A Powerful Voice of Joy
by Ellen Jordan
Far from the dreamer Don Quixote de la Mancha, Robert Goulet is a doer. When he learned he had prostate cancer in 1993, his first command to doctors was to quickly "get it out!" Now four years later, he has little time for thinking about it. "It's over with," he says in the powerful voice that has captivated us from stage, screen, and recording for almost half a century.
Goulet's cancer was discovered because of a rather "fluke thing." He was performing in the musical South Pacific, and his producers requested that he have a physical exam as a routine process for ensuring the good health of performers during the run of a show. "PSA was not in their lexicon," he says with a laugh. He had never had a PSA test before and took the simple blood test as part of the physical. His test result readings were between three and four. "Doctors said it was safe, nothing to worry about. Thirteen months later, I had another and it was between seven and eight. Then five months later, it was between twelve and thirteen. So it went up pretty fast," he recalls. Doctors then ordered a bone marrow test, MRI, culture, and other tests which confirmed that he had prostate cancer. "I was surprised of course," he remembers. "It was a disease for old men. But I didn't worry, I simply said, 'take it out.'"
After receiving two medical opinions after his diagnosis, which Goulet strongly advocates, he decided on a prostatectomy, the surgical removal of the entire prostate gland. He did not choose radiation-only options because of the possibility that the treatment might be debilitating and keep him from scheduled performances. By then, he was beginning the revival of the role of King Arthur in a national tour of Camelot. "My producer wouldn't give me any longer than three weeks' recovery time," he says. Since he was used to the show going on no matter what else happened, he made up his mind to recover quickly. "It helped. I had a sense of humor, a desire to get better swiftly, and a positive outlook."
He determined that nothing like cancer was going to stop him.
And it didn't.
Camelot opened on schedule in Los Angeles just three weeks after Goulet's surgery. During the song "I Wonder What The King Is Doing Tonight," Goulet remembers a traumatic moment: "When you sing a high note, you have to push your whole body down. As I pushed, I felt a little spurt. I thought, was that a big spurt or a little one? If the audience saw it, I thought, who cares, there's nothing I can do. While walking off the stage with Patricia Keys, who played Guinivere, I asked her, 'On that high note in the last song, did you see the twinkle in my eye?' She replied, 'When I saw the twinkle in your eye, I knew there was a tinkle down your thigh.'"
Goulet's amazingly quick recovery is a credit to his determination. In a prostatectomy, the surgeon must cut through either the abdomen or the region behind the scrotum to reach the gland. It is major surgery, usually involving weeks of recovery, with the patient attached to a catheter. Because the little walnut-size prostate gland surrounds the urethra, the tube through which urine passes from the bladder, it may affect the sphincter muscle that controls the flow of urine. As a result, there is some risk of incontinence. Experts say about 1 to 2 of prostatectomy patients have complete lack of urinary control, and from 20% to 50% of men will have partial control and stress incontinence or leakage caused by physical pressure. More than half will have minimum leakage of a few occasional drops. Many of these men will regain control, but for some, pads or diapers become staple wardrobe items.
"My wife Vera was very brave," he says laughingly. "The first night we weren't sure if I would be, but I have never been incontinent from the start."
For Goulet, first hearing the diagnosis of cancer was startling. He was 60 years old, vibrant, healthy, and energetic. He determined that nothing like cancer was going to stop him. And it didn't. His family gave him love and support during the surgery and recovery and cheered him on as he took center stage only three weeks after surgery. Goulet and Vera, a Macedonian-Yugoslav native, have been married since 1982, and are partners in marriage and in business. Vera runs their company, Raga & Rove, and is also Goulet's business manager. "She travels with me, runs the house, office, and me," he says proudly. His three children are sons Christopher and Michael and daughter Nicolette, who is the mother of his grandson, Jordan Gerard, and granddaughter, Solange. Their reaction to hearing their father had cancer was that he would take care of it and get well. "They think their father is made of steel," Goulet says. Naturally, they knew he would quickly be well and back on stage performing. There is really no other place that Goulet has been during his extraordinary life. He first sang for a family gathering at age five, but experienced such tremendous stage fright that he was fearful of any future performance before an audience. His devoted father, Joseph Goulet, encouraged him. Before Joseph died, he urged Robert to continue performing and sharing his God-given talent with the world. He has done that ever since.
After Joseph's death, Robert and his mother and sister moved from Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Canada, where he made his first professional appearance at age 16 with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He was later awarded a singing scholarship to the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. He appeared in scores of theatrical productions and on numerous radio and television shows until he became host of a weekly network variety show called General Electric's Showtime.
Broadway soon beckoned, and he set off on an odyssey that has brought him fame and success around the world. When he debuted as Sir Lancelot in the original Broadway 1960 production of Camelot, he wowed audiences with his powerful voice and dramatic presence. He later received the prestigious Theater World Award. Goulet became one of American theater's most charismatic and talented musical stars in its history. His stage success was followed by more than sixty best-selling record albums, international concert appearances, motion pictures, television specials, guest appearances, and his own popular television series, Blue Light. In 1968, he won a Tony Award for best actor for his role in The Happy Time. He is also a Grammy award winning recording artist and has over 60 top-selling albums worldwide.
In 1986, he pioneered the movement to bring original Broadway stage productions to audiences around the country. Productions of South Pacific and Camelot became the most successful National Tours of all time and broke all box office records across the nation. In 1996, he toured with Man of La Mancha and thrilled audiences with his portrayal of Don Quixote.
Now that he has fully recovered, Goulet follows no special diet or exercise regimen to stay healthy. "I exercise two hours on stage every night, that's enough" he says. He talks about his experience with cancer to give others courage and has been interviewed by major networks, including CNN's Larry King Live. Michael Milken, also a prostate cancer survivor, warned him not to eat cheese. "No cheeses. Not even soft cheeses. But I didn't cut out cheese," Goulet chuckles. He did cut out butter, eats red meat only once a month, and sticks to chicken, fish and pasta in his daily diet.
To those who are afraid of prostate cancer, Goulet offers advice with calm certainty. "There is no need to be afraid. They can tell if it's spread or not by the tests, so you know if there is a long road ahead. It is actually a slow growth thing. I think there should be more awareness of early detection. It should be as popular to people in their thirties to get PSA tests as to any age group. Get it every year - it may save your life!"
To the hundreds of fans who have written him letters of encouragement, Goulet tries to answer each one. He is not afraid of death or of anything the future holds: "We're all going to die. If it's now, it's God's will," he says with no doubt. "We don't need to be afraid." He starts rehearsal next spring for Henry's Wives, a play about the rogue king, Henry the VIII, and will tour all over the country for a year. Sadly for audiences, his days as King Arthur are over. "Camelot is fini," he announces. "It received rave reviews, but we are not going to do it again." Goulet is appreciative of constructive criticism about his performances. He admits to reading them, even if only "for laughs." When they are not traveling with a production, the Goulets enjoy their beautiful "oasis" in the desert of Las Vegas. They are adding on to their house, though they would eventually like to live by the sea. Off the road, he hits a few golf balls and reads for leisure.
His philosophy of life is constant: "Always look forward. Enjoy the past, learn from it, but always look forward." Life is good for Robert Goulet, and he appreciates his journey. He is intelligent, energetic, and humble. He is one of whom King Arthur spoke to Pelly in Camelot, in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea, "it seems that some of the drops sparkle ... some of them do sparkle."
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 1997.