Robert Goulet

Actor and singer who shot to fame as Lancelot in the original Broadway production of 'Camelot'


Robert Goulet, actor and singer: born Lawrence, Massachusetts 26 November 1933; three times married (two sons, one daughter); died Los Angeles 30 October 2007.

The dashing singer and actor Robert Goulet, once described by Judy Garland as "a living eight-by-ten glossy", won overnight fame when he was cast as Lancelot in the original 1961 Broadway production of Camelot, which starred Julie Andrews, with whom he fell in love, and Richard Burton.

It was not an entirely rewarding role, since the knight was depicted in his opening number, "C'est Moi", as arrogant and smug – the critic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times, "Lancelot, sung and played splendidly though he is by Robert Goulet, is a pompous bore." Other critics found his acting stiff, but Goulet's fine lyric baritone and handsome appearance in shining armour won audience sympathy. According to Camelot's composer Alan Jay Lerner, the New York first night audience were unresponsive at first, then "At the opening of the second act, Bobby Goulet stopped the show with 'If Ever I Would Leave You' and it was the one life-saving moment of the evening."

The musical, sustained by a large advance sale, was not selling enough tickets and seemed destined for failure when, as Lerner put it, "came the miracle". This was Ed Sullivan's enormously popular Sunday night television show, on which, several weeks into the run of Camelot, the cast performed 20 minutes of numbers, including Goulet's big solo. Next day, enormous queues formed at the box-office and the production ran for over two years.

When Burton and Andrews left the musical at the end of the first year, Goulet stayed on for a second season and became the show's strongest attraction. Though he never had another Broadway hit to equal Camelot, and his film career proved spasmodic, Goulet remained a potent draw in nightclubs and on television, and he made over 20 best-selling albums.

Born in Massachusetts in 1933, Goulet (rhymes with "hooray") was the only son of French-Canadian parents, and grew up in the Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta. While still a student, he began to work in radio: "At the age of 17," he said later, "I thought I'd be a great radio announcer." He won a scholarship to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where he studied singing, and he made his concert début in Edmonton in 1951 in Handel's Messiah.

After gaining acting experience with the Crest Theatre in Toronto, he made what he later confessed was a "disastrous" attempt to find work on Broadway ("I wound up selling writing paper at Gimbel's"). Returning to Canada, he played Captain MacHeath in The Beggar's Opera at the Stratford Festival in 1958, and in Vancouver the same year he played leading roles in South Pacific, Finian's Rainbow and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He made his US début in Ohio productions of The Pajama Game and Bells are Ringing, but was still little known outside Canada when cast in Camelot.

As the first show written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe since their immense success with My Fair Lady, Camelot was subject to enormous publicity, particularly when the production proved highly troublesome. Based on T.H. White's novel The Once and Future King, its try-out runs in Toronto and Boston were both extended and its director, Moss Hart, had a heart attack. Lerner later reported that Goulet had "a severe crush" on Julie Andrews, who was happily married. Goulet reputedly asked Burton for advice, and Burton told Lerner, "Why did he come to me? I couldn't get anywhere, either."

When Camelot finally opened, reviews were mixed, but Goulet had a great personal success. Though his belting style lacked subtlety and his voice could be a little hard-edged, he maintained a successful career for nearly 50 years.

He might have been reunited with Julie Andrews had Arthur Freed's planned production Say It With Music, gone ahead in 1963. The film was slated to star the pair, but the project was cancelled by MGM. Goulet's film career started instead with two limp comedies – Honeymoon Hotel (1964), and I'd Rather Be Rich (1964).

His television series Blue Light (1966), in which he played an espionage agent infiltrating the enemy's high command,

ran for only one season – three episodes were later joined together as a feature film, I Deal in Danger (1966). Goulet played a similar role, sporting a beard, in the British thriller Underground (1970).

Goulet's recording output was prodigious. Signed by Columbia Records in 1962, he won an Emmy as best newcomer in 1962, made an album of Annie Get Your Gun (1963) with Doris Day, and had a hit single with "My Love Forgives Me" in 1964. He recorded more than 20 solo albums, several of them featuring show tunes. His many television appearances included The World of Lerner and Loewe and three classic musicals – Kiss Me, Kate, Carousel and a highly praised version of Brigadoon (1966).

He returned to Broadway to star in the musical The Happy Time (1968), based on autobiographical stories by the photographer Robert L. Fontaine about growing up in a small French-Canadian town. Despite a tuneful score and a good cast, the show has the unique distinction of being the first Broadway musical to lose over a million dollars. Goulet nevertheless won the Tony as best actor in a musical.

In 1980 he received fine reviews for his cameo appearance as a singer in Louis Malle's film Atlantic City. Later roles included the house-guest who is blown through the roof in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988). In 1993 he was a guest voice on The Simpsons, playing himself.

He returned to Broadway in a 1993 revival of Camelot, playing Arthur, and also starred in a revival of La Cage Aux Folles in 2005. Last September, he appeared with a 15-piece orchestra in his one-man show A Man and His Music, in Syracuse, New York.

Tom Vallance

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