Article 169

It's good to be king of Palace comedy

Wished an early happy birthday, Richard Chamberlain said, "Seventy-five is a big one. It's totally shocking. I don't know how it happened!"

He laughed, of course. He has far more than casually examined his life and his long career in TV, movies and onstage, where he is touring as King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot. The production - a reworking of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail - opens a one-week stand at Cleveland's Palace Theatre on Tuesday, Chamber-lain's birthday.

He was a TV heartthrob in the early '60s as star of the drama Dr. Kildare. He was considered the king of TV miniseries for productions like The Thorn Birds, Shogun and Centennial.

Chamberlain played Jason Bourne in a TV production of The Bourne Identity when Matt Damon was not yet out of his teens. (Chamberlain thinks the TV adaptation of Robert Ludlum's book was better than the big-screen one because it had more time to tell the story; but he gives the two Damon sequels high marks.)

Chamberlain also made movies, though with rather less success than he had on TV. He acted onstage in prestigious venues like the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He wrote an autobiography which, six years ago, finally made public what had long been rumored that he is gay.

That was a highly publicized moment. But Chamberlain said he has gone through "a lot of therapy, a lot of spiritual growth," on the way to being a happier and more spontaneous person.

"I was a shy person well into my 20s," he said. "I was very short of self-confidence." An art major at Pomona College, he began to try acting as well. When he was praised for a performance in George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man, he realized, "I can do this."

Other triumphs and challenges ensued. He still singles out Shogun as a wonderful but "extremely difficult" part. Bourne Identity also remains a favorite, as does playing Cyrano de Bergerac onstage.

Asking himself, "What'd be the most fun?" he paused and said, "They're all work."

Although work is a somewhat relative term, it turns out. "Spamalot is just heaven," he added. "We're living in a sort of bleak time. The audience comes in a little gray. And they go out happy."

And Chamberlain seems to go about life pretty happy, too.

Where it once seemed he was always onscreen, Chamberlain now keeps a lower profile. He admits that age is a factor that he no longer cares for the exertions involved in things like horseback riding.

And acting on the road is hard work, he said. He focuses most of his energy on the performances. The rest of the time, he said, "I live a kind of monastic existence. . . . I rest as much as I can, and sleep and eat."

He also took on Spamalot knowing it would be a relatively short run 21/2 months between Jonathan Hadary's playing King Arthur and John O'Hurley taking on the role with Cleveland as his final stop.

"I was talking to someone about doing another show," he said, "and they asked if I would be interested in this. And I said, 'Oh, absolutely!' "

Every Arthur brings something different to the part, Chamberlain said. "I like to think of him as a little bit more aristocratic than some. And he's been described as the only person onstage who doesn't get the joke. He's naive and bumbling but he thinks he's king!"

Besides, Chamberlain said, "I love working on the stage. . . . You're in touch with the audience. It's wonderful to make people laugh." While he joined a company that had already been working with Hadary, he said, "It's the most wonderful company. They're very, very nice people."

And when this is done? "I get to go to Hawaii," he said, "and sit on the beach and play with my dog."

© 2009 Rich Heldenfels

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