Donny Osmond – Living on the edge works most of the time

When Donny Osmond sang his first song on the Andy Williams Show at the tender age of five, he began a roller coaster ride that took him from the heights of success to the depths of despair and back again.

In 1979, at age 26, he saw himself as a “has-been.” But through faith and the love of his wife and family, Donny put himself back on track.

This fall, he plays Gaston in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ on Broadway, releases his updated autobiography in the US (it’s already a best seller in the UK), releases the first of a DVD collection of the best of the Donny and Marie variety show (which was on TV 30 years ago!), and provides the voice of a Jeep in the animated children’s release ‘Bob the Builder.’ But one aspect of his personal life overshadows all of those professional achievements: on August 21, Dylan Osmond celebrated his first birthday.

Look at him [Donny flashes a photo of his grandson at the beginning of the interview], isn’t he something? The day I found out I was going to be a grandfather my first reaction was, ‘It’s about time!’ It took Jeremy and Melissa [his son and daughter-in-law] a couple of years. I gave them books and everything, but they never read them. I was bugging them saying, ‘You know how this works, right?’

When Dylan was born, I was due to be away. I had scheduled a meeting and my wife said ‘What are you, crazy? You’ll never make it back in time.’ I was in Minneapolis. My nephew asked me to perform at a convention. He had asked me for years to do this. So finally I agreed to do it on the 20th of August. And then I was told that the baby was coming on August 21st. And it was too late to back out. They had already sent out the promotional material and everything. But I thought, ‘I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it!’ So, I did the concert, got on the first plane the next morning, landed, drove straight to the hospital, and Dylan arrived an hour later.

There were so many things that happened that day that they’re a blur but there’s one thing I’ll never forget, and it’s kind of emotional for me. As soon as I heard the first cry we were just outside the delivery room and the next thing I see is my son walking out with the baby in his arms. Here’s my 24-year-old son and he looks at me and says ‘This is my son.’ To see your little baby say that about his baby is a powerful moment.

I don’t know if I can put it into words what it means to be a grandfather, but the easiest way I can say it is I don’t feel the responsibility of the teaching process, just the loving process. You love him and then you send him home. You worry about him and everything, but it’s a whole different kind of concern. Because it’s not your full responsibility,you just have all the good stuff.

Whenever Jeremy and Melissa come over to the house and Dylan is getting just a little tired they’ll always turn to me and say, ‘It’s time for Dylan to go to sleep.’ And I don’t know what it is but I just start singing and rocking him and I take him into the other room just like I used to do with all my own kids. And there’s a song-I can’t even begin to tell you what it is. But it’s a kind of melody I came up with and I sang to all my kids. And it just pops out as I’m rocking him in my arms. And I’m able to put Dylan to sleep just like that.

When I went on Larry King they said could you bring a picture of your grandbaby. Then they decided they wanted me to bring a picture of Dylan and one of myself when I was about that age. They put the pictures together and we looked like brothers. It was so cool.

My wife and I talk about this a lot. We started having babies when I was 21. And our youngest is 8 and Dylan is just one. So there is the same span of years between the grandbaby and our 8-year-old as there is between our 8-year-old and 15-year-old. So it feels almost like a continuation of our family.

I remember when my first son was born-it was just the most unbelievable experience. When I saw his little arms moving, his feet kicking, his first cry, and then saw he came out as a cone head from the birth canal and I thought, ‘Oh no!’ But that was normal, you know. We were young. It was a little bit scary at times, but it was also pure joy.

When it came to parenting, I took some things from my father. My father was a strict dad. He was an Army sergeant, actually. He came from a broken home and never knew his dad because he died from an accident when my dad was three months old. So he never had a father. He had stepfathers who were extremely abusive-verbally and other ways. They made him sleep on the porch. So he never had a lot of love other than from his mom. His step dads treated his mom so poorly he couldn’t stand it.

And then he went into the Army. And he was a tough Army sergeant, so he was a tough dad, but a loving dad. I see that with a lot of people who have abusive dads or whatever and they can swing both ways. They can either follow suit or swing the other way. My father swung the pendulum.

I was a lot like my dad with my first two children. And they’ll be the first ones to tell you I was too tough. I tried to be the perfect dad. Hence the social anxiety disorder. The Type A personality. Trying to be Mr. Perfect-perfect husband, perfect dad. I tried too hard. I had a couple of run-ins with them and they sat me down and ripped me apart. And I deserved it.

And I remember on both occasions I kept saying to myself ‘Shut up and listen, they have feelings too.’ So I learned to be different with my other children. I think every parent goes through that-softening up at the end. And the older kids say, ‘They’re getting away with everything. I could never do that.’ I guess as a grandfather, Dylan will be able to get away with anything with me.

My sons are very different. Don (27) was named right-he’s junior through and through.

Jeremy (25) is completely the opposite. I worried about him through high school. He turned out to be a straight -A student and is going to medical school.

