Still King of the Middle Road, Barry Manilow Ponders Some Careful Side Trips—Into Movies and Fatherhood

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Early in his recording career, Barry Manilow went out to breakfast in Philadelphia with two other aspiring young singers barely more famous than he. Their names were Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. The three had little to say to one another. Suddenly Barry announced, "I'm going to be bigger than both of you put together."

While Manilow is not one to underestimate his own talents, the boast was atypical. "I'm usually Pessimistic Paul," he says. But although Joel and Springsteen have hardly been languishing, Barry has all but lived up to his indiscreet prediction. His world concert tour, currently in Europe, has attracted sell-out crowds, even with tickets priced near $40. If I Should Love Again has become his 10th gold album, boosted by his 10th Top 10 hit, The Old Songs. He also will guest star on Goldie Hawn's spring television special.

All this is according to careful plan; Manilow cherishes order. "They drop in this business like flies," he says. "I dive into every project as if I have to prove myself all over again."

His stage show is meticulously choreographed; his latest ballads vary little from popular predecessors. If he has a rehearsal set for 2 o'clock, he says, "I expect the downbeat to come at 2 sharp and not 2:05." He has his own zipper-lipped technicians and musicians (referred to as the Mandy Mafia, after his old hit) who travel with him. He even has a staff comedy writer to provide one-liners. "It's not like I'm not spontaneous," explains Manilow, 34. "It's just that I like the security of knowing where I'm going. If I don't, the earth shakes too much and I'm a nervous wreck. Maybe it's a matter of toilet training."

Despite the cinematic flops of such peers as Neil Diamond (The Jazz Singer) and Paul Simon (One-Trick Pony), Manilow is determined to move into films. The first script he was offered, he says, was called Ants. Last year he almost pulled off a deal to star with Frank Sinatra in a kind of father-and-son version of A Star Is Born titled Encore. "He's one of my heroes and I would have given almost anything to work with him," says Barry. "But the demands his people made were so outrageous that we all decided he probably didn't want to do it that badly."

Barry has just signed a deal to make a CBS-TV movie about a foster father, due next year. He's also developing a Broadway musical idea with guess who as star. Most of Manilow's creative efforts, however, still go into recording. In addition to composing and arranging new songs for himself, he says, "I've got envelopes with songs for all the artists I want to work with someday." Among them are Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. "To say I am a workaholic sounds neurotic," he says, "but I'm married to my work. My children are my songs."

Barry does not discount the possibility of real fatherhood someday. "I would like to have a kid," he says, "but if I did I would take some time off as John Lennon did. I don't exactly have a mother in mind, but I'm opening a door I never thought was there."

Barry says that since infancy he has seen his own father, a Brooklyn truck driver, only a few times. When he was 11, Dad dropped by in a brewery truck to give him an old tape recorder. In 1976 Barry was backstage in a New York theater, he recalls: "I was changing my pants and this guy popped his head into my dressing room and said, 'Hi! I'm your father. I just wanted to see you one more time.' He disappeared again and my pants were still down around my ankles." Manilow remains close to his mother, however, who has access to his checking account and spends much of her time calling disc jockeys around the country to request her son's songs.

Manilow's one-year marriage ended in divorce in 1968, and his longtime girlfriend, Linda Allen, recently moved out. That leaves him with his pair of pet beagles for company. Though Suzanne Somers and husband Alan Hamel are frequent visitors, there's hardly a welcome mat at his single-bedroom Bel Air mansion. It is, he says, protected by devices that will "blow your brains out if things go off."

At home he listens occasionally to pop music; Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, Sinatra, Garland and Laura Nyro are favorites. Mostly he watches TV and tries to spot performers he played piano for years ago as accompanist at Broadway auditions (Bonnie Franklin and Bernadette Peters are among them). Of his many awards—including an Emmy, a special Tony and a Grammy—he claims the most cherished is a small Smokenders plaque with the inscription: "Barry Manilow, having smoked three packs a day for 15 years, quit smoking June 14, 1978."

To celebrate such victories, he has always kept a chilled bottle of champagne on hand since he left Brooklyn a decade ago. "It used to be cheap stuff," he says. "Now it's Dom Pérignon. I've toasted more than I ever thought I would."

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