Article 151

Legendary actor wears king's crown in Broadway's "Spamalot"

When actor Richard Chamberlain was asked to join the national tour of the hit stage musical comedy "Monty Python's Spamalot," last year, he says he felt a little silly to have to admit he had never seen the long-running Broadway show, which first opened in January 2005 as a test-run in Chicago.

"For some reason, every time I planned to see it, I was just never in the right city at the right time," said Chamberlain, whose tall and dashing image still captivates many women who idolize him.

"I almost caught it in Las Vegas, and then my schedule changed."

He finally did get to see it just before Christmas, an important step considering he agreed to accept the lead role of this silly version of King Arthur, a caricature created by Tim Curry in the original run of the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2005, directed by Mike Nichols and also starring David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria.

For Chamberlain, this new project meant just three weeks to learn all the aspects of the singing and dancing that accompanies the role.

Based on the popular movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," it is the creation of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin and tells the legendary tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their quest.

Brimming with sight gags, outrageous costumes and amazing sets, this tour features a talented cast who do a superb job bringing to life each musical number, from "Find Your Grail" and "He's Not Dead Yet" to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

It's opening this week as part of Broadway in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University for a limited engagement January 20 to February 1.

"This show is so much fun, although it takes some getting used to wearing the chain mail and suits of armor," said Chamberlain, while chatting by telephone last week from his hotel in South Bend, where the musical was playing for a short run before arriving "home" to Chicago.

For four decades, many fans never looked past his successful movie and television career and his trademark roles as young Dr. Kildare in the '60s, "Shogun" warrior Blackthorne and Father Ralph of "The Thorn Birds" in the '80s which have seemed to define his public persona as well, he said.

The people who stand in line to meet him following his appearances still ask him many details about his "Dr. Kildare" days, even though the show ran on NBC from 1961 to 1966.

Chamberlain said he also is questioned by fans about his television miniseries work, especially "Shogun" on NBC in 1980 and "The Thorn Birds" on ABC in 1983, when he played a Roman Catholic priest torn by his religious promise and human desires.

"I actually went away to live in a monastery with priests to find out more about the daily routines, prayers and life of religious devotions," Chamberlain said.

"I spent a lot of time preparing for the role, and it paid off because people really became invested in my character and the challenges he faced."

Chamberlain said his most recent roles are evidence he now selects projects that allow him to break out of leading-man roles.

In the 1999 miniseries "Too Rich: The Life of Doris Duke," Chamberlain played the scheming alcoholic butler Bernard Lafferty to late tobacco heiress Doris Duke, played by Lauren Bacall. Chamberlain's partner Martin Rabbett served as executive producer for the project.

Duke, who investigators thought was murdered by Lafferty, who then was placed in charge of her billion-dollar estate, actually had a large Hawaiian home near Chamberlain's home in Hawaii.

"I met Doris only once at a New Year's Eve party years ago, and she was very lovely and gracious," Chamberlain said. "And I'm sure, at the time, I probably met Bernard Lafferty, too, and just didn't realize it. I never dreamed I'd portray him one day."

Chamberlain also is proud of his theater work. His last visit to Chicago was in November 2004 for the starring stage role in the Christmas musical "Scrooge." Before that, it was a stage stop in the Windy City in 1994 while appearing in the national tour of "My Fair Lady."

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