Meet the New Wayne Newton, Star of Casino and Cinema

UPDATED 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

The hot, dry desert winds swirl around its walls, but Casa Shenandoah, Wayne Newton's opulent 50-acre Las Vegas watering hole, is a lush oasis. Flocks of technicolor peacocks and African crown cranes strut the constantly watered lawns, while penguins splash in the man-made lake. And when the singer wishes to leave his desert paradise, there's no lack of luxurious transportation: Parked nearby are a five-seat helicopter and 20 cars; out at the airport, a private JetStar waits his bidding.

With this magical realm in his grasp, what more could any mortal want? But as he wanders through his antique-bedecked rooms, the King of the Strip is brooding. "People think of Vegas and Wayne Newton in almost the same breath," he says. "They don't realize that I'm a man of varied interests, a pilot, a student of the Civil War, a horse breeder, a businessman."

And now, an actor. Striving to escape his lounge-lizard image, Newton, 47, takes a playful turn in the new Bond movie, Licence to Kill, as Joe Butcher, a sleazy televangelist. "Newton is a hoot," said the Hollywood Reporter, while the New York Times called the casting "inspirational."

Granted, the character isn't that big a stretch. Dressed in a skintight tuxedo, the proselytizing Joe Butcher could just as easily be Wayne himself, mesmerizing another Vegas crowd. Nonetheless, the character gave Newton the opportunity he wanted. "It was really fun to go to work and be somebody else," he says. He even canceled $500,000 in club dates for the two-week Mexico shoot. "Acting is very challenging," he says. "At this point in my life, I need that."

His longing for a change may spring, in part, from the stress of his nine-year lawsuit over an NBC news report linking him to organized crime. In January a judge ordered the network to pay him $6 million, a decision now under appeal. Newton has spent more than $1 million in legal fees, but he dismisses the cost. "They hit me where I live, my dignity and my honor," he says. "That is not for sale."

The son of a Virginia mechanic, Newton possesses the outsize pride of a self-made man. He began performing in Vegas at age 16. At 21, he burst onto the charts with the treacly "Danke Schoen" (one of only four hits in his career) and soon developed the flamboyant act that has made him one of the richest men in showbiz.

He works hard for the money. "He's a perfectionist. He's demanding and precise," says Don Vincent, his musical director for 25 years. That energy—as well as his body-hugging pants, his ostentatious eagle belt, even his pencil-thin mustache-has placed him on the Mount Rushmore of Vegas entertainers, right next to Sammy and Frank. "Ah yes, the mustache," Newton says. "I grew it in 1976, when I was in the hospital with pneumonia. I kept it because it irritated my wife."

When Newton and his wife of 17 years, Elaine Okamura, divorced in 1985, their daughter, Erin, now 13, decided to live with her dad. Single parenthood, he says, can be bewildering. "Not too long ago she asked if it was okay to begin shaving her legs. Then she asked me how to do it, and I thought I was going to die."

A self-proclaimed family man in a flash-and-dash town, Newton built one of the eight guest homes on his estate for his father, Patrick, who has lived on the property for the last 20 years. Newton's mother, Evelyn, died of a heart attack in 1986. "I learned a lesson when my mom died," he says. "You can have all the money you'd ever need or want, but there are still limits to what it can do."

Money may not be the incentive, but Newton's ambition pushes him hard. He recently recorded a set of country tunes called Coming Home—his first studio album in nearly a decade. His personal life is thriving too. He has been engaged for two years to L.A. actress Maria Heasley, 29, but no wedding date has been set. "I don't want to tell her to give up her career," he says. "But I know a marriage won't work with her there and me here."

This summer Newton has been seeing Heasley in L.A. while he films Ford Fair-lane, with comic Andrew Dice Clay. Playing off his puffed-up image once again, Newton portrays a deaf record-company exec. When the credits roll, his name won't be first, but he accepts that philosophically: "In the movies, star billing is something I'm going to have to earn." And if someday he gets his own picture? "I'd like to play anything—but me."

—Jeannie Park, Todd Gold in Las Vegas

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