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The Thorn Birds - An Unexpected Lesson In Love

Updated on February 25, 2016
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Brian Gray obtained his degree in Language from Lee University and has been a published author and professional writer since 1985.

The Thorn Birds Starring Richard Chamberlain & Rachel Ward

On The Set Of The ABC-TV Mini-Series, The Thorn Birds

In March of 1983, ABC-TV aired a mini-series that rocked the planet. About love suppressed, love sacrificed and love lost, “The Thorn Birds” stirred romantic passions and religious debates around the world, making the mini-series an audience record breaker surpassed only by another mini-series, “Roots.” “The Thorn Birds” continues to air on television around the world, even after more than thirty years, such is the moving quality of this story. Perhaps even more, the story, written by the late Australian author, Coleen McCullough, holds a mirror to some of our own dealings with love, each of us having at least once in our lives fallen tragically in love with someone who would never be ours. Love lost, love gained, love appreciated...there are so many perplexing facets of love, and even more, the effects of all these varying facets can have lasting and profound effects that we often are not even aware exist. But, those effects DO exist, living just beneath our consciousness, and the after effects of not dealing with them can change our lives and dominate our destinies for years to come, unless we face the past where these stories began. In the summer of 1982, I spent the day with Richard Chamberlain on the set of “The Thorn Birds,” and though I would never have thought that my visit to the set of this movie would have had such a life-long and profound impact on me, the truth is, that visit changed my life forever... and here’s the story.

Richard Chamberlain And Me On The Set

This photo was taken by Victoria in the mansion that was built at Warner Brothers.  The full mansion was also duplicated on a ranch in Simi Valley.  That was the one that burned.
This photo was taken by Victoria in the mansion that was built at Warner Brothers. The full mansion was also duplicated on a ranch in Simi Valley. That was the one that burned.

Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Jean Simmons, Paul Margulies

For me, the temperature in Los Angeles has always been hot, especially for someone like myself who has lived most of his life in the mild temperatures along the mid-Atlantic coast. No matter what the temperature was where I lived, when I arrived in L.A., it was hotter. So, I remember that it was a very hot summer day when my driver pulled up to the gates at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. To the citizens of L.A., it was probably mild, but I was personally happy that I was in an air-conditioned car going into an air-conditioned building. Richard Chamberlain was hosting my visit, and I was to meet with his personal secretary, Victoria LaHaie, who would then lead me to the building where some interior scenes to the movie were being filmed that day on sound stages 12 and 18. Victoria was such a sweetheart, I fell in love with her immediately. I could not guess her age, but she was obviously a few years ahead of me, my being thirty-one at the time. Victoria exuded confidence, humility (a rare quality in that business), and she just knew how to do everything. I guess that’s what it takes to be a personal secretary to someone as famous as Richard Chamberlain...attention to detail. When we arrived at the sound stage, a scene was being filmed, so one of the directors gave us a look as we entered that those in the know understand immediately— “Quiet! Filming in progress.” Once you’ve been on enough movie sets, you get to know that routine without even having to be told, even if you arrive after the director has yelled “Quiet on the set!” There, a few yards away, Richard was acting a scene with a dying baby in a small room. Dressed as a priest, he was holding the baby and saying lines that I could not quite make out. But that made no difference to me. Even though Coleen McCullough, the Australian author who had written “The Thorn Birds” was standing right next to me, watching the scene intently to make sure that her novel was being properly interpreted, I had not even heard of the book yet, so for the moment, I was just busy being quiet and scanning my surroundings, Victoria and I whispering back and forth so that I knew what was coming next. Once finished filming the scene, Richard came over to welcome me to the set and informed me that we were going to have a real treat at lunch. Apparently the chef at the Warner Brothers cafeteria had produced the most awesome chocolate cake, as Richard put it, “This cake is so good, it’s….” He trailed off, at a total loss for such an excellent word, then resumed with, “Scandalous!” That got my attention. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of chocolate cake was so good that it was scandalous! We all laughed, but the laughter was short-lived. The server came out and whispered something in Richard’s ear, something that changed his expression to one of sheer disappointment. It seems that after that dramatic build up, the server told Richard that they were out of that particular cake today. Disappointments come in life. C’est la vie. But having chocolate cake, or not having chocolate cake, neither event would have changed my feelings of pure happiness at being with everyone on the set. Rachel Ward was a genuine gem of a person, down to earth and truly kind. She seemed unaffected by all of this. There was also Jean Simmons whose many movies I admired, a great actress, and she was such a lady. Conversation with her was elevating, to say the least. Stan Margulies, the producer, was also remarkable in his warmth and welcoming nature. I think between Richard Chamberlain, Jean Simmons, Rachel Ward and Stan Margulies, if any of them had told me I should become an actor, I would have moved to L.A. and done just that. They certainly represented what I liked about the business. But all of that wonderful experience was not what changed me. It was what came when Victoria and I went back to Richard’s office for a bit of time alone.

