Article 167

The silliest of sovereigns

Richard Chamberlain embraces the wackiness of "Spamalot."

We've all met doctors who expected us to bow and scrape as if they were royalty whose wisdom is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

So, it seems like a natural career path for actor Richard Chamberlain, who rose to fame in the early 1960s playing Dr. Kildare on television to now play King Arthur in "Monty Python's Spamalot," which opens Tuesday at the DuPont Theater.

He has the starring role made famous by Tim Curry on Broadway.

"What I like best is that this whole production is off-the-wall mad, crazy, ludicrously funny," he says in a phone call from a tour stop in Melbourne, Fla., where the weather is wonderful and he's just back from a dip in the pool.

"The thing I like about Arthur is that he's so innocent, a little pompous, but so innocent," Chamberlain says. "The poor guy thinks he's king because the Lady of the Lake said he was, but nobody else knows that. He's also the only person on stage who doesn't get the jokes. He's the company straight man."

The show, a musical version of the 1975 movie "Monty Python and The Holy Grail" from the famed British comedy troupe, tells the story of Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail as a fractured fairy tale complete with taunting French castle guards, killer rabbits and Germanic folk dancing.

The 2005 all-star cast, which included David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin and Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot, was directed by Mike Nichols. The musical became a Broadway sensation and introduced "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," the signature song from both the movie and the musical, to a new generation.

Chamberlain, who will turn 70 on March 31, just a few days after leaving Wilmington, said stepping into the role in a tour that's already on the road is a bit like being a substitute teacher. (He joined the show in Chicago about six weeks ago.)

"Being put into a show is a very tricky business, because you have about 2 1/2 weeks of rehearsals with strange material and dance numbers and costumes," he says. "It's fairly hair-raising when you're first put in a real show."

The costumes aren't really a burden because they're wearing faux mail, not chain mail, he says. The trickiest part for him to master was Arthur's crown, because it's not only heavy, it also contains his microphone.

He believes the most outrageous moment in the show is when Arthur meets the Black Knight, who refuses to allow him to pass. "What happens in that scene is so gory and so funny and so absolutely insane that I love playing it," he says.

The former television star, a resident of Hawaii, where he enjoys painting and mai tais at sunset, says he doesn't find a lot he likes on television right now.

"Reality programs leave me cold," he says. "They're mostly people I don't particularly want to be around."

Chamberlain misses the dramas that used to dominate the small screen. "There are still some good ones. 'Brothers and Sisters' is fun to watch,'" he says. "I watch mostly a whole lot of news, and movies and things like that."

He thought "Milk," which won Sean Penn a best-actor Oscar for his portrayal of gay San Francisco city councilman Harvey Milk, was fabulous.

"I thought 'Slumdog Millionaire' was fascinating to watch. It didn't make much sense, but it was so well done, and different, and interesting," he says.

He believes that one of the big problems in both movies and television is that management has been taken over by corporations that know little about show business except that it can make money, so they often go for the easy and the obvious.

"But still, good films and good television get made."

Partly because "Spamalot" has been so much fun, Chamberlain says he's like to do more comedy. He also says he love to play Prospero, in Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Of Matthew Greer, who plays Lancelot to his Arthur, Chamberlain says: "He comes up every night with some topical stuff that has to do with the community that we're playing in, and the audiences go crazy for it. They just love it. I always laugh at that point. I hope they don't see me."

Audiences respond to the show, he thinks, "partly because it's so utterly irreverent and partly because it's so joyously funny. We're living in rather hard times right now, and the audience comes in a bit gray from not having anything to eat for weeks, and they go out so happy and joyous.

"It feels wonderful every night to know that you've sent the audience away in a really, really good mood."

© 2009 Betsy Price

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