Interview 52

In "Spamalot," he is a regal fool

Since he broke through in the 1950s as the young and handsome Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain has been mostly known for starring in penetrating and romantic dramas.

While most fans would never think of him as a song and dance man, he gallops into Tampa this week (to the clip clop of coconut shells) as King Arthur in "Monty Python's Spamalot," the tongue-in-cheek musical based on the comedy troupe's hit film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

During his recent run in Detroit, Chamberlain answered some questions by phone about the show, his role and his career.

So, is it really good to be king?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. It's wonderful being the king. He's so strong and the whole situation is so odd. He thinks the Lady of the Lake made him king of England and Scotland. He knows it but nobody else knows it.

The show has been touring for a while and you just joined the company. How difficult is it to get into the spirit of things?

Being put in a show is a tricky business. You don't get to rehearse with all the real actors for four weeks. You get two and a half weeks of direction with dance directors and stage managers, who are terrific, but it's not the same. And suddenly, you're put into the show with real actors and real costumes. It's a death-defying experience, but it's been fun and the company is so terrific. I feel like I'm really part of the show now.

Consideri ng your background, most people probably don't think of you as a comedic actor. How different is playing "Spamalot" from the dramas you've done?

I've done comedy now and then professionally. My private life is rather a comedy, but nobody knows that. I'm basically a rather silly person. It's wonderful getting laughs, even if you're the straight man setting up someone else's laughs. It's a wonderful experience and being able to be totally goofy and absurd is a relief after playing something like "Hamlet." Causing laughter is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. It's a communication with the audience that is just terrific.

Five years ago, you published your memoir ("Shattered Love") in which you acknowledged that you were gay. How has your life or career changed since then?

It started out to be a philosophical book. I thought I had learned some things about life, about how we can live our lives a little better, myself included. I didn't know if I was going to talk about being gay or not, but it became evident that I had to. It was a wonderful experience in a way.

When I grew up in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, being gay was just not an option; it was the most horrible thing imaginable in terms of public perception. It was better to pretend to be somebody else. I lived an awful lot of myself that way. You learn by osmosis, like somebody believes that red hair is is the mark of the devil. If you hear that enough, it would affect your idea of yourself. It would get into your bones and blood. This dislike of homosexuality got into my bones.

I have been in a wonderful relationship for like 32 years, but in spite of that, there was this lingering sense of not being good enough, not quite worthy. Until I was 68, and writing the book. I had a moment as if an angel came in and put its hands on my head and said "Enough already." I realized that the fact that I'm gay is a totally benign fact. It's not even very interesting. So, suddenly, after this life with a background of fear and playing romantic leading men all the time, I was on television selling the book. Even Bill O'Reilly, and talking about this with no fear, no self-dislike. It was just a fact. It was a relief beyond words, to realize I had been horsing around with this lie my whole life.

© 2009 Herald Tribune