Interview 49

Richard Chamberlain: It's good to be the King

All you fans of Richard Chamberlain may recall his stormy, steamy characters in "Dr. Kildare" or "The Thornbirds," but that's old school. Chamberlain, a classically trained actor with that unmistakable, wine-rich voice, embraces humor.

Er, make that slapstick. He'd better. He's touring the country in the role of King Arthur in one of the silliest shows to hit the stage, "Monty Python's Spamalot." It opens Tuesday at the King Center for the Performing Arts and runs through March 1.

The production, which won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the 1975 movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." It concerns the nutty exploits of King Arthur and a sidekick as they look for the Holy Grail. They encounter the plague, the Knights of Ni and much more, including God.

And, yes, there are the typical crazy jokes and even sight gags for which the late 1960s and early 1970s "Monty Python's Flying Circus" British television show was known.

Chamberlain, who was beginning a run in Detroit, took a few minutes to discuss this crazy new twist in his career as a dramatic actor.

Is comedy new for you?

I've done comedy now and then. I'm mostly known as a kind of serious guy, but comedy is really fun. I have done a bit here and there.

In "Spamalot," it's just hilarious. It just plays itself. It's such a funny show. In fact, King Arthur is the only person on stage who doesn't get the jokes. He's kind of a straight man.

Was there any other part in the show you wanted to do?

Oh, yes. Matthew Greer, who plays Lancelot and the French Tauntor and Tim floating in the sky and all those parts. He probably has more fun than anyone in the show. Also, the King of the Knights of Ni.

Were you a fan of the "Monty Python" show?

Yes. I was living in England from about 1968 to 1972 and "Monty Python" was very big on TV. We never missed it. I would love to meet them. I would love to live with them.

How do you like touring?

We just started. We played two weeks in Chicago. Tonight will be our second night in Detroit.

How are your audiences?

The audiences have been wonderful, absolutely wonderful. They just love the show. It's kind of great that the show is happening now, especially here in Detroit. That people can come and have this hilariously funny time and leave the theater very happy.

Did you see the show on Broadway?

Mike Nichols (the director) I think is an absolute genius. I wanted to see the show, but I was never in the right place at the right time. I never saw it until a week before Christmas in New York and just loved it. Oh, my God, what a great show. And I knew I was going to be doing it, so it was double pleasure.

What's the hardest part of going into a touring show?

You don't start with the original director or cast or have five weeks of rehearsal. Maybe you have two weeks of rehearsal with the stage managers and dance captains, who are wonderful. Then you are put in, and it's totally terrifying. It was in Peoria (Ill.) or someplace like that, where we pretended it was the real thing. You get one dress rehearsal, and then you go on stage. It's really scary.

Do you like singing?

I've studied singing off and on for years.

How important are the arts and entertainment to today's audiences, especially in light of the recession?

They've always proved to be very helpful giving people a bit of distraction and fun and relief from the rigors of hard times.

What are your fans like?

It's a large fan base that cuts through all demographics. Luckily, things like "The Thornbirds" play every now and then on TV . . . I find that people are getting nicer and nicer. The people who come up to me are so sweet and friendly and I find it a real compliment when people say hello.

How will you spend your week in Brevard County?

It's a funny thing doing a big part in any musical on the road, I find I live a rather monkish life when I'm doing this.

I get up late, exercise, vocalize, eat, prepare, then it's evening show. So I don't get out much. The younger people in the cast, of course, do go out and play at night, but I can't do that. I kind of have to go home and watch David Letterman. If the hotel has a kitchen, I'll do a little shopping and do breakfast and lunch and things like that. It's nice not to eat hotel food.