

Those affectionate words are not to be confused with a proposal. "I've been married twice, and I no longer consider my marrying somebody a loving act," Dixie cracks. "I wouldn't do that to anyone I cared about." For his part, Richard frets, "I would be very cautious about entering into a marriage with someone fiercely involved in a career. Two career maniacs in the same house might not work—and I'm only just losing that madness a little bit myself. I'm beginning to see I have a life apart from acting," he adds. "I can even imagine not being an actor and being happy without all this creative focus in one area."

That's a radical shift for a trouper who has long proclaimed himself "married to my work." Born George Richard Chamberlain in L.A., the son of a salesman and a housewife, he attended Beverly Hills High and got into theater at Pomona College, where he also lettered as a middle-distance runner. After two years in the Army in Korea—he was mustered out a sergeant—Richard began acting professionally. The 36th person to be considered, he landed the Dr. Kildare role in 1961 at age 26. When that series expired after five years—along with a spin-off career that produced one hit LP, Richard Chamberlain Sings—he went into a Broadway-bound musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, with Mary Tyler Moore, that closed in previews. "The audience hated it—they walked out and talked back to us," he recalls. "Mary would cry between scenes. Up until then I had never known anything but miraculous success."

Bravely, he headed for England in 1968 and "any kind of training I could find." He wound up in a BBC series based on Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, which he calls "the turning point of my career." It led to a Hamlet in England, the first by an American since John Barrymore in 1925, and it won praise from a skeptical British press. "There was a whiff of callowness in that performance, but a freshness, too," says Chamberlain, who may try the part again in Manhattan this winter. After a stateside Richard II in 1971, Chamberlain was labeled as "a potential new Barrymore," but he has been closer to a latter-day Douglas Fairbanks, dashing through TV and movie hits including The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. Richard once shrugged: "I'm a cape freak."

The six-month filming of Shogun, with co-stars Toshiro Mifune and Yoko Shimada, was equally adventurous but sometimes frustrating. "I was too stupid and busy to learn the language, but at the wrap party five Japanese people told me, in English, how much they liked me. They never spoke to me because they didn't want to speak English poorly," Richard recalls. "I regretted that. We could have been great buddies." Still, he came away with a heightened appreciation of the culture. Having recently moved out of the house that Dr. Kildare bought, Richard is in fact remodeling his new three-bedroom Benedict Canyon place "to get those Japanese proportions—space without clutter. This house is going to be very tranquil."

He also keeps residences in New York and Oahu, where "the big deal of the day is when the sun sets. When you get all hyped up in L.A., you go to Oahu and it all washes away." A constant traveler, he always leaves a housesitter behind because "houses don't like to be left empty; they get unhappy alone." Chamberlain himself is contentedly semireclusive. He rarely attends Hollywood parties, and keeps to "a very close group of friends who share a lot with me. We have all grown into being part of each other's lives." They include his agent Flo Allen (who also handles Rock Hudson and Lynn Redgrave), his lawyer, his ex-therapist and Brugh Joy.

Right now Richard is filming a psychothriller called Bells in Toronto. "I play a contemporary leading man, and I get the girl, too," he says. Next he plans to turn Joy's Way, a book by his friend Brugh, into a TV movie that Chamberlain says will be an "inner Star Wars." As for his own life battle, a happy ending seems within reach. "I don't know what's around the next corner, and I'm fascinated to find out," says Richard. "I've still got places to go, but at the moment I'm full up."