Robert Goulet certainly lives by the old entertainment adage that the show must go on. Just 23 days after prostate surgery, Goulet is back on his feet and opening tonight at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a two-week engagement in the classic Lerner-Loewe musical "Camelot."
The 60-year-old Tony and Grammy winner was suffering from prostate cancer, the same malignancy that recently took the lives of Frank Zappa, Don Ameche and Bill Bixby.
The original 1960 production of "Camelot" turned Goulet, then a relative unknown, into a star. Back then, he played the dashing Sir Lancelot, opposite Richard Burton's King Arthur and Julie Andrews' Guenevere. On this nationwide tour, though, Goulet is playing King Arthur.
Though Goulet's most closely identified with "Camelot," he's starred in numerous musicals, and received a Tony Award 25 years ago for Kander and Ebb's "The Happy Time." He's also recorded 40 albums, been a staple in Las Vegas clubs and appeared in such films as "I'd Rather Be Rich," "Atlantic City," "Beetlejuice" and "The Naked Gun 2 1/2."
Thrice married, Goulet's current spouse is also his business manager, the former Vera Chochorovska Novak. Three days before his Pantages opening, Goulet relaxed in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and discussed his surgery, "Camelot" and theater critics. Though still moving around a bit gingerly, the baritone said he was feeling fine and seemed to be in good spirits--often bursting into song.
Question: Are the doctors pleased you've returned to work so soon?
Answer: They said it would be better to have five weeks off instead of three. But I said I can't do it in five, I have to do it in three. They said, "OK. If that's the way you want it." But I'm in excellent shape everywhere else. The doctor says he's almost positive that everything came out. But I will just have another test in another couple of months. If it has spread, it will be little tiny bits and pieces. But you get that right away with pills and with radiation.
Q: Talk about the show must go on. Have you always performed by that code?
A: Unless my vocal cords are strained, I will go on stage. I've been brought up that the show must go on unless you can't bloody well walk. Even then, you can get a wheelchair and do it. A couple of doctors told me don't play golf because of my bad back. If I hit something too hard, I could snap the nerves in my back and never walk again. I was thinking about it and I said, "What the hell?" I could always play "The Most Happy Fella." That guy was in a wheelchair. Then I could play Raymond Burr's old part in the wheelchair, "Ironside." Then I can start giving singing lessons.
Q: Do you have any idea how many performances you've done of "Camelot" over the past 30 years?
A: I don't. I did two years of it when I was in New York, so that's about 800 performances there. And we did four weeks before that, so that is 32. I did seven weeks in 1975 in Los Angeles and in 1990, I did five weeks. We've been on the road 10 1/2 months last year and 10 1/2 months this year. So it will be a couple of thousand.
Q: How do you keep it fresh?
A: I am just getting it down. I don't think anybody in their right mind says I did a perfect job last night. I will never be satisfied with my performance.
Q: Was it odd to go from playing Lancelot to King Arthur?
A: It never occurred to me when I was doing the original "Camelot" that I would ever, ever do Arthur because it was not my part. But when they asked me to do it '75, I said, "Well, it's something of a gamble."
I pretty much was nervous. I don't remember much about it at all. I realized later I was saying goodby to my wife (Carol Lawrence). I didn't know I was saying goodby, because we separated after the show was over. We divorced shortly after that. It was rather a rough, rough time for me.
Q: Is it true the original production of "Camelot" wasn't that well received by the critics?
A: Of the seven critics at that time in New York, two liked it, two didn't and three were on the fence. But about a week-and-a-half after we opened, we did "The Ed Sullivan Show" and we did 17 minutes from the show. The next day they were wrapped around the block for tickets.
Q: How have the critics treated this production?
A: There are some good critics and you can learn from them. The critics in New York were nasty on a personal level. There are nasty critics all over the country. I don't pay attention to them, because if they don't have anything worthwhile to say, then they are not worthwhile reading. They are probably all inbred.
There was one guy in St. Louis. He opened the review saying, "I know there are millions of people out there who feel the same way I do. Why doesn't Robert Goulet stop touring? He's too old. He can't sing anymore and he can barely walk." I may be 60 years old, but I'm a lot younger than whoever the hell he is, even if he's 40. I'll whip his ass at anything he wants. And I have never sung better in my life. But this man had to go out and say those things. By the way, we sold out that week.
Q: Will you take it easy after your tour ends in August?
A: Well, Leslie Bricusse has written a musical on Henry VII, but he's so busy with (the stage version of) "Victor/Victoria," I haven't heard from him in a while. There's talk of me going to Branson, Mo., for so many months out of the year. I will be bringing some musical ventures there.
Q: You've done so many musicals over the years, including "South Pacific," "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" and "I Do, I Do." Is there any musical you'd like to do that you haven't?
A: Gee, I don't know. My wife said "Sweeney Todd" is a musical that I should look into, but I don't know anything about it. I would rather go out and do "Carousel," but I'm too old. In fact, when I finish with "Camelot," I won't be playing the young King Arthur again. Richard Harris had a different outlook. He would come out and talk about the young King Arthur and he'd have somebody else do it. But I have seven months to go, so I said, "Do the young King Arthur and get it out of the way."