Interview 57

A few questions with Richard Chamberlain

Richard Chamberlain, who takes the stage next week as King Arthur in "Spamalot," owes the bulk of his fan base not to Monty Python-style irreverence but to dignified melodrama and globe-spanning adventure. He emerged in the 1960s as television's "Dr. Kildare," made hit movies in the '70s and then became king of the miniseries in the '80s with “Shogun,” “The Bourne Identity,” and (be still your beating heart) “The Thorn Birds.” Speaking to us on the phone recently, he was just as genial and charming as legions of admirers would expect.

Were you very aware of "Monty Python" when it was originally on TV?

Yes, I was living in London from '68 through '74, and we were avid fans. We thought they were just miraculously funny.

Any favorite bits?

Well, (laughs), the one that sticks in my mind - I hate to be boring - is the Bureau of Silly Walks. Oh, what an amazing thing!

When they started making the transition to features, what did you think?

Well, I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the features. Matter of fact, the first time I saw the movie that this musical is based on was just a few weeks ago.

How did you like it compared with the play?

Well, I think the musical is about 10 times funnier than the movie.

What's it like filling Tim Curry's shoes? Did you see him do the show?

No, unfortunately. I wanted to see him so badly, but I was never in the right place at the right time. I didn't see the musical until just before Christmas in New York last year. They've had many kings now, and according to what I've heard, they've all been very different.

So there's no temptation, given that the play has been so successful, not to stray too far from the performance fans know.

Oh, no, no, no. With the king, the two kings I've seen, the one in New York and the one who preceded me in the road company, were totally different. And I'm completely different from both of them. The thing about Arthur is he's the only one onstage who doesn't get the jokes. He's fun to play.

Just as "Spamalot" has turned "The Holy Grail" into a musical, one of your most famous television outings, "The Thorn Birds" is being staged as a musical.

I just heard that, about a week ago! I was absolutely bowled over. I can't imagine it. I mean, it would be more of an opera, wouldn't it, than a musical, because it's just one tragedy after another.

Any advice for them as they try to adapt it?

Oh no. I wouldn't dare! I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like.

Well, that's such a trend now, of trying to make musicals from unlikely sources.

They tried to make a musical of "Shogun"! But it didn't work.

© 2009 John DeFore