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Inside Beat

Knights, Camera, Action: Kevin Chamberlin

After an eventful undergraduate tenure at Rutgers, actor Kevin Chamberlin would go on to become a beloved actor on Broadway and the screen. – Photo by Franky Tan

Kevin Chamberlin grew up with an affinity for musicals, watching classics like "Oliver" and "The Wizard of Oz" on TV, but he'd never taken the stage himself. After moving from Baltimore to Utah to Florida, all before the age of nine, he decided to seek out theater in his newest home, Moorestown, as an opportunity to explore his passion and make new friends.

He wouldn't know it at the time, but that decision would spark a lengthy acting career, consisting of a notable four years at Rutgers, multiple Tony award-nominated performances and the role of a lifetime, Bertram Winkle. 

In an interview with The Daily Targum, Chamberlin offered a look behind the curtain at his time in New Brunswick, along with his experiences in the entertainment industry.

Chamberlin would get his start as Huckleberry Finn in his local parks and recreation department's production of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." The consistent musicals and support of the Moorestown community would help him grow as a performer.

"It was a great town to grow up in, because they had a really thriving arts program," he said. "By the time I graduated high school, I had like 20 shows under my belt, and I really knew I wanted to be an actor."

Chamberlin's dream to act led him to Rutgers, where he would study at Mason Gross School of the Arts' acting conservatory. While the relatively cheap tuition played a major role in his decision, it was paired with his aspirations of becoming a serious thespian.

The school's impressive theater program, led by one of the top acting teachers in New York at the time, William "Bill" Esper, would help him get to that place.

Mason Gross didn't produce many musicals during his time at school, so Chamberlin and some of his peers made full use of Cabaret Theatre, located on Douglass campus. His efforts would inspire some mainstage productions — in Chamberlin's senior year, the school would perform "High Button Shoes," a musical that takes place in New Brunswick.

As for his time at Mason Gross, Chamberlin says, "It was invaluable. I wouldn't appreciate art the way I do … If I hadn't gone to Rutgers, it would have been a lot harder."

After graduating, he was cast in the resident company at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. There, he was involved with the production, "Smoke on the Mountain," which would eventually transfer off-Broadway, helping Chamberlin land a commercial agent and find steady work.

Chamberlin had been in the industry for years when "Dirty Blonde" premiered off-Broadway and kick-started his professional career. The play, written by Claudia Shear and directed by James Lapine, helped him secure his first Tony nomination.

"It was a really beautiful process," he said. "It transferred to Broadway within months of the off-Broadway run. And we all got Tony nominations. It was a wild year."

Chamberlin would then go on to originate the role of Horton the Elephant in the infamous musical "Seussical." While the show was a financial flop, it was a cult hit, helping cement Chamberlin as one of Broadway's rising talents and nabbing him another Tony nomination.

But his biggest role would arguably come in 2011, when he landed the part of the Ross family's butler, Bertram, on the Disney Channel sitcom "Jessie."

Although the show went off the air almost 10 years ago, Bertram has only risen in popularity since the show's conclusion, thanks to a mix of memes and merchandise.

While some actors would feel conflicted about a character of theirs being treated like an inside joke on the internet, Chamberlin is overjoyed. 

"I don't know why kids latched onto Bertram, maybe it's because he was the only adult on the show … but the strange fanaticism that has happened, really is — it's moving," he said.

One moment that helped him realize the impact of that character occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. With nothing to do, he used the platform TikTok as a creative outlet. Fans quickly latched on — his account now has more than 10 million followers.

Despite this resurgence in popularity, a popular hoax began circulating that he had died of a heart attack.

To Chamberlin's surprise, the reactions to that comment were overwhelmingly loving.

"It was this outpouring of emotion and sorrow. I was like, 'What?' It was like attending your own funeral," he said. "And then to happen during COVID? When you're sort of feeling your mortality? That changed me. I was like, 'OK. I made my mark.'"

In addition to his contributions to the traditional entertainment world, he's continued to explore creating through newer means.

Utilizing his aforementioned TikTok account, he starred in the crowdsourced COVID-hit, "Ratatouille the Musical." Additionally, Chamberlin won a Helen Hayes award in 2023 for his performance in "Guys and Dolls" at the Kennedy Center — his first-ever award.

While Chamberlin's career has touched the lives of many, it wasn't always smooth sailing. To Rutgers students in the same position he once was, he offered a crucial piece of advice: do your research.

"Knowledge is power. Don't be a dumb actor, or don't be a dumb plumber. Don't be a dumb anything," he said.

His career is far from over, but Chamberlin has already etched his performances into the hearts and minds of millions. Through his combination of theater, television and film, Chamberlin has lived his career the way he wanted to, all beginning on the banks of the Raritan.

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