Not just a good ol' boy
Former ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ star turned Broadway leading man Tom Wopat sings Saturday with the Pasadena Symphony and POPS
After catapulting to stardom as the costar of the long-running hit TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard,” Tom Wopat could have been stereotyped as a good ol’boy redneck whose only talent was delivering wisecracks and driving fast. But Wopat has managed to avoid that career rut and become a Broadway star, thanks to the fact that he’s a well-rounded actor with a powerful baritone to go with his ample charisma.
On Saturday, Wopat will be strutting his stuff onstage with the Pasadena Symphony and POPS when he joins the orchestra and fellow guest vocalist Catherine Russell for the special performance “Michael Feinstein: The Gershwins & Me.”
The show gives Wopat a chance to sing an array of classic theater songs. But it also provides him with the opportunity to perform in the Los Angeles area for the first time in a decade and to enjoy the sights of Pasadena, where he used to live before becoming a full-time New Yorker.
“I’ve done a dozen shows on Broadway and I love it. In fact, I’m doing it right now in ‘Trip to Bountiful,’” says Wopat.
“Broadway is the acme of our profession. There’s no higher stage and I’m fortunate to be part of it a long time. So I live in New York with my third wife, and I have five kids, but I’m looking forward to being in Pasadena since I used to live there.”
Wopat started singing and performing at age 6 while growing up in Lodi, Wis. He found encouragement from his public school teachers from the time he started acting in plays at 12, focusing on musical comedy before studying applied voice at the University of Wisconsin and landing on Broadway with his debut in “I Love My Wife” in 1978.
It was shortly after that Wopat’s life completely changed after he landed the role of Luke Duke opposite fellow new star John Schneider in “Dukes.” The show was simple, focusing on two moonshine-running cousins who were always just a step ahead of local law enforcement and assorted criminals who passed through their small Southern town. But its cornpone humor and impressive car chases made the show an instant sensation that lasted for seven seasons.
“We took it as it came. John and I were both a little naïve, he more than me because he’s nine years younger and was cast right out of high school,” recalls Wopat. “We learned a lot. It was a little silly and we took it seriously because we were the shining stars at the time. It was an education. Those things are like lightning in a bottle and we appreciated it while it was on. It was a fun thing to be part of and, fortunately, we took it about as seriously as we needed to.”
Wopat, 62, still appears regularly at “Dukes” fan conventions and events, admitting that it’s “great easy money,” but he says he’s truly happy staying connected to Schneider. His connection to fellow “Dukes” co-star James Best, who played the Dukes’ nemesis Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, paid off with an interesting role in one of last year’s hottest movies when he made a cameo as a lawman in Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchained.”
“Tarantino studied acting with Jim Best, who played Roscoe, and he came to the ‘Dukes’ set unbeknownst to me as a teenager,” says Wopat. “He decided I’d work for him in the ‘Django’ part and I enjoyed it greatly.”
Despite that big-screen foray, Wopat remains focused on the stage, whether on Broadway or with POPS orchestras. He performs in up to a dozen such shows a year, with appearances in Denver and Oklahoma already lined up after Pasadena.
However, working with the Pasadena Symphony-POPS conductor Michael Feinstein gives him a particular thrill.
“Working with Michael Feinstein is a treat, because he’s not just a great conductor but a musicologist,” explains Wopat. “He’s a great musician and a good singer, and I’ve worked at Carnegie Hall and his own New York club before. For this show, I’m flying in the day before, but he sends me the arrangement and music for the songs we’re doing so I know what I’m doing when I get there.”
Among the songs in the works for Wopat’s show are “Plenty of Nothin’” from “Porgy and Bess,” “But Not for Me” (which will use an arrangement from one of Wopat’s standards CDs), a classic Bob Hope movie song and a duet of “S’Wonderful” that he’ll perform with Russell. Wopat will also make sure to include a couple of numbers from his newest CD, “I’ve Got Your Number.”
“I’ve got a brand new record out and it swings hard, because it’s a real nod to the ‘Mad Men’ era,” says Wopat. “I had a 30-piece orchestra and we do the Cy Coleman tune ‘I’ve Got Your Number,’ along with a slew of other memorable songs. I will be selling copies at the show and can’t wait to meet everyone there.”
Sounds “S’Wonderful,” indeed.
Tom Wopat performs with Catherine Russell and the Pasadena Symphony-POPS at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $105. Call (626) 793-7172 or visit pasadenasymphony-pops.org.