Fans of Luke Duke may not know it, but before all those car chases and crashes on "The Dukes of Hazzard," Tom Wopat worked in musical comedy.
"I really wanted to have a career in the theater - until television came along and kind of confused everything," Wopat says.But now the performer has returned to his show biz beginnings. Wopat is starring in the Broadway musical hit "City of Angels," where he plays a Los Angeles gumshoe not unlike the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe. Only this detective sings.
Wopat's long road back to New York from California detoured through Nashville, where he currently lives. He moved there to let his "Dukes of Hazzard" image fade and polish his reputation as a country-western singer.
"Over the last 25 years, I've worked with a lot of bands," he said the other day in his dressing room at the Virginia Theater.
"I got a contract with Capitol about five years ago and began touring, doing some 50 to 70 shows a year. Most of those live performances were within 400 or 500 miles of Nashville. To have a band in LA made no sense at all. Besides, I grew up in the Midwest - Wisconsin - and Nashville is a nice compromise."
But New York will be his base for six months while he co-stars with Michael Rupert in "City of Angels," last season's Tony winner as best musical. Wopat stepped in on New Year's Eve to replace James Naughton, the original lead.
He has followed Naughton on Broadway before, taking over for the performer in 1978 during the long run of "I Love My Wife." Both shows have music by Cy Coleman, the man who also wrote "Sweet Charity" and "Little Me."
"Cy told me a couple of years ago that he was going to have something I would be right for and when I found out `City of Angels' was successful, I kept an eye on it," Wopat says. "It helps that I have a certain presence here in New York that has nothing to do with television."
That presence began back in late 1977 when, fresh from the Midwest, he was cast in two off-Broadway productions, a charming little musical called "A Bistro Car on the CNR" and a small-scale revival of "Oklahoma!" at Equity Library Theater.
But less than a year later, television called. It was "The Dukes" and a five-year, sometimes stormy, relationship with one of television's most popular series. Wopat shared the spotlight with John Schneider, who played his cousin Bo Duke, and a gussied-up Dodger Charger nicknamed "General Lee."
"The show's success was amazing and confusing at the same time," the 39-year-old Wopat says now. "There was a lot of fame and a lot of money that went along with it. But `The Dukes' had very little to do with what I wanted to do as an actor. Still, it was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about film production. I even directed five episodes.
"In L.A., it's pretty hard to get any kind of credit for what I did. But once I realized that television was not the end-all of my life, it occurred to me my career was going to be made up of many different things."
He has tried several other series since then, including "Blue Skies" and "Peaceable Kingdom," but neither had the success of his initial effort.
"The Dukes of Hazzard" did lead to his recording for Capitol and now for Epic Records. On his Mondays off from "City of Angels," he plans trips to Nashville to finish work on a new album with his group, the Full Moon Band.
Wopat, who studied voice at the University of Wisconsin, began writing his own songs in 1984, and he has had several Top 20 country songs. Several of his own songs have also ended up on his latest recording project.
"City of Angels" couldn't be more different from the "good ol' boy" cutups of "The Dukes of Hazzard." The musical is a snappy, sophisticated sendup of pulp private-eye fiction of the 1940s, as well as a satire of Hollywood movie-making.
"This is more of an acting part for me, trying to capture the style of the piece," Wopat says. "That's what captivated me. The whole idea of the private eye with a Bogart feel."
Wopat had the luxury of a four-week rehearsal period, including four days with the original director Michael Blakemore, before stepping into the technically complicated musical. But he feels the hard work has been worth it.
"The show will help establish a certain credibility I haven't had in Los Angeles for a while," he says.
When Wopat is finished with "City of Angels" in July he'll go back on the road with the Full Moon Band.
"My concert audiences are a lot of the same people who saw me on `The Dukes,"' he says. "They are willing to see me in that role, but more and more I try to get away from that."
And he'd like his group to be seen in New York by his fellow stage performers.
"I want to bring up the band from Nashville sometime this spring to play in a cafe right across the street from the theater. I'll have the cast of `City of Angels' over to see them. Now wouldn't that be fun?"