Brandon (21) is the life of the party. He’s my redhead and I joke he was in the oven a little too long-he came out with red hair. He’s the cutest guy. Whenever he walks into the room everybody smiles.

Christopher (15) is Mr. Casanova, a real lady-killer, chick magnet. He just finished his freshman year and already he’s in a play that only seniors are doing, but they wanted him in the play.

And what can I say about Joshua (8)? He’s just cute as a button. He’s really going to be something.

Where are the girls in the family? Well, I don’t know. I didn’t read that chapter, I guess. Now that we have a daughter-in-law, Debbie is not outnumbered anymore. She’s having a good time with that.

Donny is also having a good time. His updated autobiography, Life Is Just What You Make It, out in September, fills in the last ten years since the first edition was published. He admits his first autobiography where he laid bare his most intimate fears and bouts with social anxiety disorder was a huge professional risk for him. The risk paid off, but even now Donny isn’t quite sure why those terrible anxiety problems plagued him.

It’s hard to tell whether or not it had anything to do with being an entertainer from the age of five. Because you’re talking about the human mind, how do you explain it? How can you reason with it? You can’t control it; you have to embrace it.

I began to recognize I had this disorder before it manifested itself in a major way in 1994 when I was in Joseph [The Broadway play "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat"]. Yes, show business had something to do with it, but there are a lot of people in show business who don’t suffer with it. I think it had a lot to do with my upbringing. And with the fact that we always had the philosophy taught to us that we were out there to please the audience. And if you don’t please the audience, you’re not doing your job. And that is just poison. You don’t want that. You want to please yourself. Not in a narcissistic way. You still want to be aware of the feedback you’re getting from the audience.

When I was doing that show I was at the top of my game and I knew that if I didn’t get it right I’d be at the bottom of the game again. I think that’s what drove me to the abyss. I thought if I don’t give a good performance here I’m going to lose it again. And I know what it feels like at the bottom. The best advice I ever got at that time was from my wife. She said, ‘Go do an average job.’ At that one point in time I was really suffering badly in Minneapolis and it allowed me to go on stage. And if it weren’t for that advice I don’t think I could have done the show that night.

I’m a Type A personality. You’ve got to be careful about it because you have to give yourself what I call ‘atta boys.’ You have to pat yourself on the back while being careful not to get egomaniacal about it.

I just had to realize I did my best, the best I could do at that particular time.

The turning point for me was Donny & Marie [a 1998 talk show]. The reason why I point to that is because while I was doing that show I was still suffering from anxiety, not as much as before, but I remember before I went out there, knowing millions of people were going to listen to me and hear what I had to say and see what I had to do. And I was sure I was going to make an idiot out of myself. I would make a mistake and you know what? It was okay. I gave myself permission to make a mistake.

In some ways it conflicted with the advice of my parents not to just aim for the moon, but to shoot for the stars. It’s a great philosophy to have because it keeps you wanting to do better. So it’s a balance because you never want to settle for status quo. You want to reach for the stars. But the philosophy of my father was pretty appropriate in that he never said ‘You’re going to reach the stars.’ Because if you did reach the stars, what’s next? What’s there to live for? What’s your motivation?

Donny lives for his wife and family. Debbie has been Donny’s anchor since their marriage in 1978.

When I met Debbie she was dating my brother. She didn’t date him long. Then I started dating Debbie, but she didn’t care about me at all. For me, it was the thrill of the chase I guess.

I was in Vegas and I invited her family to the show. [Donny jokes] I thought if she could see the audience and how the other girls acted, she’d realize I’m important! I’m a good catch!

So we’re at the Hilton and I’m staying in Elvis’ suite and I got her parents tickets to another show. I asked Debbie up to the Elvis suite so that there were only the two of us. Very dangerous! But I was a good Mormon boy. Still, I pushed the envelope and I think that’s what turned the tables.

I always tried to make sure Debbie never saw the side of me that was Type A or suffering from anxiety. I hid it from her a lot of the time; I don’t know how I did it, but I never want to go through that again. It was horrible. There were times I was dying inside and I just hid it.

Just think about my early training. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, you get on stage and you perform. So it’s mind over matter. I was keeping all those emotions suppressed.

You would think with the kind of lifestyle I led with girls chasing and screaming and everything like that it would be a very exciting lifestyle, but for me it was a very isolated lifestyle. I don’t want to paint a ‘poor me’ picture. It was a very exciting childhood in that respect as far as the adulation, but from a personal point of view it was almost a living hell.

Debbie helped change that. I was dying inside. Getting married to Debbie was the best thing for my personal life. It was the worst thing a teen idol could do. It was the worst thing I could have done for my career. People warned me-they told me constantly what a risk it was.

I lost my career and when my career went down the tubes Donny & Marie went down the tubes and the Osmond brothers went down the tubes. The Osmond studio complex-a $50 to $60 million dollar estate-gone. Everybody pointed to Debbie and said it was her fault. According to certain people everything was her fault. I don’t know how she dealt with it. But together we got through it. And by the mid 1980s I was back in the game again.

