I was born in 1943 and my first memories are from around 1949, when my dad accepted a position in Berlin as religious affairs adviser for the U.S. high commission. It was well before the wall and the aftermath of the second world war was still very much in evidence. Our house was the only standing home in the whole neighbourhood and my playground was the bathtubs hanging out of the second floor.
Our home became an island for people fleeing out of the east and I remember this stream of people coming through our home. It was a positive experience but I can also remember watching my parents give the kind of attention to strangers that I often wanted for myself and perhaps the negative repercussions came later in my life. I’ve had a number of marriages, and one of the recurring complaints about me has been that I’ve paid less attention to the home fires and more to the strangers and people out there than I do to the person I’m supposedly in love with.
The atmosphere was strict when I was growing up but tempered by love. We were a very, very religious family – we weren’t fundamentalists, just very worshipful and gave credit to God for almost everything. I went through a stage of rejection but I didn’t reject it by saying anything, it was by acting it.
I always said the right things.
We returned to the U.S. when I was 13 and, apart from a year in Mexico, settled in South Dakota. I was the first of my family to escape. Part of the problem with escaping was that a lot of the things that we needed to talk about – you know, sexually, for instance – were taboo. You just didn’t talk about sex, you went out and did it yourself … and my girlfriend was pregnant by the time I was 19. Then it was like, “Oh shit, now what do we do?” So we ran away. That’s what we did. And I’ve been kind of running ever since.
My dad was the most important person in my whole life. He passed away about three years ago. I just adored him. He was the kindest, dearest, most giving man I think I’ve ever known and I wish in some ways I could begin to approach the kind of depth of faith and belief that he had. But, boy, did we come together at the end. I became a UK citizen in 2004 and he passed away in 2009, but we’d been on the phone to each other probably once a week for the last 10 years. He was the kind of guy you just wanted to turn to. No matter how old you get – and I’m 68 – you’re still somebody’s kid and when I’m feeling desperate now I think of my pop and it’s enough for me to think: come on David, buckle up, get your shit together.’
My mother passed away a year after my father after losing her battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was a genius, an absolute genius. She didn’t have to work and I think she resented the fact. She ended up getting driven crazy by her kids. She had so much more but ended up being Dad’s editor for the books he wrote, so she was just underused and took a lot of her frustration out on the kids, there’s no question about that. But to watch her to go into this dark, dark hole of dementia and Alzheimer’s was so painful.
My parents were together for 64 years and I’m on my fifth marriage, so they weren’t too happy with the situation. They were very saddened by what happened to me and I certainly am too, but it’s just what happened. If I could change it I would have changed it but I can’t. I gotta move on. I’m sanguine about my frantic days of marriage and divorce and broken marriages: that’s finished now. I remember it with sadness and I’ve dealt with each of the women in my own way to say, “Forgive me, I’m sorry about this”, and three of them at least are among my best friends. To me that is more important than the institution of marriage. And Helen, my wife today – I’m so in love with this woman. She’s the best.
My third wife Patti and I had three kids. But I started drinking quite a bit. I got violent for a while. It was only one time, but we had another child after that. She painted this picture of me as a horrible creature, which wasn’t the whole story and it was something I felt really awful about. She ended up taking my kids 1,400 miles away from California, where we were, then got married to another guy.
Winning back my children’s trust wasn’t easy. I’ve got six kids now – and six grandchildren – and the best thing I can do is to be there for them as much as I can be. I make my trips back and forth and I’m on the phone with them and I’m trying to be there for them, even in spite of the fact that I’m not present. My daughter China is here in Britain and she’s a British citizen now.
I’ve got a better handle on family perspective today. In the days when I was – as they used to call me – “one of the biggest stars in television”, I got the balance wrong. The caring about what I looked like, what I sounded like, what I represented to other people was more important than being with my family. That was the sadness of that period but it doesn’t mean I don’t have time for other people now.
Interview by Nick McGrath; The Guardian, Friday, 11 May 2012.