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Tim Curry Tries On King Arthur's Mantle

Tim Curry's first movie was the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He turned heads as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite mad scientist. This week, Curry opens on Broadway in Spamalot, the musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He plays King Arthur.

21:06

Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 15, 2005: Interview with Tim Curry; Review of the new season of "The shield."

Transcript

DATE March 15, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tim Curry discusses his movie career and his role in
the new Broadway musical, "Spamalot"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")

Mr. TIM CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter) So come up to the lab and see what's
on the slab. I see you shiver with antici--pation.

GROSS: Well, on the slab today we have Tim Curry. We just heard him playing
that `sweet transvestite from Trans Sexual, Transylvania,' Dr. Frank-N-Furter
in a scene from the horror film spoof "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Curry
originated the role of Frank-N-Furter in the 1973 London production, then
starred in the 1975 film, which became an international phenomenon. In
America, there were midnight screenings for years. Audiences came dressed
like the characters and recited the lines along with them.

Where do you go after making your screen debut in a corset and fishnet
stockings? Well, Curry continued his stage career in London and New York and
has appeared in many films, most recently "Kinsey" and "Lemony Snicket's A
Series of Unfortunate Events." Thursday night he opens on Broadway in the
Monty Python musical "Spamalot," based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy
Grail." Curry plays King Arthur. The show was written by former Python Eric
Idle, is directed by Mike Nichols and also stars Hank Azaria and David Hyde
Pierce. Let's hear a song from the forthcoming cast recording. This is a
self-help spoof called "Find Your Grail," featuring Curry and Sara Ramirez.

(Soundbite of "Spamalot")

Ms. SARA RAMIREZ: (Singing) Find your Grail. Find your Grail.

Choir: (Singing) Find your Grail. Find your Grail.

Mr. CURRY: (As King Arthur, singing) When your life seems to drift, when we
all need a lift, trim your sail. You won't fail. Find your Grail. Find your
Grail. Life is really up to you. You must choose what you pursue. Set your
mind on what to find.

Ms. RAMIREZ: (Singing) And there's nothing you can't do, you can't do.

GROSS: That's music from the new Broadway musical "Spamalot."

Tim Curry, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you get the part of King Arthur in
"Spamalot"?

Mr. CURRY: Sort of sideways, really, I guess. I've known Eric Idle a long
time, one of the original Pythons, and he now lives in Los Angeles, as do I,
and so we see each other quite a bit. And in fact, the summer before last, we
were hoping to do a film together which he had written and was going to
direct, which was a kind of demolition of every Miramax movie ever made,
called "The Remains of the Piano." And that never quite happened, because the
money...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CURRY: It's a good title, isn't it?

GROSS: Very good. Very good.

Mr. CURRY: I was going to play the Reverend Whoopsie. And Robin Williams
was going to play Vanessa Redgrave in "Howards End." I loved his lines, which
were stuff like, `You, I haven't met you before. You shall have the teacup
when I go. No, no. No, you shall have the grand piano. Oh, no. No. You
shall have the house.' So that never happened, but he said, `I think it looks
like we are finally going to get to do the musical version of "Monty Python
and the Holy Grail," and we're going to call it "Spamalot." And first of all,
I thought that was just terribly funny. But I also thought, oh, `Well, you
know, I'll believe it when it happens.' And then suddenly Mike Nichols was
directing it, and they put David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria and I and a
couple of other people on a plane from California, and we came into New York.
And we sat down and read it with a bunch of other people from New York, some
of whom are in the play. And it just went like gangbusters, and I guess the
next day I was going to be King Arthur.

GROSS: So "Spamalot" incorporates some classic Monty Python bits in it that I
assume a lot of people in the audience probably know by heart. What kind of
response do you get when you get to the classic parts?

Mr. CURRY: It's quite interesting because the audience always sort of
contains some core of Monty Python fans who see stuff coming, you know, and
react with great whoops of joy and then settle down to see it unfold. I mean,
they're hugely welcoming and then they really want to see it happen. I mean,
happily, they're not talking along with it, because that would, you know, need
a spanking. But they love it and they see it coming, and they are thrilled to
see characters and sketches that they recognize.

GROSS: You knew the Monty Python material.

Mr. CURRY: Yes.

GROSS: And audience knows a lot of the Monty Python material.

Mr. CURRY: Yes.

GROSS: But do you know a lot of the early Nichols and May scripts?

