By Eric Levin
November 09, 1987 12:00 PM

Most celebrities know how to have a mid-life crisis: They collapse on stage, OD on a plane or just wrap the Porsche around the nearest tree. Not Barry Manilow. Now in his 40s, he had to have a sensible and productive mid-life crisis. And when it was over, he had to have something to show for it. Like an autobiography, Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise, a new album, Swing Street, and a CBS special coming up in January. Oh, yes, and an improved physique.

Manilow had a few chances to go the conventional route, but flamboyant self-destruction, as Jackie Mason would say, “ain’t his line o’ woik.” He missed a shot back in 1980 when he discovered that despite selling 40 million albums and filling concert halls for years he was nearly broke: He had $11,000 in the bank. “I had taken financial advice from people who came highly recommended,” he says now, “but they made mistakes.” What did he do? He just dived into his pool—didn’t even let the water out first—swam a few laps and then toiled for the next five years to regain solvency. “If there was a celebrity car wash,” he says, “I was there.”

Manilow passed up another prime opportunity in 1985 when, after 10 years with Arista Records, he decided, “I wanted to see the world.” Arista’s president, Clive Davis, had been the Svengali of Manilow’s career, picking the songs (sometimes by others) that became his monster hits. Moving to RCA, the composer-singer made an album he liked. Manilow bombed. “RCA,” he maintains, “was going through changes. Before I knew it I was dealing with people who didn’t sign me and didn’t care about me.” Furthermore, “The radio was pulling very far away from what I am known for—white-boy pop ballads.” Did Manilow chop down all the trees on his property? Not at all. He swallowed his pride and went back to Arista, which is about to issue his new album, Swing Street.

Manilow was finally ready for what would prove to be “a horrible mid-life crisis.” Having “quizzed everybody” to make sure he could afford not to work for two years, he returned to his hilltop home in Bel Air in 1985 exhausted after a long tour. Once, having listened to Manilow tell anecdotes, some friends had suggested that he write a book. So every morning at around 6:30 he would roll out of bed and, in his underwear, ride his motorcycle down the driveway half a mile to the front gate to fetch the morning paper. Then he would spend the day, and often the evening, at the keyboard—word processor, not piano.

“I started examining my life,” he says, “and heard all these clichés in my mind, like: Who am I? What am I doing? Do I like myself? I was the most alone that I’ve ever been. I was angry, I wept, I was frustrated. But I never hit rock bottom.”

Looking back was not at all sweet. “I always thought of myself as a geek—a skinny guy with buck teeth and a big Adam’s apple, someone girls never wanted to date,” he says. “I was really at sea for so long, bumbling around the stage, mumbling to myself, walking like a maniac. I was never really confident until I started taking acting lessons [in 1980]. I look at my old tapes and cringe. I can see why the critics were absolutely vile to me.”

He owned up to some vileness himself. In the mid-’70s, “When this hurricane of success hit,” he admits, “I became quite a brat for a while. I still have to watch my ego, stop myself from always bringing the conversation back to me.”

Under the tutelage of exercise coach John Barnett, Manilow began pumping iron. “I’ve got definition, I’ve got a silhouette, I’ve got a body!” he boasts. The book was taking shape, too, but at the piano, “I was dry. I’d bleed when I’d look at an empty page and not feel any music.” Eight months ago, an old friend who had liked Manilow’s 1984 album, 2:00 A.M.—Paradise Cafe, asked him, “Why don’t you stick with jazz?” Why not, indeed? Manilow thought. Soon he was in the studio with guest artists, including Phyllis Hyman, Stan Getz and Kid Creole.

It may be fortunate that Manilow got his mid-life crisis out of the way when he did. Otherwise he might not have been able to cope with the tough times he’s facing now. Last month, as he was about to embark on a tour to promote his autobiography, Sweet Life, his mother, Edna, told him that she had lung cancer.

“She had been keeping it to herself for three weeks,” Manilow says of Edna, 63, who works as a hospital volunteer with children who have AIDS. “When they told her she had to go into the hospital for an operation, she had to say something. I could have killed her for not telling me.”

A malignant growth in Mrs. Manilow’s lung was successfully removed at a hospital in Manhattan, where she lives in the co-op apartment Barry left her when he moved to L.A. in 1978. Her prognosis was deemed good. At that point Edna proved she is still a world-class Jewish mother. “She told me to go on with the book tour and forget about her,” Manilow says. “That’s all it took. I couldn’t stay away from her.”

As a reading of Sweet Life makes clear, Manilow has always had a gift for compromise, for getting what he wants while pleasing his elders. At Arista he fleshed out his albums with his own material, while letting Clive Davis pick the hit singles. In 1973 he found himself forced to choose between serving as musical director for Bette Midler’s first big national tour and pleasing his record company by doing his own tour to promote his debut album, which he was not sure would succeed. He went with Bette, but persuaded her people to let him do a brief solo set leading off the second act of her show.

With his mother hospitalized during the same week that he was due to sign books in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago recently, Manilow faced a similar dilemma. His response was to charter a Learjet for the week and fly back to New York each night to “sit by her bed and hold her hand.”

Still, the situation was delicate. After Barry’s father, a truck driver named Harold Kelliher, and his mother divorced when Barry was a baby, Edna and her parents had raised Barry in a three-room apartment in Brooklyn. Though the adults fought with each other, he was the apple of their eye. As for Barry, “I was crazy about the black-haired beauty who was my mother,” he writes in Sweet Life, “She wasn’t really beautiful—she was skinny and gawky and had buck teeth and a long nose. But she was beautiful to me…. Into our apartment she’d stride after her day’s work [as a travel agency secretary], wearing spiky high heels and a tight-fitting dress, smoking, smiling, shouting ‘Hiya, Babe!’ to me.”

As he also describes, Edna attempted suicide three times—after 21-year-old Barry eloped with his high school sweetheart, Susan (the marriage lasted a little over a year), and twice after Edna and her second husband, Willie Murphy, moved into an apartment directly above Barry’s bachelor pad in Brooklyn.

“I thought it was somehow my fault,” Manilow says of the suicide attempts. “I felt helpless and terribly sad.” Going public about the incidents is fine, though. “I wouldn’t have published anything without her approval and input,” he explains. “She looked at the book and said, ‘It’s not gonna be a best-seller because it doesn’t have enough trash in it. You’re a nice boy. It’s a nice book.’ Then she put it down and picked up Patty Duke’s book.”

Being nice has always been Barry’s bugaboo. Having written his book and made his jazzy new album, he says he’s feeling stronger now. “It became clear to me I should do what I love doing rather than looking for the approval of others,” he says.

Manilow does admit to “one regret—not having a kid.” A few years ago he called up his ex-wife. “Her son answered, and my heart sank to my knees,” Manilow says. “I thought, ‘He could have been mine.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever have a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid and a white picket fence. Maybe my legacy will be elevator music. Who knows?”