A Camelot Comeback

updated 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE ROBERT Goulet...plummeting from a skyscraper singing that song. That's Goulet as Quentin Hapsburg, of course, the archvillain with the arched eyebrows in the summer comedy hit Naked Gun 2½. And since the Naked Gun movies, starring Goulet's longtime pal Leslie Nielsen, are camp favorites we may well see forever, don't be too sure we've heard the last of Quentin Hapsburg. Says Goulet, with the basso profundo laugh that has boomed from a thousand lounge microphones for more than three decades: "That last touch of me flying through the air singing is a setup so I can come back if there's a sequel—like Bobby Ewing in Dallas." Goulet laughs again, puffing on his trademark cigar in a red leather chair in his Las Vegas office. "It was a dream! He's back! He's alive!"

Goulet, now 57, is indeed back and alive these days—onscreen and onstage in his own particular black-tie and dream-song Camelot, America's club rooms. He has survived a bout of alcoholism, a media-roasted divorce from dancer-actress Carol Lawrence, and a languishing career. After a five-year absence, he has once again been a headliner in Las Vegas. Together Again, for the First Time, at the cavernous Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts, in the center of casino paradise, costarred Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and comedian Rip Taylor.

But if 7,500 seats took away much of the intimacy that Goulet plied so well in the old days, slithering from table to table—the spotlight deepening the cleft in his chin—charming the ladies out of their stockings (and hotel-room keys, often tossed his way), he still manages to becloud the room with the patented Goulet magic. He weaves his way through such cabaret favorites as "Misty" and "Just the Way You Are" and, of course, "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot, the Broadway show that made him a star way back in 1960. Then he pauses in the spotlight before the hushed audience and murmurs, in a moment of reflection, "You know, you have to be a little deranged in this wonderful business of ours. We're children, actually...we have higher highs and lower lows than most people."

Goulet has been on intimate terms with both extremes. His success with Camelot, followed by dazzling years of hit albums and top-drawer club gigs, vaulted him to the top of that glitzy world alongside Tom Jones and, yes, even Frank Sinatra.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Goulet held such sway in Vegas that, as Debbie Reynolds recalls, "I used to call Bob every year and ask him, 'What are you getting now? $32,500 [per week]? Okay, I'll ask for 30.' " But his bouts with alcohol, his devastating 1980 divorce from second wife Lawrence and his estrangement from his sons dragged him to the bottom.

And yet, Goulet is one of those survivors who belie novelist Scott Fitzgerald's claim that there are no second acts in American life. His new act includes his third wife, the former Vera Novak (a Yugoslav writer and photographer), and a strict regimen that calls for only an occasional beer or glass of wine after a performance. Onscreen, he did a star turn as a wealthy square in Beetle-juice (1988), and onstage his three children are now his backup singing ensemble: TV soap actress Nicolette, 35, by his first wife, Louise Long-more, and musician sons Christopher, 26, and Michael, 25, by Lawrence. "He perseveres," says pal of 30 years Nielsen. "He's a survivor, and he's very talented and sensitive, and he ain't no dummy. When the smoke clears, and you look up, Bob Goulet is still there."

This is really Act III in the ongoing drama of Goulet's tempestuous life. Act I had young Robert as a schoolboy at St. Joseph's High in Edmonton, Alberta, wangling a scholarship to the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto and jumping from there to Canadian television to Broadway, where, at 27, he landed the role of Lancelot in Camelot opposite Julie Andrews and Richard Burton. He and Burton became good friends—though the hard-drinking Burton proved not to be the best of role models.

The opening of Act II, in 1980, featured Goulet and Lawrence in an acrimonious divorce. They had met while he was in Camelot and she was playing Maria in West Side Story. The couple that the press called a real-life Ken and Barbie married in 1963 and soon had Christopher and Michael, but separate careers and his drinking drove them apart. They split up in 1975 and failed to reconcile in 1979. Says son Michael: "For a long time they kept the marriage together for our sake. It's no shame that they didn't get along; it's just too bad it got dragged out in front of the public."

During the last separation Goulet began dating Vera, who was in Los Angeles doing public-relations work for singer Tom Jones. "I knew he was alone," recalls Vera. "So I called him, and he invited me over for dinner. It clicked." Two days after the date, says Goulet, "a cab pulled up, and all this luggage appeared. I went outside and said, 'Welcome home,' and we've been together ever since." They were married in a lavish October 1982 ceremony in Las Vegas; Wayne Newton was best man, and Glenn Ford gave away the bride.

The relationship has been tempered by tragedy. Four months after Vera moved in, an auto accident left her with a broken leg and a disfigured face. Goulet stood by her during a long recovery following plastic surgery. "He really helped me get through it," she says.

For her part, Vera helped Goulet heal from the emotional wounds of his divorce and put him in touch with his sons. "He was afraid to call the children because he didn't want to talk to Carol," Vera recalls. "I said, 'The children are separate. They're your kids.' " Christopher credits Vera with helping his dad get beyond booze and back onstage. "I resisted her at first—taking up so much of my dad's time," he says. "But she wants us to be a working family, and she doesn't want to replace my mother."

For his part, Goulet is happy with Act III and looks forward to several more curtain calls as well. "I'll be discovered again when I'm 65," he says with that booming laugh. "I'll do movies for 20 years, maybe win an Oscar along the way. Then I'll retire at 84 and die at 88." He adds soberly, "But if I'd kept drinking the way I did, I'd never live to see 88."

MARK GOODMAN
LORENZO BENET in Las Vegas

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