Mr. CURRY: I do. I do. I was always a fan, and so it was sort of very
interesting for me to work with him. And he has--first of all, every note
that you ever get from Mike is preceded by `That was wonderful. That was
wonderful. One small thing...' So you're given this enormous sort of sense
of entitlement and then something tiny and completely accurate is lodged like
a little sort of Navajo arrow in your brain. And his great note, I think,
because I was playing it pretty broadly at the beginning, because so much of
it is like something that we in England call pantomime and sort of is part of
vaudeville really. And his first note and recurring note to me is, `Yes,
that's great, you know. It's very funny. Now let's make it true.' And I
think that's his great gift to this material, is that he's given it a great
big sort of beating Arthurian heart. And that's an extra dimension that you
just sort of don't expect and, of course, also makes it so much more
interesting to play.

GROSS: You're in the middle of the previews process now on Broadway, and
"Spamalot" officially opens on March 17th. So, you know, you're still testing
things. Does it feel like you're in front of a focus group every night,
trying to figure out what works and what doesn't?

Mr. CURRY: That's a great question, actually. It was much more like that in
Chicago. We played for five weeks in Chicago, and we did quite a lot of
tweaking in Chicago. It was sort of interesting because we left for Chicago
two days after Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day, Eric sort of rewrote Act
II, and it's the most extraordinary story. He completely restructured it and
did an enormous amount of rewriting. While everyone else was stuffing their
faces with turkey, he rewrote Act II, and we rehearsed it on Friday, and we
performed it for backers on Saturday and got on a plane on Sunday and, you
know, went into technical rehearsals in Chicago. And it was the most dazzling
rewrite I think I've ever seen, and a lot of it, of course, had to do with,
you know, Mike's restructuring advice. But then in Chicago, you know, we did
quite a bit of tweaking mostly of choreography but some dialogue, too. But
really once we got to New York, we haven't tweaked it much at all.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Curry. He's now starring in the new Monty Python
musical "Spamalot." It opens on Broadway Thursday. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")

Chorus: (Singing) Science fiction, double feature. Dr. X will build a
creature. See androids fighting...

GROSS: My guest is Tim Curry. He plays King Arthur in the new Monty Python
Broadway musical "Spamalot." Curry first became famous for his starring role
in the 1975 cult classic "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" as Dr.
Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist and transvestite from Trans Sexual,
Transylvania. Here he is welcoming two naive strangers, played by Susan
Sarandon and Barry Bostwick.

(Soundbite of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")

Mr. CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter) Magenta, Columbia, go and assist
RiffRaff. I will entertain er... (Laughs)

Mr. BARRY BOSTWICK: Brad Majors. This is my fiancee Janet Vice.

Ms. SUSAN SARANDON: (As Janet Weiss) Weiss.

Mr. BOSTWICK: (As Brad Majors) Weiss?

Mr. CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter) Enchante.

Mr. BOSTWICK: (As Brad Majors) Well...

Mr. CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter) How nice, and what charming underclothes
you both have. But here, put these on. They'll make you feel less
vulnerable. It's not often we receive visitors here, let alone offer them
hospitality.

Mr. BOSTWICK: (As Brad Majors) Hospitality? All we wanted to do was to use
your telephone, dammit, a reasonable request, which you've chosen to ignore!

Ms. SARANDON: (As Janet Weiss) Brad, don't be ungrateful.

Mr. BOSTWICK: (As Brad Majors) Ungrateful!

Mr. CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter) How forceful you are, Brad, such a
perfect specimen of manhood, so dominant.

GROSS: You know, like so many other of your fans, I first saw you in "The
Rocky Horror Picture Show" in the '70s, and when you see somebody in a movie
for the first time, it's sometimes hard to tell how good they are. You don't
know--is this all they can do? Do they do other things, too? Is this what
they're really like, or, you know, how much are they acting? And so I saw
you--I guess it was probably like the late '80s, in "Wiseguy," the TV series.

Mr. CURRY: Yes.

GROSS: And you played a kind of Phil Spector-ish, brilliant but crazy record
producer.

Mr. CURRY: That's right.

GROSS: And a great, really terrific performance, and that's I think when I
really got the picture, `Wow, he's really good at doing all kinds of things.'
So...

Mr. CURRY: That's so nice. I mean, it's sort of important for me, because,
you know, that first performance that sort of introduced me to everybody was
so out there and so...

GROSS: I'll say. Yeah.

Mr. CURRY: ...so kind of outrageous that, you know, I was a very quiet boy
for a while, you know, just to make sure that people got it, that, you know,
that wasn't necessarily who I was.

GROSS: Was that because of...

Mr. CURRY: It was my first movie, you know.

GROSS: That was your first movie?

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you get the part?

