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Tom Wopat

Tom Wopat

Born Thomas S. Wopat on Sept. 9, 1951 in Lodi, WI, he was the son of local dairy farmers and one of a large brood that included six brothers and sisters. Blessed with an excellent singing voice, Wopat began performing in local musical productions by the age of 12, before graduating to lead roles in several high school productions. Following graduation, Wopat enrolled at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied music for two years before dropping out to tour with a rock band as its lead singer and guitarist. After a period of struggling on the road and appearing in two seasons of summer stock theater productions, the young performer eventually relocated to New York City and began studying acting in earnest. In 1978, Wopat made his New York stage debut in the short-lived off-Broadway revue "A Bistro Car on the CNR," which was followed closely by Wopat's official bow on Broadway when he took over the role of Wally in the hit Cy Coleman musical-comedy "I Love My Wife" later the same year. With his credits mounting, Wopat found himself on the verge of becoming a recognizable name on the stages of New York, but as so many young actors had done before him, he looked to the medium of television for a more financial security. What awaited him on the small screen, however, was beyond anything Wopat could have possibly imagined.A low-budget action-adventure about two rowdy cousins running bootleg liquor in rural Georgia, "Moonrunners" (1975) was written and directed by Guy Waldron, who was later tasked by Warner Bros. with creating a television series based on the same premise. Beating out dozens of handsome young hopefuls, Wopat was cast as good ole' boy Lucas "Luke" Duke on the high-octane action-comedy series "The Dukes of Hazzard" (CBS, 1979-1985). Co-starring, as his more mercurial cousin Bo, was blonde, blue-eyed heartthrob John Schneider, with leggy beauty Catherine Bach lending support as their cousin Daisy, whose high-cut denim shorts became one of the decade's more notorious fashion trends. Surprising its stars and network executives alike, the show was an instant hit, as week after week "those Duke Boys" outwitted and outraced the inept Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (James Best) and corrupt county official Boss Hogg (Sorrell Brooke) from behind the wheel of their high-flying 1969 Dodge Charger, dubbed The General Lee. One of television's top-rated shows by its third season, "The Dukes of Hazzard" hit a speed bump in 1982 when Wopat and Schneider refused to show up for filming, due to a contract dispute. Temporarily replaced by unknowns Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer - as cousins Coy and Vance Duke, respectively - Wopat and his co-star eventually settled their differences with the network and returned to complete the fifth season. By that time, however, the damage had largely been done, as fans had not taken to Cherry or Mayer, who were quickly written out of the show upon Wopat and Schneider's return, and the show never regained its Nielsen footing. After seven seasons, "The Dukes of Hazzard" was unceremoniously canceled.During the height of his "Dukes" fame, Wopat returned to his first love and began what would evolve into a satisfying recording career. His first self-titled 1983 country album sold reasonably well. Wopat followed a few years later with A Little Bit Closer, the title track of which eventually broke the Top 20 on the U.S. Country Music Chart. Post-"Dukes," Wopat maintained a consistent, albeit less prominent, presence on television. A pair of drama series - "Blue Skies" (CBS, 1988), in which he played a recently divorced father and "A Peaceable Kingdom" (CBS, 1989), which featured Wopat as a zoo veterinarian - failed to find their audiences and were quickly canceled. While not a starring role, it was the unfamiliar TV territory of the sitcom that next offered Wopat consistent screen exposure. Throughout its four-season run, "Cybill" (CBS, 1995-98) featured Wopat in the recurring role of Jeff Robbins, one of Cybill Shepherd's fictional ex-husbands on the eponymous sitcom. Lured back to the cultural phenomenon that first provided him stardom, Wopat joined Schneider, Bach and many of the original series cast members for "The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion!" (CBS, 1997), which found the cousins attempting to save Hazzard Swamp from a greedy land developer.In another return to his performing roots, Wopat came to achieve his greatest success, not on television, but on the stages of Broadway. Having already gained positive notices for his work in earlier productions of "City of Angels" and "Guys and Dolls," Wopat garnered raves opposite Great White Way icon Bernadette Peters in a revival of Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1999. For his charming performance as Frank Butler in the Western musical hit, Wopat earned a Tony nomination that year for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Following another turn as Luke in "The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood" (CBS, 2000), Wopat released his seventh album, The Still of the Night, a compilation of classic crooner ballads. And while he had no direct connection to the project, a film adaptation of "The Dukes of Hazzard" (2005) - starring Johnny Knoxville in his role of Luke - proved that those Duke boys still held an allure for nostalgic fans. In another "six degrees of separation" moment, Wopat reconnected with his Duke roots when he guested in a 2005 episode of "Smallville" (The WB, 2001-06/The CW, 2006-2011), reuniting with former co-star John Schneider. The episode, entitled "Exposed," gave fans something to smile about when an action sequence found old friends Senator Jack Jennings (Wopat) and Jonathan Kent (Schneider) tearing down a country road in a supped-up 1969 Dodge Charger.Most certainly, however, the height of 2005 for Wopat was his work alongside Liev Schreiber, Alan Alda and Jeffrey Tambor in a Broadway mounting of David Mamet's high-pressure drama "Glengarry Glen Ross," which earned Wopat and his castmates the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. In contrast, the following year proved soberingly unpleasant for Wopat. On March 22, 2006, Wopat was charged with DUI and reckless driving in northern New Jersey, following a near collision with a police cruiser. A few years later, Wopat earned another Tony nomination in 2008 for his return to Broadway in the musical comedy "A Catered Affair." An artistic accolade ironically juxtaposed by a starring role in the direct-to-DVD insect horror movie "The Hive" (2008). In a small but memorable TV appearance, Wopat played the grieving father of a fallen soldier in the based-on-fact Iraqi War drama "Taking Chance" (HBO, 2009), starring Kevin Bacon as the Marine tasked with returning the man's body to his family. Making strides into the realm of feature film, Wopat also picked up roles in projects like the Western comic book adaptation "Jonah Hex" (2010) and later delivered a cameo in Quentin Tarantino's bloody take on the Western genre, "Django Unchained" (2012).By Bryce P. Coleman
WIKIPEDIA

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