We are a peculiar match-up," says Robert Klein of his marriage to Brenda Boozer, "the comedian and the opera singer." He once made a similar observation at the William Morris Agency, which mentioned it to CBS and "right away they wanted me to go to work on a television series. There was a lot of enthusiasm."
All the ingredients of prime time were there. A hip comic from the Bronx falls in love with a luscious, Atlanta-born mezzo-soprano. They rent a New York apartment with a viola-playing doorman and a flirtatious elevator operator. The comedian proposes, and she sends out 200 wedding invitations that have all the relevant information except the city where the ceremony is taking place.
As a sitcom, who knows? But the Klein-Boozer marriage is in its fourth successful year. Klein, 36, a political satirist of the '60s who made his name on the college circuit, has emerged in the '70s as a jack-of-all-talents. He has scored in movies (five), records (three) and TV (53 appearances on the Carson show alone). Boozer (the name is Swiss) is a Juilliard-trained Metropolitan Opera Auditions finalist, six years Klein's junior, whose musical career is on the brink of stardom. She has performed recently with the San Francisco Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. Although their professional lives keep Robert and Brenda traveling almost constantly, they boast that they have never been separated for more than 14 days. "We do crazy things," says Klein, "like getting on planes to meet each other, if only for 24 hours—just to keep things ticking." He has rarely missed one of his wife's opening nights. "He sends me three dozen roses plus one as an extra measure of love," she says. "When I see her perform," Klein explains, "my body gets tight. How would you like your wife being held by a man singing wah wah wah? I can only hope he's a homosexual."
"Many men say they want their wives to have careers," says Brenda, "but the beautiful thing about Robert is that he stands by it. The more important my career becomes, the more I want him and the marriage."
They fell in love during the 1971 road revival of Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide (Klein was the narrator). "When I saw that profile," Brenda recalls, "I thought, 'This man is gorgeous.' I just had to know him." On a flight from L.A. to Washington she exchanged places with his seatmate while Robert visited the men's room. "When he got back," she says, "he patted me on the head and said, 'What a nice surprise.' " "I had had my eye on her," Klein remembers, "and that trip sealed it."
The show flopped, but they flourished, moving into the Watergate Hotel (Brenda: "the original Watergate affair"), then to New York. "We got married," Robert jokes, "because the elevator man kept saying, 'Good morning, Mr. Klein. Good morning, Brenda.' " Her father, a professor of philosophy and religion at Emory University and a World War II Army chaplain, performed the outdoor ceremony at the family home in Atlanta.
Klein grew up in a "very extraverted" musical family, fighting for time to perform. His sister sang. His father, a textile salesman, dabbled in the violin, and his mother, a medical secretary, was a near professional on the piano. "When other Jewish mothers were making chicken soup," he recalls, "I'd come home and find mine playing honky-tonk jazz with a cigarette dangling from her mouth." While at DeWitt Clinton High Robert made his TV debut with the bebopping Teen Tones on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. ("We had visions of stardom, but we lost to a one-armed piano player from Missouri.") After graduating from Alfred University in 1962 (plus a year at Yale Drama School), he moved to Manhattan and earned $23 a day substitute teaching in junior and senior high schools. "It was sweet poverty." After hours he tried out routines in Greenwich Village, which led to a job with Chicago's Second City. He traveled with them to New York, played a minor role in a Broadway musical and was spotted at Manhattan's Improvisation club by comic Rodney Dangerfield. "He was a tremendous help and inspiration to me," Klein says. Dangerfield got him a manager and his career took off.
Tomboy Brenda spent her early years roughhousing with two brothers in Atlanta. "I was such a fast runner," she recalls. "My coach wanted me to train for the Olympics when I was 13." But turning to dance and music—her mother is a children's dance teacher—Brenda made her debut at 16 singing in the chorus of a straw hat production of Oklahoma! She helped pay her way through Florida State's School of Music with prizes from beauty contests. After graduation she toured in Coco and Candide. Then, deciding to concentrate on opera, she spent three years studying voice at Juilliard on scholarship. "I believe that you can have it all," Brenda says serenely, "a career, a husband and a family." She'd like a boy and a girl—"when time permits."
Klein is currently writing two screenplays and working on his fourth album, jokingly titled Sex and Filth. His comedy material is all original—some written down, a lot improvised. The couple's friend, singer Melissa Manchester, says, "He can ad-lib for two and a half hours. He's sensational." Klein recently completed The Bell Jar, a film in which he plays a looney '50s deejay. His ultimate aim is to direct a movie comedy.
The Kleins have three homes: a four-room Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River, an eight-room "country house" 35 miles up the same river at Croton, and a small flat in Hollywood. Still an athlete, Brenda runs four miles a day, wearing a rubber mask to protect her throat against cold air and pollution, then practices for three hours. "Singers live in a world of saliva and animal sounds," says Klein. "You can hear Brenda all the way down the street." An aviation nut, he drowns out her vocal drills by tuning into pilot/air controller dialogue on shortwave radio or retreats into books. His interests are broad—a recent passion was the Soviet Union. Their library also contains videotape cassettes of favorite old movies and their own performances. When they are at home together, Brenda cooks such things as asparagus soufflés. Klein observes that "she doesn't like to stick to the absolute letter of the recipe." His kitchen duties deal chiefly with ice and garbage.
They seem to have a good time together, even to the point of baby talk. "I call him Watermelon Head," says Brenda, "and he calls me Pinhead." Robert credits marriage with making him "much more optimistic. Brenda has this great quality of taking the positive side of everything and building on that." Sometimes they fight in earnest. "The worst thing about her," Klein says, "is her occasional lack of focus—like saying Chicago when she really means St. Louis." "I couldn't live with him if I wasn't a tough fighter," she says, "because he's a verbal master." Klein adds, "When I get excruciatingly angry I may throw rice pudding against the wall, but in a plastic dish, so it can't break. It's an orderly kind of anger."
Pinhead gives Watermelon Head a smooch—the orderly kind.
Miraculously, they've never been apart for more than two weeks