Mr. CURRY: I got the part because I used to work a great deal at a theater
in London called The Royal Court, and I guess they have a little theater
upstairs which seats about 60 people, and I did Brecht there, and I did a sort
of Rudyard Kipling show there. And I guess the next show, I did a dreadful
musical, a Marxist musical called "Give the Gafferstein to Love You"(ph) with
a director who kept saying, `Barry, the second act just simply isn't Marxist
enough.' And that, of course, never even opened to the critics, but the next
show coming in was this other musical called "The Rocky Horror Show," and
originally I played Frank-N-Furter as though he was German. (With German
accent) I was Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and everything was very interesting and
stupid. And then one day I heard a woman on a bus saying, `Do you have house
in town or a house in the country?' And I thought, `Yes, he should sound like
the queen.'

GROSS: (Laughs) Oh, that's great.

Mr. CURRY: So he should sound like the queen. But that's how it happened,
and it just started in this tiny theater, you know, and it just took off like
a sort of rocket.

GROSS: Did you like the kind of cheap horror films that it in part parodied?

Mr. CURRY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Richard's brilliance really was just,
you know--it was really like reaching up a hand into the Zeitgeist and just
grabbing, you know, '50s horror movies, Sandra Dee, comic books and '50s
rock 'n' roll and just hurling them all together with, you know, some fishnet
tights thrown in. And the fishnet tights really, you know, came from a
brilliant costume designer called Sue Blane, who I'd worked with before,
actually, in a wonderful theater in Scotland called the Glasgow Citizens'
Theater where we did a production of "The Maids" where I wore exactly
that corset.

GROSS: The Jean Genet part?

Mr. CURRY: Yeah, the Jean Genet play. I played Solange, and we bought
the corset for three pounds off a barrow in the market in Glasgow and wore it
back to Brunt(ph).

GROSS: That's funny. You'd be wearing for, like, this transgressive
playwright Genet...

Mr. CURRY: Well, absolutely.

GROSS: ...and then this kind of parody of everything, "Rocky Horror."

Mr. CURRY: Absolutely.

GROSS: Well, there's probably nothing that can get you into character quickly
like black bikini briefs, fishnet stockings, the garter belt, the corset, the
whole thing.

Mr. CURRY: Well, absolutely. And that was a fairly late development. I
mean, I had no idea it was going to be like that until, you know...

GROSS: You didn't when you accepted the part?

Mr. CURRY: No, no, no, no. No. I thought I'd be in a white lab coat, you
know. It was a bit of a shock.

GROSS: So how did it all evolve then?

Mr. CURRY: Well, it evolved because it was much funnier that way. And, I
mean, I thought the great gag about, you know, the way that we all looked
was--and I've always said this to anybody who's ever asked me about playing
Frank-N-Furter if they were playing it, you know. So just never think about
it as drag, because it's not. It's just what people wear in Transylvania.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. CURRY: You know, it's just what everybody wears in Transylvania, so just
get over it, you know. It's truck driver drag. It's not about going boop
boop be doop. It's just what they happen to wear.

GROSS: I think the thing I found most amazing about the whole phenomenon of
"Rocky Horror" was watching, like, the 12-year-olds outside the theater
parading around in their transvestite clothes, because they're all--there were
just, like, all these 12-year-olds outside the theater imitating you in your
get-up. And you had to just kind of ask yourself, what is going on here?
What do the 12-year-olds make of it? I mean, are they going through some kind
of gender thing, or do they just love the movie? Like, what is this about?

Mr. CURRY: I think it's all of the above, actually. I mean, I think first
of all, they love the movie because it's daring. To pretty much everybody it
was daring at the time, less daring now. To them it's daring. And it's also,
I think--you know, there are several reasons why it's endured the way that it
has. It's a kind of rite of passage now, I think, and actually, first of all,
it's a guaranteed weekend party to which you can go with or without a date and
probably find one if you don't have one. And it's also, I think, a chance for
people to try on a few roles for size, you know, help them maybe figure out
their own sexuality. I mean, I think that's probably taking it a little
deeper than it needs to go, but I think it has had a useful purpose in that
way. And I've certainly had some very interesting and moving mail from people
who've said, you know, `Thanks for helping me figure out who I was,' you know,
and that's very nice.

GROSS: Did you ever go to one of, like, the midnight screenings back in the
'70s and watch the movie with the people who were reciting along? And when
they would make a toast on screen, people would, like, throw toast, you know,
at the screen.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, the whole bit. It became an incredibly participatory
experience for the people who came to see it time and time again.

Mr. CURRY: I did go. I went a couple of times. Oddly enough, it started
happening at the Waverly Theater...

GROSS: In Manhattan, in the Village.

