11/12/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
Robert Goulet left us in autumn while in an L.A. hospital awaiting a lung transplant, sedated and attached to a ventilator breathing tube. "It all happened very quickly," says his wife, Vera. "I was holding his hand when he took his last breath."
Hours later, at her hotel, Vera Goulet, 61, received a bouquet of flowers. "It was from Julie Andrews," she says. "She hadn't heard yet but was wishing him well. It was a beautiful note. Julie was his first leading lady, in the show that made him." That show was Camelot, a Broadway smash in the days when the theater dominated popular culture. Goulet played Sir Lancelot in the 1960 production; Andrews was Guinevere, his object of desire. Goulet's aching rendition of "If Ever I Would Leave You," in his booming baritone, would become his signature song.
Goulet, who died Oct. 30 at age 73 suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, won a Best New Artist Grammy in 1962 and a Tony in 1968 for The Happy Time, before becoming known as a Las Vegas showman. It was that persona—or at least his own send-up of it—that brought him to the attention of younger audiences, with appearances on TV comedies like The Simpsons as well as a recent commercial for Emerald nuts.
But for another generation, he was a heartthrob. "There wasn't a woman alive whose heart didn't beat faster when he got close," says Leslie Nielsen, who starred with Goulet in the movie The Naked Gun 2 1/2. "There was a kaleidoscope of talents resting in there."
Goulet and his family were stunned by his rapid decline since entering the hospital Oct. 1. Still, Vera, who managed his career after they wed in 1982, says the singer—who leaves behind two sons and a daughter from previous marriages, including one to Carol Lawrence—was upbeat to the end. "He told me he loved me and he had a lot of things he wanted to do," she recalls. "He said, 'Give me new lungs and I'll sing to 100.'"