Interview 50

Chatting with Richard Chamberlain

Television and stage icon Richard Chamberlain says he's having a great time on stage every night. Currently leading the cast in the national tour of Monty Python's Spamalot, the esteemed actor is garnering rave reviews across the nation as King Arthur in the hit musical "lovingly ripped off" from the classic 1975 comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Chamberlain took time out from the tour to chat about having fun with Spamalot, his performing highs and lows, and his advice to gay actors.

What inspired you to take the role as King Arthur in Spamalot?

Well, I wanted desperately to see the show, because I think the Pythons are brilliant and Mike Nichols - the director - is a genius. So I got to see the show in New York and just loved it.

And it was this mad, off-the-wall craziness. I haven't had the chance to do much comedy in my career, for whatever reason, so I really wanted to do this show.

What's your favorite part of being in the show?

There is a scene with the Black Knight with chopping off his arms and legs, and it is just the most bizarre and insane thing that I've ever seen. I just love doing that scene every night!

Musical theatre is not a new venture for you - you've had leads in My Fair Lady and Sound of Music, you toured nationally in Scrooge and you even starred in Company for PBS back in the late 70s. Is musical theatre one of your passions?

Not really, curiously enough. I really enjoyed playing in King and I and Company, but you could play me a song from a musical, and I wouldn't know what show it was from. I think My Fair Lady and Sound of Music are both brilliant shows.

And lot of people of my generation - I'm in my early 40s - don't remember, but you had top-selling albums during your rise to fame as Dr. Kildare. Was it difficult to balance those two career paths being a television star and a pop star?

I don't know what you mean by a "pop star." I believe the success of the songs was because of Dr. Kildare. I wouldn't have had that success if it wasn't for the television show.

You've created several iconic roles in your career: Dr. Kildare, plus starring roles in the miniseries Shogun, Thorn Birds, Centennial. As an actor, do you find it a positive or a limiting asset to have been so strongly identified with a particular role - or in the case of miniseries, a particular entertainment genre?

Because of Dr. Kildare, it would have been a limited problem in America. I was this popular guy that was in everyone's living rooms every week, so I went to England for four years. And I got to do a lot of classic roles there.

You starred in Hamlet while in London...

Chamberlain as Hamlet
(photo courtesy richard-

Hamlet was especially scary, and I turned down the role initially. I was cast at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre because they needed someone who was "box office." I studied with teachers there in London that told me I shouldn't do it. So I told them "no."

(Laughing) Then I woke up in the middle of the night and decided I just had to do the role. So I called them and said I'd do it if I could have several weeks to rehearse and work with the director on the role.

And I thought I was safe, being out at Birmingham. And I don't know the London critics got wind of the show, but everyone in the show knew they were coming to opening night. And they were coming for blood - "how dare this fair-haired Yank, who is this pretty boy..."

So opening night, the tension in the theatre was so thick you could just touch it. And I was just terrified. I was so scared during the first couple of scenes, and then I got my footing and the critics thankfully liked the show.

You've won two Golden Globes and a People's Choice Award and had several Emmy nominations - all for your work in television. Plus, you've created many iconic characters for film, and you have a long pedigree of high-level stage credits. Do you prefer one performance medium over another?

(correcting me) It's three Golden Globes, I think. Film and stage are so different. You have different ways of approaching each. But I think that the most rewarding is theatre. Film is wonderful, but getting to take the audience on the journey with you, and not having to do things out of order and choppy (as you would in film), that's more rewarding.

I've read many accounts of the experience of trying to bring the musical of Breakfast at Tiffany's to Broadway. I have to ask - just how torturous was the experience?

(laughing) Well, it was fun for a couple of months. I was na´ve, and I thought it was going well. The Philadelphia audiences were very nice, but the reviews were not. And then we got to Boston, and I got wind that it wasn't good. The gypsies (in the cast) all knew the show was in trouble, but I didn't. So they brought in Edward Albee to rework the show, and he made it this dark musical. So by the time we got to New York, it was so dark and the audiences just hated it. They weren't ready for a dark musical.

I remember Mary (Tyler Moore, Chamberlain's leading lady in the show) going into the wings to cry between scenes - it was just awful. We closed after four days of previews, and we never got to have our opening night. They had an enormous advance in ticket sales, but it was just heartbreaking.

But the New York people were so wonderful. I remember people like Angela Landsbury coming over to give us hugs and saying things like "it's good that you had this experience, that you got it out of the way early."

In your autobiography, you said that you hid your sexuality in order to have a career. Do you still think that's still necessary in the entertainment business?

That's a tough question. I think that if a young actor with a leading role or at a major point in his career asked me if he should come out, I'd have to say "no." Because it's too hard for audiences to understand. They just don't get it.

You mean the general public understanding and accepting a gay actor playing a straight leading man?

Right. It worked well for me (to be in the closet). It was wonderful to make love to Rachel Ward in The Thornbirds - she was so beautiful, and just a wonderful person.

What would be a benchmark moment to change that public perception?

If people would finally grow up. Humans are not very smart, and social change is glacial. That's why I went to England. Over there, they are not hung up on those things.

It's like the Pythons - they are not hung up on gender. That's what a lot of their comedy is about. The British thinks it's funny, you know. The men over there are not hung up on being macho.

Of all your roles, which was your favorite?

That's hard to say. I did a show with Dixie Carter called Fathers and Sons. I was Wild Bill Hickok and she was Calamity Jane. It was a really fun show and a great time.

I really enjoyed playing Cyrano (on stage). And Blackthorne in Shogun - that was probably my most powerful role, and the whole show was just so beautiful.

And what role have you always wanted to play that is still on your wish list?

I don't know - I think Prospero is a role that I'd really like to play!

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