Mr. CURRY: ...on Sixth Avenue in the Village, and ironically, I was living a
block behind it on Jones Street.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

Mr. CURRY: So I would see on my way home all these people, and, you know, I
got to know about it rather quickly because I was a neighbor.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. CURRY: And finally, I went to see it, and in fact, I had to sort of call
the theater because, you know, you could never get in. And I said, you know,
`I'm in it, and I'd really love to come and see it and get an eyeful.' And
the operator said, `You're the third Tim Curry to call this week.' So finally
I showed up, and they sort of believed me and took me in, and the word spread
rather swiftly, and people were sort of coming up and touching me and running
away and giggling. And it was a very, very peculiar experience. And then
finally the usher--the usherette; I don't know what you call them really;
that's what they call them in England--came and sort of dragged me out of my
seat and announced that I was an imposter and threw me out of the theater,
which is...

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. CURRY: ...quite funny, really. So I actually had...

GROSS: Did you protest?

Mr. CURRY: Well, I actually had my passport on me, and I pulled it out and
said, `Still think I'm an imposter?' And she said, `Oh, Mr. Curry, I'm so
sorry. Please come back in.' And I said, `I wouldn't dream of coming back
in.' And I saw it once on the Strip in LA because I was doing a gig there
with my band when I was making records, and I took them up to the balcony to
see it, and I remember my drummer coming out and saying, `We don't have to
dress up like that, do we?' And I said, `No, you really don't, and I shan't
be, either.'

But it was odd. I mean, it's a very peculiar experience. I mean, the first
person to actually shout back in the theater was David Bowie's first wife,
Angie.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CURRY: I remember when Bowie came and he brought this huge entourage and
she was with him. And when Richard O'Brien was about to kill me, she shouted,
`No, no! Don't do it!' And so I guess she was one of the first people to
sort of do that, and Marc Shaiman, who's the sort of famous composer now, was
one of the first to actually talk back in the Waverly. I think he began it
here in New York, and now, of course, it's everywhere.

GROSS: Tim Curry will be back in the second half of the show. He's now
starring in the Monty Python musical "Spamalot." It opens on Broadway
Thursday.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")

Mr. CURRY: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter, singing) How do you do? I see you've
met my faithful handyman. He's just a little brought down, because when you
knocked, he thought you were the candyman. Don't get strung out by the way
I look. Don't judge a book by its cover. I'm not much of a man by the light
of day, buy by night I'm one hell of a lover. I'm just a sweet transvestite
from Trans Sexual, Transylvania. Let me show you around and maybe...

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of "Spamalot")

Chorus: (Singing) Camelot...

GROSS: Song from the new Broadway musical "Spamalot." Coming up, we continue
our conversation with one of the show's stars, Tim Curry. And TV critic David
Bianculli looks ahead to the new season of "The Shield."

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tim Curry. He stars as
King Arthur in the new musical "Spamalot," based on the film "Monty Python and
the Holy Grail." It opens on Broadway Thursday.

Curry became famous for his starring role in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Recently, he's been in "Kinsey" and "Lemony Snicket's
A Series of Unfortunate Events." He's also done voices for many animated
films, including "The Wild Thornberrys," in which he played Nigel Thornberry,
an English animal lover who travels the world making nature documentaries with
his family. Here he is out in the savanna, talking with his daughter as he
prepares to leave for a few days.

(Soundbite of "The Wild Thornberrys")

Mr. CURRY: (As Nigel Thornberry) We'll be gone until after the eclipse. Will
you be all right with Donnie?

"DONNIE": (Making chattering noises)

"DEBORAH": Are you kidding? This will be the highlight of my young life.

Mr. CURRY: (As Nigel Thornberry) That's the spirit, poodles.

"DEBORAH": Dad, have you completely lost your ability to recognize sarcasm?

Mr. CURRY: (As Nigel Thornberry) I'm not sure I ever had it, Deborah(ph).
Now stay close to camp. If you're lucky, you might see a hyena roving about.

"DEBORAH": Excuse me while I go find a container for my joy.

Mr. CURRY: (As Nigel Thornberry) Very well. We'll wait right here. Oh,
that's sarcasm, isn't it? You do that rather frequently, don't you?

"DEBORAH": (Sighs)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Tim Curry.

Now your father was a chaplain in the British navy.

Mr. CURRY: Yes.

GROSS: What did your parents think of your role in "Rocky Horror"?

Mr. CURRY: Well, he, alas, was dead, because he died when I was 12.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. CURRY: So he wasn't even aware that I was an actor even. I think my
mother--who, you know, is really like one of those sort of "Monty Python"
ladies, you know, (Imitating his mother) `Oh, I can't imagine what's going
on,' you know, who always had a hat. And since my first job in the theater
was "Hair" and, you know...

GROSS: And you were probably naked in that, right?

Mr. CURRY: ...and I did appear naked in it, I think, you know, it was a
relief to her that I actually was wearing clothes of any kind in "The Rocky
Horror Show."

