REX SMITH HAS NEVER QUITE rescaled the giddy heights of 1979, when his pop single “You Take My Breath Away” transformed him, overnight, into a teen heartthrob. Still, the actor-singer has fashioned a solid journeyman career. After early Broadway success in The Pirates of Penzance, Smith settled into steady work in TV, minor motion pictures and regional theater. Last year he starred with Diahann Carroll in the Vancouver company of Sunset Boulevard, that dark musical about Hollywood. Ironically, toward the end of the play’s run, Smith’s life took a melodramatic turn of its own. During a matinee on Feb. 26, 1997, he was spooked by the unswerving gaze of a young man in the front row. “Wherever I was, there he was,” says Smith. “Watching.”
After the curtain call, the young man, Brandon MacDonald, 17, of Calgary, Alta., waited in the foyer to introduce himself. “He mentioned his mother’s name and said, ‘Could I have 5 minutes of your time?’ ” Smith, 42, recalls. At that moment, “the world shifted on its axis.” Smith realized that he might well be staring at his own son, one he never knew existed. “It is a startling resemblance—he’s got my father’s nose but exactly my mouth,” he says. “I said, ‘If this was a John Wayne movie, I’d say, “Ma, set another place.” ‘ ” To be sure, two days later he and Brandon drew blood; DNA tests proved they were father and son.
In a sense, Brandon is a living reminder of Smith’s heady rise to early fame. Signed by Columbia Records at 20, the Jacksonville, Fla., son of an advertising executive and a homemaker was playing New York City’s Madison Square Garden with Ted Nugent when he was spotted by producers who cast him as a lead in Sooner or Later, a TV movie, which featured “You Take My Breath Away.” “Suddenly, I wake up and I’m a teen idol,” Smith says. More specifically, one June morning in 1979, while on tour in Calgary, he woke up with Karen Lakey, an unhappily married record-company rep. They had a weekend fling, then parted forever. Lakey, now 45, did get a call from Smith two weeks later. She told him she was pregnant, but, she adds, “He had no idea it was his.” Neither did Lakey, or so she told herself. “The God’s honest truth was that I was in denial until the DNA test,” she says. Only when she lay near death from osteomyelitis last year did she reveal to Brandon his probable paternity.
“She was on morphine,” he says, “and she said, ‘Remember that TV show Street Hawk [a mid-1980s fizzle in which Smith played a cop]? That’s your dad.’ ” Eerily, Smith was Brandon’s childhood idol. “I was 5,” he says; “I never missed a show.” Brandon decided to act. “I said, ‘I gotta try and do this—go meet him,’ ” he recalls. Lakey is ambivalent about her son’s belated relationship with Smith. “He hadn’t had much of a father figure in his life,” she says, “so in a way I was thrilled.” Still, she adds, “it’s not just Rex and Brandon here. It may be their story, but I happen to be the mother who raised this young man.”
During the Christmas holidays, Smith—who is now offering Brandon some financial support—invited the 11th grader to the Seal Beach, Calif., home he shares with his fiancée, Courtney Schrag. Chary of shocking Megan, 10, and Madison, 8, his daughters from an eight-year marriage, he introduced Brandon as a friend’s son. “But they kept pulling out an album cover of mine,” says Smith, “saying, ‘Doesn’t Brandon look like Daddy?’ ” Complicating matters, Megan developed a crush on the handsome houseguest. Sensing a Swedish art film unfolding in his midst, Smith broke the news over dinner. “We were having turkey, and it was, ‘Guess what: He’s your brother!’ ” says the precocious Megan. “Just another day at the Smith house.” Both girls bonded with Brandon—to their father’s delight. “There’s a great many things in my life that have been a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top,” says Smith. “This has been like that.”
JOHN HANNAH in Seal Beach