Interview 53

"Monty Python's Spamalot" Richard Chamberlain's Holy Grail

If you know him as The Thorn Birds' tortured Father Ralph de Bricassart or the dashing musketeer Aramis or, if you go back that far, TV's Dr. Kildare (the original McDreamy), then you might not expect debonair leading man Richard Chamberlain to be leading the lunacy in Monty Python's Spamalot as the clueless but persistent King Arthur. Truth is, he didn't expect it either, and yet there he is, blithely skipping in the spotlight while Arthur's faithful servant, Patsy, claps together a pair of coconut shells to create the hoofbeats for the king's steed that doesn't exist. Chamberlain joined the touring company of the musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail six weeks ago, and though his résumé isn't long on comedy, he's having a ball. "This is so bizarre, so irreverent, so off-the-wall," he says, "it's totally a joy to do." He spoke to the Chronicle in advance of Spamalot's arrival at Bass Concert Hall.

With the tour well under way, you were pretty much parachuting into a combat zone. What was that like?

You don't get to start with the company; you don't get the original director; you don't have the four or five weeks of rehearsal. You spend maybe 2˝ weeks with stage managers and dance captains – who are wonderful, by the way – but then suddenly, you get put into the show with, they call it a put-in [rehearsal], and you're with the real actors and the real sets, and it's utterly terrifying. And the next day, you're in front of the audience, and it is absolutely as scary as can be. But challenging and fun also, and luckily this is a really wonderful company of really sweet people.

Looking out for you?

Yes, yes. The actor playing Patsy had to sort of drag me around and get me to the right place at the right time for the first couple of performances. Now I really love doing it.

You're also jumping from city to city.

The theatres are very different from one city to the next, and you have to get used to that. The audiences have somewhat different personalities, but it's hard to say Peoria was like such and such and Detroit was like such and such, because sometimes the smaller-town audiences really surprise you and are very sophisticated and get all the jokes.

And there are hardcore Monty Python fans in every city.

Yes! It's amazing! Matthew Greer, who plays Lancelot and the French Taunter, almost always gets applause from his first appearance as the French Taunter, even though I'm not sure they're familiar with the actor. They so love that character that they applaud when he comes on.

That must be tricky for the performer: bringing something fresh to a role that people have such a strong memory of without disappointing them. Do you feel that you're walking a tightrope?

It's something that I don't dare even think about. It's like playing My Fair Lady and trying to get rid of the ghost of Rex Harrison, who totally owns that part. You just have to dive in and use your own personality and your own take on the part. When you really sincerely do that, the audience responds very quickly.

You've said that Arthur is the only one who doesn't get the jokes in this absurd world. Are you able to draw on all those serious, stalwart roles you've played to play up that lack of humor?

A little bit. You know, the less you think you're funny, the funnier you are. I learned that from watching Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies. He never, ever, ever, ever let on that he thought he was funny. And it made him hysterically funny. So in a show that's as ridiculous as this is, the more seriously that everybody takes what's happening, the funnier it gets.

© 2009 Austin Chronicle Corp