GROSS: At least you were covered by a corset and garters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURRY: She was happily unaware that part of the character, particularly
of Frank-N-Furter at his most gracious, was based on her. That was
actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: In what way?

Mr. CURRY: Well, it was sort of her telephone voice, you know. (Imitating
his mother) `Do you have any tattoos, Brad?' My sister, when she saw it, fell
on the floor and said, you know, `Does she know?' and I said, `No, she has
absolutely no idea, and please don't tell her.' She thought it was very, very
amusing and brought all her friends. So she was a pretty hip lady, my mother,
and she got it, I mean, you know, astonishingly. She loved it.

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. CURRY: She didn't like it as much as "The Pirates of Penzance," which I
did at Drury Lane, because the Queen Mother came to that and that, you know,
was the total seal of approval of my career.

GROSS: And I would bet that the Queen Mother did not go to "Hair" or "Rocky
Horror."

Mr. CURRY: I didn't think she went to either. Although, Princess Margaret
did come to "Rocky Horror" and had a wonderful time.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CURRY: And so did prince--and Princess Diana actually requested to meet
me, because she was such a "Rocky Horror" fan.

GROSS: So did you ever meet Princess Diana?

Mr. CURRY: I did actually meet Princess Diana. I was doing a production of
"Love for Love," and it was taken to Vienna for British Week and we played at
the Burgtheater. And Prince Charles and Princess Diana were the guests of
honor, and--which was when she said that she very much wanted to meet me, and
so they sort of put me at the end of the receiving line. And Prince Charles
said, (Imitating Prince Charles) `I think I've seen you on television.
Haven't I seen you on television?' (In normal voice) I said, `Yes, actually,
you've seen me on television.' (Imitating Prince Charles) `Yes, I'd thought
I'd seen you on television.'

(In normal voice) But Diana said, `You were in "The Rocky Horror Show."' And
I said, `Yes, ma'am, I was. I was, but I'm sure that you haven't seen it.'
She said, `Oh, yes. It quite completed my education.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURRY: She's a very funny girl, and a very beautiful one and sort of
the--a very wicked smile came with that sentence. She was great fun, and the
world is poorer without her.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Curry, and he's now starring in the Broadway musical
"Spamalot," which is based on the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Now, you know, just in the sense of range that you have as an actor--OK, your
first movie is "Rocky Horror." The most recent film I saw you in was
"Kinsey," in which...

CURRY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you've gone from being, like, in the corset to literally playing a
stuffed shirt.

Mr. CURRY: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Because, you know, your character in "Kinsey"...

Mr. CURRY: The irony of which...

GROSS: Yeah. Your character in "Kinsey" is the professor who opposes
Kinsey's research. He opposes Kinsey's approach to teaching about sexuality.
He doesn't want any of this to get anymore funding, and he's a very kind of,
like, formal and uptight person.

Mr. CURRY: Well, he is the conservative opposition, really...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CURRY: ...and historically was the conservative opposition in Indiana.
And I think the irony of casting me in the part was not lost on Bill Condon,
who's, you know, an old friend and wanted to do two things: one, let me
fulfill a cherished ambition to actually get to play an American on film,
because they don't, you know, let you; and also, I think he wanted to sort of
subvert--he wanted somebody who, I think, could find some kind of subtle,
hopefully, comedy in the role without undermining the conservative argument,
which was, you know, a really interesting thing to do.

GROSS: You've done a lot of animated films and television series. How did
that become such a central part of your work?

Mr. CURRY: Well, the animation thing happened kind of by accident. A very
nice man called Gordon Hunt, who's the father of Helen Hunt, the actress, and
a wonderful director, was directing animated cartoons at Hanna-Barbera. And
they were doing a series of Bible stories, and he wanted me to play the snake.
So I played the snake and had a lot of fun, and I said, `Look, you know, when
the tour's over, I'm actually going to move to LA and I'd love to do some more
of this. And will you, you know, at least audition me for things when you
have them?'

And he did. He was very faithful. And he would just say, you know, `Come in
and read,' and I'd come in and read. And I started doing a lot of animation
and loving it. And the great thing about it--I mean, apart from just the fun
of it, is that, you know, if you're in Los Angeles, you know, waiting for
movies, it can get very dull. And you can just, you know, show up to an
animation studio and you don't have to look good, you don't have to be shaved
or anything, you know, and you get to play all these people that you'd never,
ever get to play in real life.

GROSS: So what are some of the voices you've done for these animations?

