It was hard not to guffaw when producers of the “Camelot” musical’s national tour made an announcement back in May.
In the role of King Arthur, leading the Lerner and Loewe musical, esteemed British actor Michael York was dropping out. Donning the crown (and shoulder-length wig) in his stead: “La Bamba” star and 1980s heartthrob Lou Diamond Phillips.
What?! The knee-jerk response was something along the lines of, “That’s like replacing Sir Ian McKellen with Scott Baio in 'King Lear.’ ”
Perhaps that was a bit hasty. After all, Phillips himself points out, he does have a college degree in theater. And the 45-year-old actor, born in Texas and probably most recently seen as a recurring character on TV’s “Numb3rs,” did get a Tony Award nomination with “The King and I” in 1996.
Decide for yourself when he brings the tour to Tempe on Tuesday for a weeklong run, transforming Gammage Auditorium into the medieval land where a love triangle between King Arthur, his wife, Guenevere (played by Rachel York), and Sir Lancelot (James Barbour) births such memorable show tunes as “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and “I Loved You Once in Silence.”
Phillips didn’t step blindly into the role.
“Interestingly enough,” Phillips says, “the director (of 'Camelot’), Glenn Casale, talked to me about this project — might’ve been about four years ago. They saw me on Broadway. I think they were looking for a dumb actor who would be willing to follow (original 1960 Broadway star) Richard Burton.”
With three young daughters, though, Phillips says he demurred then. Last year, they asked him to reconsider.
These days, Phillips seems refreshingly at peace with his career arc — “La Bamba” in ’87 sparked a short roller coaster of roles in 1988’s “Stand and Deliver” and subsequent “Young Guns” and its sequel, and roles have since grown more sparse and, well, eclectic.
Mostly, he’s glad to have the jobs he’s offered. Hollywood actors who can pick and choose projects, Phillips says, “that’s really rarefied air. The rest of us are looking for the next gig and looking for what’s the best for us.
“Fortunately,” he adds, “I’ve never taken a gig I didn’t want to take.”
His celebrity wattage having dimmed (even younger members of the “Camelot” tour, the actor admits, were nonchalant until they searched his biography on Google), Phillips last made news in late 2006, when he pled no contest to domestic battery following a dispute with his girlfriend, Yvonne Boismier.
Problematic, sure, as “Camelot” was when it debuted more than a half-century ago: Critics were tepid about its four-hour length, too many ballads left the show cloyingly sweet, and the second act fizzled like a bad spell from Merlin. Organizers behind the current tour, though, performed what they call necessary surgery to the show, punching up scenes, taking their editorial broadswords to others.
“There’s a lot of baggage that comes with this show,” Phillips says. “I’m hoping people come to it with an open mind and judge the play for what it is.”
When: Runs 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 20
Where: Gammage Auditorium, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Arizona State University campus, Tempe
Information: (480) 965-3434 or www.asugammage.com