Interview 46

Chamberlain taking over as King Arthur in "Spamalot"

Mention Richard Chamberlain's name to many women of a certain age, and they'll swoon. After all, Chamberlain is most famous for his romantic leading man TV roles in "Dr. Kildare" in the 1960s, then in miniseries like "The Thorn Birds" and "Shogun" in the 1980s.

But Chamberlain also has proven his acting chops on stage as well. He's played "Hamlet" in Great Britain and he's also done musicals like "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" on Broadway.

Chamberlain's latest gig is taking over the role of King Arthur for three months in the national tour of "Monty Python's Spamalot," the 2005 Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1975 film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Chamberlain starts his "Spamalot" reign in Chicago today, but we spoke with him from South Bend, Ind., when he was in the midst of rehearsals.

So what lured you to leave your home in Hawaii and come to Chicago in the middle of winter?

[Laughs] I kind of miss weather. In Hawaii, you know, it's always perfect.

And why "Spamalot"?

I had never seen "Spamalot," but knew a lot about it. And I've always wanted to work on a Mike Nichols show. I saw it for the first time in New York and thought it was dazzling - it was the funniest, most wonderful show and I'm thrilled to be doing it.

How are rehearsals going?

It's a very tricky business being put into a show because you don't start out with it. You're rehearsing with dance captains and stage managers and people like that who are all wonderful, but you don't actually work on the stage with the real actors until the very last second. So there's considerable suspense involved.

You are mostly known as a dramatic actor. Why did you want to do such a broad musical comedy?

That's the lure. The fun of acting is trying to do as many different things as possible. I have done some comedy now and then, but mostly not. So it's a joy actually to be involved in this very, very funny material. Of course Arthur is the one person on stage who doesn't get the jokes.

But "Spamalot" should be familiar in one sense, since you are still the romantic leading man.

Well, sort of, yes.

Are you still mauled by the legions of fans who know your TV work?

I think mauled would be too dramatic a term [laughs]. I'm no longer mauled but a lot of people come up and say hello and say that they've enjoyed everything from "Kildare" and on, but usually it's about "The Thorn Birds."

Are you sad that the great era of TV miniseries has passed?

Yes, I think it's a shame. The audiences have been siphoned off by cable and I don't think anyone can afford it anymore. And I'm not sure in our speeded-up life that people are capable of watching 12 1/2 continuous hours of something.

You've recently come out as gay in 2004 with your book, "Shattered Love: A Memoir." Do you feel that it was an important move for you?

Yes, but it wasn't just about coming out but about a lot of other things, too.

I grew up in the '30s, '40s and '50s when being gay was just not a viable option. Then it was practically the worst thing you could be according to public opinion and I kind of absorbed that sense that it was something terribly wrong with me.

I've been in a relationship for about 32 years, which is wonderful, but there were those lingering doubts about my worthiness. And of course being a romantic leading man, I was in desperate fear of being outed during my career. It wasn't until I wrote this book it was suddenly completely lifted.

So you didn't want to go the route of Noel Coward who never publicly came out because he didn't want to upset all the old matinee ladies who still remembered him as a romantic leading man?

There still was that aspect, and I did receive a few letters saying we're so disappointed. But mostly I found that people were unbelievably accepting.

I'd be walking through an airport and people would come up to me and say, "Good for you." And I would think that 90 percent of the people I've encountered - maybe more - have been very relieved for me.

Have you been typecast since coming out? I know you did a guest spot on "Will and Grace."

Yes, but that character was straight. I've had a number of interesting jobs, particularly on "Desperate Housewives" and that character was gay, but mostly I've played straight parts since then.