Mr. CURRY: Oh, all sorts of things. I did--(Speaking as Captain Hook) I did
Captain Hook (in normal voice) for "Peter Pan & The Pirates." I did (Speaking
as Nigel Thornberry) Nigel Thornberry for "The Wild Thornberrys." And Nigel
Thornberry is sort of an eccentric English explorer. (In normal voice) I do
Professor Calamitous in a show called "Jimmy Neutron," who's a terrible
rip-off of Truman Capote basically. (Speaking as Professor Calamitous) `He
talks like that. And he's very tiny.' (In normal voice) And I actually met
Truman Capote at Studio 54, so I get to do him quite faithfully, really.

GROSS: Have you done him--did you ever do him to him?

Mr. CURRY: I didn't ever do him to him, although I was actually offered that
show about him, which I was foolish enough to turn down and Robert Morse did
so brilliantly. He was an extraordinary character, and at one point, I was
going to make a film of one of his sort of novellas, and that never happened.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Curry. He's now starring in the Monty Python musical
"Spamalot," which opens on Broadway Thursday. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Chorus: Ah, ah, ah. Ah, ah, ah. Ah, ah, ah.

Unidentified Singer: If you trust in your soul, keep your eyes on...

GROSS: My guest is Tim Curry. He starred in the 1975 cult classic "The Rocky
Horror Picture Show," and is now starring as King Arthur in the Monty Python
musical "Spamalot," which opens on Broadway Thursday.

Now you grew up in England. Your father was a chaplain in the navy.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you religious when you were growing up?

Mr. CURRY: Rather not, as preachers' kids tend not to be, you know. I mean,
my father was pretty chill about all of that. I mean, he wasn't--Methodism in
England is a lot more relaxed than it is in the States. And it's not as
forbidding or as chilly. And he was a very liberal and a very funny man. But
you know, I did willy-nilly show up, you know, to Sunday school morning and
afternoon and went to hear him preach when he was onshore, because he was
quite often at sea. And I spent my childhood in sort of various sort of naval
bases until--he died when I was quite young, when I was 12, and we moved to
south London and I went to boarding school.

But it--and I actually went to a school that was founded by John Wesley, I
mean, who founded Methodism and, you know, the school, I think, started in
1784 or something and was founded for the sons of Methodist ministers. So I
went to a fairly kind of churchy school, which had also turned out to be very
kind of relaxed and liberal, and I was a cheerful agnostic, really, you know,
from then on.

GROSS: Still a cheerful agnostic?

Mr. CURRY: Still a cheerful agnostic.

GROSS: Did you have to go to church, and did you sing a lot in church?

Mr. CURRY: Well, that was the great bonus, because the Methodist Church has a
remarkable body of hymns, largely--a great number of them by Charles Wesley.
And so I sang in church from about--I don't know--six or seven, and I was--you
know, I was a real boy soprano for--you know, until my voice changed.

GROSS: It changed a lot, didn't it?

Mr. CURRY: It did change quite a whole lot. I was very lucky because there
was--I had a great music teacher who sent away to Westminster Choral School
for exercises when my voice started breaking because, you know, so often
people with wonderful soprano voices end up with no mature singing voices at
all. And I managed to make that transition, happily.

And it's funny. When I was doing--I don't know whether this is interesting.
When we were doing "Pirates of Penzance" and I had my first singing lessons,
really, the lady who was doing them said, you know, `We must work on your
falsetto and get your range up.' And I said, `I don't have a falsetto,' and
she said, `Oh, nonsense. Everyone has a falsetto.' And I said, `No, I really
don't.' And she made me find one. And she suddenly had this revelation one
day and she said, `Were you a boy soprano?' and I said, `Yes, I was.' And she
says, `Hmm. You're in mourning for that sound, aren't you?' And I realized
that I was. I mean, it is of great sadness not to be able to make that
extraordinary pure sound that you do make as a boy soprano. And I guess I
just...

GROSS: That's actually really interesting. Yeah.

Mr. CURRY: It is. It's fascinating, isn't it? I think I just, you know, cut
off that alley, as it were.

GROSS: But you kept singing, didn't you?

Mr. CURRY: I kept singing, yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: So did you go to, like, the loud, gruff rock band kind of singing
afterwards?

Mr. CURRY: Well, no, actually. I mean, you know, at 17 or 18, I was singing
lieder and you know, I was singing sort of classical music, really.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. CURRY: But then I guess, you know, The Beatles happened, and it was all
over.

GROSS: So what kind...

Mr. CURRY: That and Marlboro, you know.

GROSS: Marlboro cigarettes? Oh.

Mr. CURRY: It's funny, because I actually--yes. I actually quit smoking a
year ago, and it was fascinating because within three weeks, my voice went
back up a tone and a half, and I remembered--and I heard the voice that I
remembered myself singing in when I was 19 or 20.

GROSS: Huh.