Love Has Many Lessons

Giving Gifts

I had some gifts that I had brought for Victoria and Richard, and I gave them to Victoria while we were in the office, thinking that she would set Richard’s aside on his desk for later. Somehow, it came up in our conversation that I was staying at a hotel in L.A. “Why aren’t you staying at Richard’s house?” asked Victoria quizzically. “Well,” I said, rather sheepishly, “I don’t want to impose.” “Impose?!” Victoria shot back, “How would you be imposing?” “Well,” I offered again, hoping that we could drop the subject, “Richard doesn’t have to do anything for me like that.” Victoria was not going to let me get off so easily. “Wait,” she demanded, “It’s okay for you to give us gifts, but we can’t give you anything?” “Oh, it’s not that,” I countered, “You guys don’t have to give me anything. I gave you gifts because I wanted to.” “Victoria would not be stopped. “That’s not the point. Is it fair that you can give us gifts, but we can’t give you any?” she asked. “Yes,” I offered lamely, but you don’t have to give me anything.” This small argument went back and forth. It resembled the same type of impasse when earlier, Richard and I had come to the door of the cafeteria, and Richard held the door for me and I said, “After you,” to which Richard said, “No, you first,” and after, literally, about the third time of this back and forth “You first,” Victoria had chimed in adamantly, “All right, one of you go, please, or we are never going to get to have lunch!” Like I said, Victoria knew how to get things done, a real detail person, and now that detailed brain was focused on me and some shortcoming that was about to be open for discussion. I did not like “Open Season on Brian.” Our little back and forth continued for a few minutes, and my artful dodging was not going to let me off the hook. Victoria looked me right in the eyes and said, “You have a problem with love.” My thoughts were in full disarray with that one. “What?!”

A Thorn Birds Letter

Richard was always such a gentleman.  This letter brings back good memories.
Richard was always such a gentleman. This letter brings back good memories.

A Little, Red, Paper Heart

Okay, we’re alone, it’s Hollywood, and all I could think of was, “Where is this going?,” and “I hope this is not leading to what I think it is.” “I don’t have a problem with love,” I shot back. “Oh, yes you do,” Victoria fired back without skipping a beat. “Come here,” she said, as she walked past me to her desk. Hmmm? Now I’m puzzled. Not the obvious direction I thought this might take. Victoria went around to her chair, motioned for me to sit in the chair on the other side of her desk, and now I was even more puzzled, because this definitely was not “the Hollywood move” going on here. She reached into her desk, pulled out a piece of red construction paper, put it in her typewriter, and typed a short sentence. Then, she folded the paper in half, pulled out some scissors, cut around the edge, unfolded it, and I could see that she had just cut out a paper heart. Then, turning to me, she said, “Now, I want you to do this for me. You may think this is stupid, you might not even do it, but please do this. Place this somewhere where you can see it every day, and each day, at least once a day, I want you to read what is on this and say it to yourself. Promise me that you will do this.” I told her I would, and as I took the little red paper heart, I read the words that Victoria LaHaie had written: “I, Brian, am worthy of receiving.” The heart, as she explained to me was love, and I was to say to myself everyday, until it finally sank in, that I, Brian, am worthy of receiving love.

