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As We See It

Being Wayne Newtons: Mr. Las Vegas is a unique show-biz figure—or two

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WHICH WAYNE? Wayne Newton says there’s only one Mr. Las Vegas.
Photo: Leila Navidi

What this Wayne Newton is saying about the other Wayne Newton could seem convoluted and a bit vainglorious, but after speaking to him for a bit more than an hour, I think I’m getting it. He’s describing a scene filmed for Vegas Vacation that he successfully had nixed from the 1997 release.

The original script called for somebody called Wayne Newton to lecherously tell Beverly D’Angelo’s character, Ellen Griswold, that he wants her to become a “Newton broad.” She asks what that means and he tells her that it’s a woman who has had “a nose job, a boob job and a butt job.” Then Wayne would part a curtain to reveal 200 such women.

“When I got the script, I went to the director and I said, ‘This is one scene that Wayne Newton can’t do,’” he recalls. “Notice my verbiage. Not that I can’t do, that Wayne Newton can’t do. Wayne Newton is almost in some ways a third party. I almost become a protector of Wayne Newton that way. It becomes humorous, because they write things that Wayne Newton cannot say as Wayne Newton, you know?”

I do. I went into my first interview with the Wayner early this month with a very specific impression of what he’d be like, only to realize that there are at least two—and maybe more—Wayne Newtons.

In fact, Wayne Newton is a peculiar show-biz animal, the likes of which there may be no modern peer. Sure, there are actors like Michael Cera, Joe Pesci or Sandra Bullock who always play the same sort of characters, and there are personalities like Larry King or Oscar Goodman who pop up here and there as themselves.

But Wayne Newton is an actor and singer whose image has been so completely swallowed by a certain persona—the sunny, buffoonish, slightly-but-never-explicitly sleazy elevated-lounge-lizard representation of an older Vegas era—that his only choice is to play it on screen and stage.

In fact, I can be forgiven for expecting that Wayne Newton when we spoke, because that was the Wayne Newton I met the prior evening at a meet-and-greet before his show at the Tropicana. He appeared then in a black velour smoking jacket, with a grove of chest hair a-popping, kissing my female companion so frequently that half his smooches ended up in her hair because she wasn’t paying close enough attention.

Then he got on the stage in Once Before I Go, told his story from 15-year-old Vegas wunderkind to aging survivor of the tuxedo-clad Vegas era before a 23-piece orchestra, his voice significantly, uh, weathered and almost nobody in the audience caring a whit.

Intriguingly, the act totally disappears during our interview. I expect him to be full of that bravado and arrogance, to bristle at the hard questions. Instead he charms me with a story about how he goes on eBay to buy back memorabilia stolen from his own home and gets only vaguely irritated by the inevitable inquiries about an indisputably diminished vocal ability.

“Nobody’s voice is the same when they’re 60 as when they’re 20,” he says, calling critics who harp on that “imbecilic.”

I harp: “How do you think you sound?”

He could say, “I sound great! Never better!”

This Wayne Newton replies with breathtaking honesty: “I sound okay, okay?”

If it’s okay with the fans who pay to see him, then, yes. And it is. As he goes on to say, nobody went to see Garland or Sinatra in their later years for the pristine quality of their biggest records but for “the whole meal.”

This Wayne Newton isn’t exactly complaining about the box that Hollywood has put that Wayne Newton in. He takes his “Mr. Las Vegas” moniker, in fact, so seriously that he admits it bugs him when others—the late Bob Stupak and George Wallace most notably—appropriate it. He feels he’s earned the honorific from decades of performances all over town, filling in for Durante or Sinatra or whomever and having once performed 36 weeks of shows without a single day off.

“The truth of the matter is, I didn’t name myself that, the town did,” this Wayne Newton says. “The fact that there are people who want to call themselves that, well, the unfortunate part for them is that it doesn’t make it a reality because they want it. It isn’t that I don’t care, it’s just simply that I don’t want to get down into that level of confrontation with anybody.”

Nor does he actually need to. That Wayne Newton may be in a box, but it’s a roomy one. It doesn’t ever occur to Hollywood to ring up Wallace when they want the presence in their movies or TV shows of somebody who sums up or symbolizes a version of Las Vegas. (Like the multiple Wayne Newtons, there are multiple Las Vegases, too, of course.)

“I get a lot more of those kinds of offers than offers to play a character, which I love to do,” this Wayne Newton says. “I played a character in Licence To Kill, but he was based on the real”—or the fake?—“Wayne Newton.”

Wayne Newton clearly believes if anyone ought to play Wayne Newton, it’s him. Celebrity impersonators irk him so much that he pointedly said he’s not interested in seeing the new Cirque du Soleil show Viva Elvis at Aria.

“They don’t do an honest impression of Frank or Dean or Sammy or Elvis or me. They do what they think the audience expects,” he says. “Having known those people and having been friends with those people, I find [impersonators] are simply touching on the aspect of what the tabloids write. They’re making a living off careers that people spent a whole life creating.”

That, of course, is Wayne Newton’s prerogative for as long as he’s able. Which leads me to my last question: Is it lucrative? Can Wayne Newton make a good living just being Wayne Newton?

“Yes, yes,” say my Wayne Newton with a throaty guffaw. “Yeah, I really wouldn’t have to work at night at all, I have to say.”

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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