Mr. CURRY: It's very odd and it's a great warning to anyone to stay away
from the demon tobacco, stupid drug that it is.

GROSS: Now I've read that you not only love Billie Holiday, but that you do
Billie Holiday. And I wasn't sure whether that meant that you sing a lot of
songs associated with her, or whether you can do a good Billie Holiday
impression.

Mr. CURRY: Well, both, I hope. I don't know. I did a film for television in
England called "Blue Money," where I played, you know, an impressionist, and I
did a few singers, including Billie Holiday. Who else did I do? I did Ray
Charles and I did Elvis and--I don't know. Yes, I do do Billie Holiday.
Whether you would want to hear it now, I sort of doubt.

GROSS: Well, you'd be wrong, because I'd love to hear it, if you were game.

Mr. CURRY: Oh, OK. (Singing as Billie Holiday) Them that got shall give them
that's not shall live, so the Bible says. It still is known Mama may have,
Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own.

(In normal voice) Oh, it's much too early in the morning for this.

GROSS: Did her singing influence you a lot, even though it's...

Mr. CURRY: Oh, hugely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CURRY: I didn't listen to anybody else for about two years when I was 18.
I was just, you know, this awful depressive teen-ager listening to Billie
Holiday and wondering, you know, which gloomy Sunday I was going to throw
myself under a car.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. CURRY: You know how it is.

GROSS: Which period were you mostly listening to of her?

Mr. CURRY: Mostly the really early stuff.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CURRY: I find the latest stuff very...

GROSS: Because you were singing in the later voice.

Mr. CURRY: ...very unhappy.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GROSS: That's the voice you were just doing there.

Mr. CURRY: Well, I was singing the later voice because, of course, I'm
singing eight times a week and...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CURRY: ...I don't quite have the control over my voice that I do.
Really, it doesn't actually sort of start to warm up until evening. It's
weird when you do a musical, because you sing so hard and so regularly that
your voice kind of goes into shock until it actually has to be produced for
that evening.

GROSS: Did you always know that you had that ability to mimic?

Mr. CURRY: Yes, I think you know you have it or you don't. Hank Azaria, who
is...

GROSS: Hank Azaria.

Mr. CURRY: ...in this show, is an absolutely dazzling mimic; can do anybody.
You sort of have an ear or you don't, I think. And I think, you know, a lot
of it has to do with amusing other children when you're young and, you know,
getting out of being hit.

GROSS: Right. Was that effective for you?

Mr. CURRY: I think it's effective for all childhood comedians. I think it's,
you know, the root of a great deal of comedy.

GROSS: Well, one last question about "Spamalot" before we go.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GROSS: Is the song "Spam," the Monty Python classic "Spam," in the show?

Mr. CURRY: Well--What?--(Singing) Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CURRY: It is as part of a whole other song called "Knights of the Round
Table," in which a giant tin of Spam is actually produced and paraded around.
Spam, the makers of Spam, of course, are over the moon and very, very thrilled
by this whole development, and have actually brought out a special edition of
Spam, which you can probably find at your local supermarket.

GROSS: What luck.

Mr. CURRY: I know. Who knew? Very, very special luncheon meat.

GROSS: Well, Tim Curry, I wish you really good luck with "Spamalot." Thank
you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you very much, indeed. My pleasure.

GROSS: Tim Curry stars as King Arthur in the Monty Python musical "Spamalot."
It opens on Broadway Thursday. Here's another song from the forthcoming cast
recording.

(Soundbite of "Knights of the Round Table")

Unidentified Woman: (Scats) like (scats).

Unidentified Man: (Scats)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They're Knights of the Round Table.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) They dance whenever they're able.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, they're knights.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Not days, but knights.

Unidentified Man and Unidentified Woman: (Singing in unison) Not dawn, not
dusk, not late afternoon, but Knights of the Round Table, round table, round
table, round table, round table.

Chorus: (Singing) Round table, round table, round table, round table.

Try your luck in Camelot. Run amok in Camelot. It doesn't suck in Camelot.

(Soundbite of video game noises)

Chorus: (Singing) We won!

(Soundbite of music and laughter)

Chorus: (Singing) We're Knights of the Round Table. We dance whenever we're
able. We do routines and gory scenes that are too hot for cable. We eat ham
and jam. We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot. Spamalot!