Victoria LaHaie's Gift

Victoria, if you are reading this, yes, I still have it.  Your lesson is still giving.
Victoria, if you are reading this, yes, I still have it. Your lesson is still giving.

The Lesson Sinks In

I am a man of my word, and I had promised Victoria that I would read that little sentence out loud every day until I finally understood its full meaning... and, dutifully, every day, I did just that. At first it was just perfunctory, like a small Catholic rosary, “I, Brian, am worthy of receiving love.” I would read it, then place it back on my dresser and go off about my business. But, one day, for whatever reason, I began to think about a trait that I had, the one that Victoria had noticed. It was this. If you were my friend, or even if you were just a visitor who came with a friend of mine, and you gave me a gift, I would immediately try to find something I owned to give to you in return, something of equal or greater value. Always! Now, unequally, I could give you something, and I expected absolutely nothing in return. Further, if I gave you something, and you tried to give me something in reciprocation, I would refuse what you offered. I could pay for your meal, but you could not pay for mine. I could give you a ride, but you could not give me a ride. This list went on and on, but I suddenly recognized in myself this imbalance, and it was laid out for me to see in total clarity...I did not feel worthy of receiving love. I could not accept a gift from anyone, because I was not worthy of a gift. Thus, when someone gave me anything as a gift... I had to pay for it! Such was my feeling of “no value,” my feeling of lack of worth. I had the self-esteem of a zero. And where did this come from?

Letting Wrong Ideas Define Us

With introspection and peering back into the past, I found the answer. When I was in first grade, our teacher had each of us children draw names for Christmas. I had no idea what this meant, since my family was poor and really had nothing for Christmas. How could a child of six comprehend what he had never experienced? Christmas gifts? We didn’t even have a Christmas tree. What I ever did with my friend’s name, I don’t even remember. I didn’t know what was expected of me, but on a given day, my friend handed me a present. He was from a wealthier family, and money was not a problem for him. In fact, I would often be at his house the day after he had opened all of his many presents, and we would play with them together. He routinely was given everything on his lengthy Christmas wish list, so he probably did not even notice that I did not hand him one in return that day. But, there I was, playing with this toy that my friend had given me while sitting at the dinning room table in our old house out in the country. My father happened to walk by at that very moment, and he stopped, looked at the item that I was playing with, knew that HE had not purchased it, and he demanded, “Where did you get that?!” “From my friend at school,” I replied. “Why did he give that to you?” came the harsh inquisition. “We drew names,” I offered, barely audible. “What did you give him?” my father demanded sharply. When I replied that I had not given my friend anything in return for this gift, my father’s orders were swift and austere, “Then you give it back!” The next day, I dutifully handed my best friend the toy that he had given me. He was stunned that I was giving it back and asked me why I was doing this. I explained to him that my father would not let me keep it. My friend was very upset with my father’s decision, and he kept trying to get me to take it, but I was afraid of the beating that I would get when I got home if I had done contrary to what my father had demanded. I was just six years old, and as I sat there at my desk, I put my head down and cried. My friend just stood there, angry with disbelief that my father would not let him give his friend a gift, telling me that it was not fair that I could not keep what he had freely given to me, that he did not want it back, that he wanted me to have it...and he was rubbing my back trying to console me, all while I sobbed from a broken heart. I had just learned that I was not worthy, that I did not have worth, that I was a zero, and that lesson had been burned into me that day like a branding iron.

Becoming A Zero

Over the years, I became acutely aware of my social standing, aware that my classmates came from better homes with better cars, wore better clothes and, quite simply, did better things with their lives. By the time I was in high school, instead of eating in the cafeteria at lunch time, I would go without eating and volunteer, instead, to work in the school library during my lunch hour. I became very thin, but never paid much attention to it, except for when we had gym class, and all the guys who obviously were eating properly and exercising, made me feel like the class reject. When it came to choosing up teams for a game, I was almost always the last one chosen. Nobody wanted “the zero.” My tremendous lack of self-worth became obvious to all, because I apparently projected that image. I remember, of the few times that I did eat in the cafeteria before I finally gave up completely, that upon arriving at the table of some of my classmates, I was told unanimously with no missed intent that I could not sit with them, such was the divide that had grown over the years between the “with its” and the “not with its.” I was definitely in the “not cool, not ever” category. Children can be cruel to one another, but we are most cruel to ourselves.

