Veteran actor Richard Chamberlain coming to Cleveland with "Spamalot"
TV Guide's No. 7 teen idol of all time. British stage actor. Big-screen mystic and leading man. King of the miniseries. Graying Broadway crooner. Out of the closet as a gay man at age 69 and currently living in Hawaii at age 69.
And now Richard Chamberlain has a new act to try out on Cleveland: King Arthur, buffoon.
Chamberlain, known to baby boomers as young Dr. Kildare in a classic NBC series (1961-66), comes to PlayhouseSquare's Palace Theatre on Tuesday as his last stop on a two and a half month stint as the royal star on a tour of the Broadway musical "Spamalot."
He turns 75 on opening night.
"Ripped off" (as the producers confess) from "Monty Python and The Holy Grail," "Spamalot" is nonstop gags, fart jokes, non sequiturs and "I'm not dead yet," a world apart from Chamberlain's earnest work as Kildare and his Broadway turns as Capt. von Trapp and Henry Higgins.
"This is a most wonderful show," Chamberlain said from a tour stop in Tampa, Fla. "The hardest thing is trying not to crack up onstage."
Chamberlain got the role because the show's producers "had a gap without a king." After this, he's not sure what's next, so he'll head back to his island paradise.
"Where I live has become an incentive not to work," Chamberlain said. "That's fine with me. I like being away from the self-promotion and razzle-dazzle."
Chamberlain has had plenty of that. After "Dr. Kildare" and a brief career as a pop singer, his blondish pompadour making the girls swoon, Chamberlain became disenchanted with Hollywood and went to London, where he was popular in classical roles, including Hamlet.
His Broadway debut, opposite Mary Tyler Moore in a musical version of Truman Capote's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," is remembered as one of New York's biggest stage flops, closing after four preview performances.
In the 1970s, Chamberlain won several leading-man roles in films, including Hollywood's "The Towering Inferno" and a quirky Australian film titled "The Last Wave" directed by a then-unknown Peter Weir ("Master and Commander").
In it, Chamberlain played an Australian lawyer involved in a murder case who has premonitions about aboriginal people and heavier-than-normal rain.
"I read later in a magazine that Peter said he cast me because he thought I had a slightly alien quality," Chamberlain recalled.
In the 1980s came a run of starring roles in TV miniseries - "Centennial," "The Man in the Iron Mask," "Shogun," "The Thorn Birds" - and movies, opposite Sharon Stone in "King Solomon's Mines" and as Jason Bourne in the original "The Bourne Identity."
Since then, his career has been confined largely to Broadway, revivals of "The Sound of Music" and "My Fair Lady," and guest-star slots on TV. Both are signs of being an ironic icon, a la Robert Goulet and William Shatner.
"I never thought about that, but then I tend to think of myself as just an actor as opposed to an icon," Chamberlain said.
"The actors I'm with now do sometimes tend to treat me a little differently. 'He's Richard Chamberlain.' But I think of myself as a journeyman actor, and with each part I start from zero."
Chamberlain said he's bonded with the cast of "Spamalot" and wishes he could stay to play the West Coast. But he's at peace.
"Leaving the show will be very sad," Chamberlain said. "And going home will be very happy."
© 2009 Tony Brown
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