GROSS: Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on the new season of "The
Shield," which starts tonight.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New season of "The Shield" featuring Michael Chiklis and
Glenn Close
TERRY GROSS, host:

Two weeks ago, "NYPD Blue" said goodbye. Last week in the same Tuesday night
time slot, "Blind Justice" said hello. TV critic David Bianculli says that if
you weren't impressed by ABC's cop show replacement in that hour, he has a
better idea.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

For a few million viewers, the FX cop series "The Shield" is no secret at all.
It's been around for three complete seasons already, and its star, Michael
Chiklis, was so dynamic as rogue detective Vic Mackey that he won an Emmy his
first time out. Not only that, but the cable channel FX used "The Shield" to
establish Tuesday nights as a quality TV showcase, rotating shows the way HBO
does on Sundays. In 2002, FX launched "The Shield." A year later, it
introduced "Nip/Tuck," an audacious show about plastic surgeons. Last year,
FX presented "Rescue Me," starring Denis Leary as a psychologically wounded
New York firefighter post-9/11.

And though FX will continue its roll-out pattern of one new drama a year by
unveiling another freshman series this summer, the news for now, beginning
tonight, belongs to "The Shield." This evening's fourth season premiere
welcomes an additional regular to the cast, an actress who will spend the
entire season playing the new captain at Vic Mackey's precinct. That actress
is Glenn Close. Even though Close is a movie star with "Fatal Attraction" and
"The Big Chill" as part of her long and impressive resume, the fact that she's
doing television is neither surprising, nor unprecedented. Some of her very
best work has been done for the small screen. One of her earliest
performances, before she broke into movies as Robin Williams' mother in "The
World According to Garp," was in the wonderful telemovie "Too Far To Go,"
opposite Blythe Danner and Michael Moriarty. She also played Ted Danson's
wife in the controversial and classy drama about incest, "Something About
Amelia." More recently, she starred with Christopher Walken in the very
popular "Sarah, Plain and Tall," and was directed by Christopher Reeve in
HBO's "In The Gloaming."

But this is the first time she's joined a weekly TV series, and she did so
because the show's creator, Shawn Ryan, persuaded her that both "The Shield"
and her character were worthy of a full season commitment. She agreed. And
beginning tonight, she plays Monica Rawling, a sort of American equivalent of
Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect." That's very high praise, and based on the
first few episodes, Close deserves it. Her character has a sense of humor,
swears a lot, has no problem rousting gang toughs on the street and has her
own agenda. She doesn't know quite what to make of Vic Mackey at first, and
it's mutual. When she accompanies Vic on a trip to try to get information out
of an ex-con hanging with a tough crowd, it isn't long before Captain Rawling
gets involved and starts hassling and patting down the suspect.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, yo!

Unidentified Man #2: What up?

Unidentified Man #1: Somebody offed a family at the Pavo Riyale(ph). They
drowned them in the tub and took the little kid.

Unidentified Man #2: First I'm hearing it.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah? I know you maggots use that motel like it's a
frat house. Now you give us back the boy alive and I won't burn your cash cow
to the ground.

Unidentified Man #3: Man, we ain't been to that spot for a minute, man.

Unidentified Man #4: You want to step to it, brother, get your facts
straight.

Ms. GLENN CLOSE: (As Monica Rawling) Hey, big man. You want to get into it?
Come over here. What's your name?

TIGON(ph): Tigon.

Ms. CLOSE: (As Monica Rawling) Turn around, Tigon. Put your hands on your
head.

TIGON: Still jousting and rousting.

Ms. CLOSE: (As Monica Rawling) Yeah. Well, I wouldn't be surprised if I ran
in your old man.

TIGON: I never knew my father.

Ms. CLOSE: (As Monica Rawling) Yeah, well, I bet I did. What's this? Are
you on probation, Tigon?

TIGON: Yes, ma'am.

Ms. CLOSE: (As Monica Rawling) And you're carrying a knife? When you going
to get it right?

TIGON: Never!

BIANCULLI: The only flaw with "The Shield" since it started has been that
Michael Chiklis, as an actor, is such a demanding pace car. CCH Pounder, as
a detective who was denied the captain's seat for being too moral, was the
other only truly riveting player in the precinct. And the guest stars,
especially for the first few years, weren't even worthy of being sparring
partners with a talent as explosive as Chiklis. But Close is every bit his
match; so much so that she comes to "The Shield" quietly, playing her role
with an understatement that says the same thing of her character and herself:
`I don't have to come out with guns blazing. There's plenty of time to show
what I can do.'

And what she does here, from the moment she first hits the screen and trades
dialogue with Chiklis, makes it obvious that these two are having a great time
stepping into the ring together. It'll take a while to let the simmering
issues and conflicts unfold. On the better dramas--and "The Shield" is one of
those--it always does. For three years now, "The Shield" has done just fine
without Glenn Close, but now that it has her, even on a one-year loan, there's
no question it'll raise its game and do even better. If you're still mourning
the loss of "NYPD Blue" on Tuesdays, there's no better place to turn; same
time, different channel.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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