April 21, 2022: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It's with a heavy heart I attempt to put into words what Robert Morse meant to me as an actor and as a friend. I cherished every hour I got to spend with Bobby and now that he's gone, a month shy of his ninety-first birthday, trying to encapsulate my more than fifty years of hero worship is not an easy task. I knew he had been ill for some time and over the last few months I found myself thinking about him more and more, seeking bits of video on YouTube or wherever to keep the memory of his unique talent fresh in my mind. In fact, only Tuesday night I was watching a compilation of scenes of his best work from Mad Men, only to receive the news less than twenty-four hours later that he was gone.
The word brilliant gets tossed around a lot, but Robert Morse was just that — a brilliant comic talent. If you saw him on stage, it was there right in front of you. I'm not old enough to have seen him in 1961 when he got the reviews of a lifetime as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (though I've watched the 1967 film version a hundred times). But I did get to see his Joe/Daphne in Sugar in 1972, which showcased his one-of-a-kind comedic chops, and his Truman Capote in Tru in 1991 (pure genius), for which he received a second set of reviews of a lifetime. For Finch and Capote, he won two Tony Awards for Best Actor, one of only six men to do so in both a musical and a straight play (for the record, the others are Rex Harrison, Zero Mostel, Christopher Plummer, Harvey Fierstein and Kevin Kline).
This Newton, Massachusetts native struggled early on when he came to New York to seek his fortune, as most actors do, but he found relatively quick success at age twenty-four when he created the role of Barnaby Tucker in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker (1955). Of that original Broadway cast, he was the only one to repeat his role in the 1958 film version, which also marked the year of his first Tony Award nomination, playing a thinly disguised version of then-Boy Wonder producer Harold Prince in Say Darling. During one of our many conversations that would eventually cover the full scope of his nearly seventy-year career, he told me about how he'd earned his elevated star billing after his Tony nomination:
I mean, not to blow my own horn, but I deserved that billing. I was wonderful in that part. I remember that Abe Burrows used to say to the cast, "Leave Bobby alone. Just watch him. If you think he’s doing too much, he’s not." One of my favorites among the cast was Horace McMahon, who played the press agent. There was one bit I did that he loved in particular. Just before the moment, he would often tap me with a rolled-up newspaper he was holding, and under his breath say to me, "Go get ’em, Bobby." Oh, I had the best time in that show. The best.
"If you think he's doing too much, he's not." That's extraordinary confidence in an actor from a director, but Abe Burrows knew what he was doing. By casting him a few years later in How to Succeed, Burrows drew exactly the sort of performance he expected from him. One time, Bobby shared with me his favorite bit of direction he ever got from Burrows:
He would give you notes. He used to have them dictated to a secretary and you would get your notes for the day. I wish I’d saved them. He would say things like, “At the end of Act One, in the second scene, Bobby… exit five minutes sooner.” Imagine getting a note like that and not preserving it?
In 1959, he co-starred with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon in Take Me Along, Bob Merrill's musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! for which he received another Tony nomination (Gleason grabbed that trophy). He told me that he loved doing the show and that one time he knocked on Walter Pidgeon's dressing room door and was told to "come in" and there was Pidgeon peeing in the sink. Off Bobby's shocked look, Pidgeon said, "Don't you know this is done in all the star dressing rooms?"
But it was How to Succeed that elevated his career to the next level leading to years in Hollywood working in film and television. Throughout the 1960s, he starred in seven films and That's Life, a weekly musical TV series, all of which kept him away from Broadway. He didn't return until Sugar eleven years after he first played Finch. This musical version of Some Like It Hot had Bobby in the Jack Lemmon role and he walked away with the reviews. My favorite quote came from Marilyn Stasio, then reviewing for Cue Magazine: “Robert Morse is a dimpled talent bliss. He’s the jimmies on an ice cream cone. A winning lottery ticket. A homer in the bottom of the ninth.”
Returning to Broadway four years later in an ill-conceived musical titled So Long 174th Street, Bobby was miscast in a role that should have been played by an actor half his age. It was a personal disappointment and not the first he would suffer during some lean years throughout the 1980s. It wasn't until 1989 when, in a twist of fate, he wound up replacing the previously cast singer/songwriter Paul Williams as the title role in Tru. It was a personal triumph and — no question about it — a comeback. He didn't really do as much an imitation of Capote's infamous nasal southern twang, but rather embodied the essence of the man. The humor, the playfulness, the self-doubt, the self-hatred and the cruelty. He held the stage for nearly two hours and was captivating. In addition to his Tony, he won an Emmy as Outstanding Leading Actor in a Mini-Series or Movie when it aired on PBS in 1992.
Then, at age seventy-five, came Mad Men. Six seasons of steady employment and many trips to the Emmys (it won Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row and he personally received five nominations). A true gift to the septuagenarian actor, it was also a gift to the show's legions of fans the world over. Casting Bobby as Bertram Cooper was an homage to his having played Finch in the 1960s Madison Avenue corporate culture that How to Succeed had satirized forty years earlier. But the role wasn't written for him, as some people think. As series creator Matthew Weiner told the Wall Street Journal in 2008: “We mostly wanted unknowns in the cast. I felt that Robert was too famous, and I also didn’t want to be winking at the audience. But when he read for us, I thought ‘this is a great actor.’ He’s one of those performers like Christopher Walken who has such a peculiar cadence and such a naturally strange take that you never know what it’s going to sound like, but you know it’s going to be real. Everything I give him he hits out of the park.”
That praise didn't stop Weiner from killing off Bert Cooper at the end of Mad Men's penultimate season, but he did give him a proper sendoff using the actor's well-known audience appeal as a musical theatre actor par excellence. This was the inspired and beautiful goodbye with Bert appearing as if from the dead to a dazed Don Draper (Jon Hamm):
That final wave? He came up with it. A Bobby Morse touch.
And speaking of final waves, Bobby made his last Broadway appearance in the smash all-star revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page (2018) at age eighty-five. He only had two small scenes but he made a meal of them, utilizing not just his bag of tricks, but his whole self as an actor. I treasure a dinner we had during the run at Sardi's across the street from the Broadhurst, where he was playing. He told me a story of when Tom Bosley taught him how to tip the maître d' there every so often so he would always be assured of a good table. Only one night, Bobby tipped Vincent Sardi himself, which led to a lifelong friendship with the restauranteur. Here's Bobby taking his bow at the Front Page curtain call (check out how admiringly both John Slattery and Nathan Lane are looking at him). I adore this photo.
One last story of a personal nature.
On the day I officially interviewed him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, he arrived at my house in Los Angeles where I met him in the driveway. Although we had become friendly by this point, I had to level with him. With emotion, I blurted out to him, “Bobby, I don’t know where to begin to tell you what it means to me, after all the years I spent as a kid in my bedroom on Long Island singing along with you on the How to Succeed record, to have you to my home today. I mean, I own a house!” He gave me a big hug, and later, after we’d exhausted a great deal of talk, this quote is the one I most cherish:
You have just floored me with this information. I mean I go around pretty fucking depressed most of the time. It’s lonely at the top [laughing]. But what you’ve regaled me with — this conversation — has buoyed me up! It’s touched me… and it’s going to last at least an hour!
Rest In Peace, Bobby.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, follow me here on Scrollstack and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.