April 22, 2016 at 7:00 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
A good, ole’ boy
Tom Wopat, gay news, Washington Blade

Tom Wopat today. The actor has enjoyed a varied career on stage and screen. (Photo courtesy of Works Entertainment)

Reel Affirmations presents ’Fair Haven’

Saturday, April 23

HRC Headquarters

1640 Rhode Island Ave., N.W.

Q&A to follow

For actor Tom Wopat, it’s been a fascinating journey from a dairy farm in Wisconsin to the back roads of Hazzard County, Ga., to the bright lights of Broadway to an apple farm in Vermont.

In his latest movie, Wopat plays farmer Richard Grant in “Fair Haven,” which will receive its world premiere in Washington this weekend. (The Blade’s review of the film is here.)

“They were looking for a farmer who wasn’t entirely a rube, and I guess I fit the bill kinda perfectly,” he says. “He runs an apple farm that’s been in the family for a while and he totally expect his son to embrace it.” When things turn out differently, Wopat says, “he sends his boy away to ‘straight camp.’”

Director Kerstin Karlhuber really did know Wopat was perfect for the role as soon as they met.

“He actually read two scenes that he had prepared. It was the first time I saw the character of Richard fully realized and in the flesh,” she says. “Tom was so authentic it was as if he stepped right off the farm and into the casting room.”

Karlhuber says the complicated relationship between Richard and his son James is the centerpiece of the film.

“At the core,” she says, “it’s about a father and son struggling to find common ground when their beliefs are polar opposites. It’s also about love. James is coming to terms with his true identity in the face of societal and familial pressure. He has to decide if he’ll follow his heart or the path everyone else seems to want for him.”

Wopat has followed his heart through a string of successes on television and on Broadway. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin he was cast in the “risqué” Cy Coleman musical “I Love My Wife.” During his successful run in that show, Hollywood called.

In New York, he read for the role of Bo Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” He ended up reading for the part of Luke Duke, since John Schneider had already been cast as Bo.

“They had cast all the parts except mine. They were searching for someone who had a little more gravitas than John,” Wopat says. “I’m nine years older than him and had a little more background and was a little more mature.”

He got the part and “ten days later we were shooting in Georgia.”

Wopat followed his huge success in “Dukes” (1979-1985) with a string of successes on Broadway, including performances in “42nd Street,” “Chicago,” “City of Angels,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.” During the run, Wopat earned praise from Stephen Sondheim himself. After rehearsing the fiendishly difficult number “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd,” the composer told Wopat, “you’d be the perfect Sweeney.”

He also received Tony Award nominations for his work in “Annie Get Your Gun,” where he starred opposite a string of Annie Oakleys: Bernadette Peters, Susan Lucci and Crystal Bernard, and in “A Catered Affair,” with a book by Harvey Fierstein. Wopat also received excellent reviews when he played against type as the luckless patsy James Lingk in the 2005 revival of David Mamet’s profanity-laced “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Wopat was initially reluctant to take the role.

“It’s a small part and I don’t normally do small parts because it gives me too much time to get in trouble,” he says. “I had always played the leading man with a lot of swagger. Lingk is a patsy. He gets taken advantage of. There were times when I walked offstage from my big scene with Liev Schreiber and Alan Alda and I’d be in tears because my character realized he’s been totally duped. It was an eye-opening experience and it changed my career.“

Besides his iconic role as Luke Duke (in tight jeans and a frequently unbuttoned plaid shirt) and his work in musicals, Wopat, who identifies as a straight ally, built up his sizeable gay following during the stormy run of the sitcom “Cybill” (1995-1998). Wopat starred as Cybil Shepherd’s first ex-husband, slightly dim stuntman Jeff Robbins.

“She was a mess back then,” Wopat says, though he enjoyed working with a strong cast that included Alicia Witt, Pieter Krause, Alan Rosenberg and Christine Baranski as Cybill’s hard-drinking friend Maryann Thorpe.

Most recently, Wopat appeared as Will Rogers in “The Will Rogers Follies” at the famous Barn Theatre in Michigan. He’s also working on a new album dedicated to the work of singer-songwriters which will include some of his own songs.

Looking back over his career, Wopat sounds like one of the folksy yet profound lyrics he sings so well. “I make music,” he says. “I look forward to the next dramatic thing I get to do. I enjoy my relationships with the great people I’ve worked with. I’ve been really fortunate and I’m still excited.”

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