Interview 47

Five questions with Richard Chamberlain, star of "Monty Python's Spamalot"

Caught in Chicago the morning after playing King Arthur for the first time in "Monty Python's Spamalot," Richard Chamberlain rhapsodizes about the changing of the seasons and freshly fallen snow. Then he gets real. "It's a shock to me," says the 74-year-old actor, who comes to Detroit with the show starting Tuesday. "I'm a thin-blooded Hawaiian. I'm usually painting pictures and sipping Mai Tais at sunset." Chamberlain, who initially made his name on the "Dr. Kildare" TV series half a century ago, has had a surprisingly varied career. He was hailed as king of the network miniseries in the early '80s for his work in "Shogun" and "The Thorn Birds" and has enjoyed film and stage roles in everything from a major revival of "The Sound of Music" to movies as diverse as "The Last Wave" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." The "Spamalot" gig came out of the blue when the touring production found itself short a king for three months. The show will eventually take Chamberlain to warmer climes in Florida and Texas. A musical version of the 1975 cult comedy "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," the show finds Arthur suffering indignities at the hands of mud-caked villagers, snotty French soldiers and even a killer bunny as he searches for the title object. Reviews from the Chicago run have been positive, and Chamberlain has been credited with bringing star power to what will probably be the last full-scale touring production of the show.

Do you still get opening-night jitters?

We had a preview the night before in which I was utterly and totally terrified. Being put in a show is a very tricky thing. It's not like starting out when you have four or five weeks of rehearsal with the actual director and all that stuff. When you're put in a show, you have maybe two or three weeks of rehearsal, mostly with stage managers and dance captains and people like that.

Clay Aiken, who played Sir Robin in the Broadway production last year, said that he thought Monty Python was the name of a single guy. What is your Python experience?

When I was living in London in the late '60s and '70s, Monty Python was very, very big on television. We watched it constantly because it was so funny. So I knew what it was all about. ... I don't think I even saw "The Grail" until someone in the cast showed it to me on DVD. I watched it and think our show is much, much better and much funnier. Mike Nichols, the director, is a genius, and, of course, it's much livelier because of all the music.

You have played some of the great Shakespearean roles, including Hamlet and Richard II. How does your approach to King Arthur differ?

He's a curious guy because the Lady in the Lake has made him king through some great spiritual experience. So he goes traveling around the world, around England, being king, and no one believes him. He has to go around proving himself. He starts out very naive and expecting to enjoy his new celebrity, but instead keeps getting busted over and over again. He hits a kind of low by the second act ... but by the end, he becomes a real mensch.

"Spamalot" usually has local humor thrown in based on where it's playing. What can Detroiters expect?

I haven't even had a chance to look into it. I'm sure someone right now is doing the research for me. ... Here in Chicago, I have a line at the end of the play about (Illinois governor Rod) Blagojevich, but last night, it was told by another actor. He dropped it in before I could. It got a huge laugh, so I sort of had to give it up.

You're king. Did you tell this punk to stay away from your line or you'd turn him into a newt?

No. He did it so well that I didn't want to interfere.