5 Things You Didn't Know About Wayne Newton
You don't earn a nickname like "Mr. Las Vegas" without leading a pretty interesting life. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about the child star who became one of America's most beloved crooners.
1. He Got an Early Start
According to Newton's website, he decided to become a musician after his parents took him to see the Grand Ole Opry when he was just four years old. Unlike many children with similar dreams, though, Newton proved to be an industrious tyke. He quickly learned how to play piano, guitar, and steel guitar, and by the time he was six he would appear on a daily radio show on his way to school.
Wayne and his brother Jerry became a popular local act, and the precocious pair soon began performing with the Opry's traveling shows. When Wayne was in the first grade, he even sang at a USO show in front of President Truman. Not a shabby start to a career.
2. He Had No Love for Johnny Carson
Newton's act was the frequent butt of Johnny Carson's jokes, and while you might think a career showman like Newton would have thick skin, think again.
When Carson started making cracks that implied Newton was gay, the singer flew off the handle. He showed up unannounced at Carson's office to confront the late-night host.
Newton described the showdown in a 2007 interview with Larry King. "And I said to Mr. Carson, I said, "˜I don't know what friend of yours I've killed, I don't know what child of yours I've hurt, I don't know what food I've taken out of your mouth, but these jokes about me will stop and they'll stop now or I will kick your ass.'"
Carson apparently backed off after Newton's threat, which is understandable. There may well be fates worse than having to admit Wayne Newton beat you up, but I can't think of any.
3. He Nearly Missed out on "Danke Schoen"
"Danke Schoen" is Newton's signature song, but he almost didn't get a chance to record the track. Capitol Records wanted Bobby Darin to record "Danke Schoen" as his follow-up to the wildly successful "Mack the Knife." Darin had been mentoring a smooth-voiced 21-year-old tenor named Wayne Newton, though, and he felt that Newton had the perfect voice for the song. Darin refused to record the song himself and even threatened never to record for Capitol Records again unless the label let Newton do the tune. Capitol relented, and Newton recorded his version in 1963. It went on to hit #13 on the Billboard charts.
Darin's influence on Newton didn't stop there, though. Darin also produced Newton's 1965 hit "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" and helped Netwon make the jump from Vegas' small lounges to its main showrooms. In 2009 Newton said, "If you asked me what I would be doing if it were not for Bobby Darin, I haven't the slightest idea."
4. He Sued NBC
In 1980, Newton purchased a share of the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas. That October, NBC broadcast a report entitled "Wayne Newton and the Law" that created the impression that several organized crime figures had helped finance the purchase in exchange for an under-the-table share in the deal. Two follow-up reports also made the same implications, which understandably irritated Newton.
Newton sued NBC for libel, and after an eight-week trial in 1986, a Vegas jury awarded him $19.3 million, including $5 million in punitive damages. While that sounds like a major coup for Newton, a federal judge later reduced the award to $5.2 million, and NBC continued to fight the ruling. In 1990, a federal appeals court overturned the award entirely with a ruling that NBC's report had not been deliberately or recklessly false.
Fighting a decade-long legal battle against NBC took its toll on Newton's wallet; when he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992, much of the $20 million in debt he was carrying stemmed from his legal fees.
5. He Posted Bail for Dana Plato
Former child star Dana Plato had a pretty rough stretch of luck after her run as Kimberly on the wildly popular sitcom Diff'rent Strokes ended. After bouncing around a few jobs and posing for Playboy, Plato ended up in Vegas. In March 1991, she entered a video store, pulled a gun and held the store up for around $200.
Plato's crime was anything but perfect, and police arrested her just minutes later. She went to jail on armed robbery charges, and she might well have spent some serious time in the can if not for an unlikely benefactor: Newton. Although Plato and Newton had never met, the singer put up a $13,000 bond for the actress. According to his manager, Newton sympathized with the plight of the former child star and jumped at the chance to do a good deed. Newton's manager said, "He's seen what this industry has done to people. This industry takes a terrible toll on children."
A few other random Newton facts:
He once had a nun living in his home as a governess for his daughter.
He requires Coors Light backstage for all of his shows.
He's part Native American. (Cherokee and Powhatan.)
His song "The Letter" was inspired by a distraught letter from his buddy Elvis Presley.
He appeared on both Roseanne and The Lucille Ball Show.
He's an inductee to the Gaming Hall of Fame.
'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.