A Friend With A Flashlight

We can create a self-defeating, ever-enlarging, cycle of negative value in our lives very easily. Someone starts the snowball, but we continue to roll that snowball until it is bigger than we are. Before long, the valuable person that we truly are is hidden behind this massive snowball that truly is NOT representative of US. We have struggled and pushed this massive impediment to finding our true selves, ever placing the false image of us in front of us, when the truth has been buried and denied because we never learned to step out from behind that ball of someone else’s invention. In spite of the many accomplishments I had made before I met Victoria LaHaie on the set of “The Thorn Birds” in Hollywood, I still had a giant snowball of low self-esteem that I was pushing around in front of me. I was not worthy of love, and I could give you a gift, but you could not give me one...because I was unworthy. Wow! Victoria had opened up the basement door and stuck a flashlight in there. She had even said, “Brian, come out of that basement!”

No One Is A Zero!

Several years later, I was talking to Victoria by phone, and I mentioned the little red heart that she had made for me. She remarked, “Oh, my goodness! I figured you would have thrown that away by now.” I told her that I would never throw it away, because it has helped so many other people over the years. By looking back into my past, I had finally found the day my lack of self-worth had begun. And as I had walked through the various rooms that led to my future, I had met more people who were ever so willing to add a brick to my weights, to pack more snow on my worthless snowball. And, I let them, because I did not know that they were wrong, and that I could refuse their assessments. You see, we all have value. No one is a zero! God did not make any mistakes! Takes a while, sometimes, for some of us to get there and see that, but no matter who you are, this is worth repeating - YOU ARE NOT A ZERO! YOU HAVE WORTH! YOU ARE WORTHY OF RECEIVING….LOVE!

Thanks, Victoria!

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    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 18 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Nancy,

      You caught me just as I was finishing some writing for the evening. It was very kind of you to comment, and I always enjoy hearing from those who found that article enjoyable. Richard has always been a fine actor, a genuine person who is full of life and a joy to interact with, so I felt he deserved a bit of praise. Thank you again for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Brian

    • profile image

      nancy 18 months ago

      Loved this incite into your meeting with Richard Chamberlain.What a lovely look at the backstory of your meeting with Mr.Chamberlain.I have always been a fan & to this day I have nothing but admiration for this gentleman.

      thank you again,Brian.

      Nancy Fitzsimonds nanfitzs@comcast.net.

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 20 months ago from Pennsylvania

      heidithorne,

      You are very welcome, and I'm glad that you enjoyed the story. I think it is even more poignant for those who have seen the movie.

      Brian

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 20 months ago from Pennsylvania

      jtrader,

      Thank you for reading my article. Sounds like you know what I mean when I tell people that no one is a zero. Sometimes we have to be told that we have worth.

      Brian

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 20 months ago from Chicago Area

      What a cool story! I definitely remember that mini-series. It was quite spectacular for the time... and aired on broadcast. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

    • jtrader profile image

      jtrader 20 months ago

      So true brother.

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 20 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Damian,

      Down in West Virginia on a photo shoot, thus the tardiness in my reply, but thanks for reading my latest article. Always great to hear from you.

      Brian

    • Hanavee profile image
      Author

      Brian Gray 20 months ago from Pennsylvania

      Always exploring,

      Great to read your comments and know there's a fellow traveller out there. Yes, if we survive our childhood, strength springs eternal.

      Brian

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 21 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I loved watching The Thorn Birds on TV. From reading just a few of your article's I know you have lived an interesting life. It made me sad to read of your father's wrath toward you. If only a parent could see the damage done to a child. I was poor too and rejection was common in school. It takes time to heal and begin to love one's self. Writing is a wonderful healer. Thank you for sharing this time in your life....

    • profile image

      Damian 21 months ago

      I must be honest with you and tell you that I never saw the "Thornbirds" on television. My main interest was the martial arts and so I wasn't sitting at home watching television. However, the article was informative and I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing your experiences.