Chuck Darrow: Former 'Dukes of Hazzard' star shows stage-acting chops

Posted: February 01, 2013

TO A CERTAIN segment of the population, Tom Wopat will forever be "Luke Duke," one of the lead characters on the 1980s TV series, "The Dukes of Hazzard," which focused on the comical misadventures of a couple of reformed redneck moonshiners. But Wopat's greatest triumphs have occurred about as far - philosophically and artistically - as you can get from formulaic weekly television.

For decades, the 61-year-old actor-singer has been a Broadway mainstay, in a slew of hit musicals and dramas.

He is also an accomplished interpreter of pop songs, as illustrated by "I've Got Your Number," his CD that hits the market Feb. 12. He'll be offering fans a sneak peek Thursday at Bucks County's intimate Sellersville Theater.

During a recent phone chat, Wopat explained the differences between musical theater and non-theatrical vocalizing.

"The main thing I do, is I seldom do [pop songs] the same way twice," he said. "In theater, you have to do it more the same because . . . the band's gonna play it the same way pretty much every time.

"But with my band, there's a lot more flexibility. Sometimes we'll kick something off a little slower, a little faster, and all of a sudden you're in a different groove than you usually do it in. Sometimes that can be a lot of fun."

He added there are emotional differences as well. "Obviously, you have another layer of protection. If you're playing a character, you're not playing yourself. The more yourself you are, the more vulnerable you are."

Wopat's performing career began with school theater programs in his native Wisconsin, both pre-college and at the University of Wisconsin. He had actually been on Broadway - in the musical comedy "I Love My Wife" in 1977 - before becoming something of a pop-culture icon on "Dukes of Hazzard." After the series ended in 1985, he returned to the Great White Way, where he established himself as one of Broadway's brightest lights.

" 'Oklahoma!' is always a favorite," he replied when asked to identify his favorite roles. "[Curly] was one of my favorite guys. Sweeney Todd is a maniac, which is an awful lot of fun to play," he said of the title character of the Stephen Sondheim hit, a mass-murdering barber of Victorian England.

"As for straight [roles], probably the most intense character I ever got to do was [psychiatrist Martin Dysart] in 'Equus.' That was an amazing part."

Wopat, who has a small role in the Oscar-nominated "Django Unchained," said that despite his role as country bumpkin Luke Duke on a show that pretty much defined the phrase "lowest common denominator," he never ran into any credibility problems when he launched his Broadway career in earnest after the sitcom ended its run.

"That was ameliorated because I had already been on Broadway," he reasoned. "The ironic part is that I used to be cast in things like 'City of Angels' - not only because I could do it, but because I could sell tickets because I was a TV star. Now that I haven't done [a lot] of TV the past 20 years, they pass me over for guys who do game shows."

His glittering Broadway resume notwithstanding, Wopat is currently focused on his non-theatrical singing career and on spreading the word about the new album. He likes to speak of the CD in terms of a "Mad Men" vibe - that is, an approach and feel influenced by turn-of-the-'60s big-band pop.

"That's when I grew up. I was born in '51, and I was a teenager in the '60s," he said. "Besides The Beatles, there was Bobby Darin, and Frank [Sinatra]. They had kind of a hybrid big-band/orchestra vibe going on, and that's what we're doing. We've got nine horns and 12 strings on about a half-dozen of the tunes."

Although the approach may be rooted in the time of JFK and tailfinned cars, the disc's repertoire straddles different musical eras. Wopat serves up pre-rock standards like "The Good Life" and "I Won't Dance," but also covers Paul Simon ("The Afterlife"), James Taylor ("The Secret O' Life") and even Bruce Springsteen ("Meeting Across the River").

Live, Wopat, who plays guitar, performs with a bassist and pianist. But, he advised, don't assume it makes for a mellow evening. "A lot of people do cabaret shows. Mine is a little more of a saloon show. We swing a little harder than cabaret," he claimed. "It's gonna swing hard. I promise you that."

But, he suggested, there's more to a Tom Wopat concert than what transpires on stage.

"I show up early and leave late," he bragged. "Anybody who wants to say, 'Hey!' I'll be there after the show, and I'll have the CDs there. I'll probably be out there before the show, too. Who knows?"

Sellersville Theater, 24 W. Temple Ave., $39.50 and $25, 215-257-5808,

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