One of the things I have always admired about Debbie is the fact that she was never caught up in worldly things. Even today, she doesn’t like driving fancy cars. She doesn’t want a fancy home. We have a piece of property where we want to build eventually, and I don’t know if she wants to. She says, ‘I love where I’m living.’ It’s still a beautiful home but it’s not the nicest home in the neighborhood. But she says ‘I’m happy. I don’t need anything else.’ This is typical of my wife.

I have to force her to go to the mall to buy something. She’s always taking care of other people. She’s always concerned about the kids, never herself. It’s never about her. She is just simply a beautiful woman. That’s why I like her and love her.

People say to me, ‘You’ve done it all; what’s next? What do you want to do?’ Well, anything that’s a challenge. Anything that keeps me wanting to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Ok, I’ve got a challenge in front of me. I’ve got another rung on the ladder to climb.’ But if I look back on the things that I’ve done in my life, I’m nothing but a gambler. And when you gamble with your career, that’s really serious. I think that in the long run if you live on life’s edge and you don’t play it too safe you come out ahead.

Sidebar: Back to Broadway

Donny will star as Gaston (the bombastic villain the audience loves to hate) in the Broadway hit ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ starting Sept. 19 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York for a nine-week limited engagement. He was on hand June 20 to introduce the 5,000th performance of the musical and let everyone know he’d be back in the fall to join the cast.

Before the opening curtain I made a little speech and then I watched the show. During intermission people came up for my autograph and this little girl, she couldn’t be more than five, turns to me and says, ‘Why are you so mean?’ And I said, ‘That’s not me, it’s Gaston!’

When I take on this role of Gaston, I could play it safe, but I don’t want to. I didn’t play it safe with Joseph, and it worked. I did play it safe with Little Johnny Jones. And it was a big mistake. I didn’t push it. It was Donny Osmond on stage playing a role. And unless you push the envelope a little bit and take people on a journey, you’re not really an entertainer. When I start doing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ it’s the one time I can only hope I get booed when I go out to take my curtain call as Gaston. That will mean I’m really doing my job!

Sidebar: Donny’s Dad and Frank Sinatra

Olive and George Osmond provided a great example for a successful marriage, and a close encounter his dad had with Frank Sinatra turned into a valuable life lesson for Donny.

My parents were together almost 60 years before my mother passed away. They were a perfect example for me. That’s not to say they were perfect, but given the circumstances they had-a family in show business, the challenge of all the drugs and the alcohol and the women that were around us all the time-they were able to keep the family together.

This story shows my dad’s moral fiber.

My brothers and I were appearing in Las Vegas with Nancy Sinatra. I was probably 11 at the time. Let’s just say she was having a bad day and there were stagehands that were also shooting their mouths off, cursing and swearing. Nerves were running high, everybody was nervous. Frank Sinatra was sitting there out in the audience. I kind of took it for granted – there’s Frank Sinatra and I thought he’s sitting there with his friend, Vito. My dad heard this language coming from everybody and walked up to Frank. Vito was there protecting Frank, but Frank pushed him back. And my father just ripped Frank.

He said, ‘This should not be happening in front of my boys. They shouldn’t be exposed to this.’ You get the idea. And then my father just walked away.

Backstage, the next day, Vito walks up to my dad. He says, ‘Are you George Osmond?’ My father says, ‘Yes, I am.’ Vito says, ‘Frank’s got a little present for you.’ I can only imagine what my dad was thinking because Vito reaches into his coat pocket – and he pulls out an envelope and says, ‘Frank wanted you to have this.’

My father opened it and pulled out a letter, and it was a hand-written note apologizing for the language that went on. And the P.S. says, ‘I hope this is sufficient for your trouble.’ He looks into the envelope and there’s a thousand dollars in cash. Back then that was a lot of money!

My father told me this story a couple of years ago. I had no idea this went on. And I said, ‘Father, tell me you still have the letter.’ And he said, ‘I don’t.’ It would have been worth a lot more than a thousand bucks today, let me tell you. I just thought to myself, to stand up to your beliefs like that and protect your children-my father’s got guts!

[SIDEBAR] The best of Donny and Marie

It’s been 30 years since the Donny and Marie variety show aired. Donny spent the last year sorting through the best moments from that hit series compiling a series of DVD’s coming out this fall.

When Marie and I were alone in the house while our brothers were performing- those were the great times when we really bonded. I think show business, particularly the Donny and Marie show, changed things. We were working together practically 24/7 and nobody likes each other that much. There were times she just couldn’t stand me and vice versa. Again the philosophy is the show must go on. The camera goes on, the smiles go on and you just do your job. Do I think I was made the butt of jokes too much on the show? Yes, but the interesting thing is as I looked back on all those 72 shows to find those moments, I can hardly remember them. All the great moments, they just jump off the screen and I find myself laughing, smiling, enjoying and reliving the great times.

Originally published in GRAND Magazine Sept/Oct 2006

MARY ANN COOPER

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