Remembering the great Robert Morse

Robert Morse, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1961. (uncredited photo via website of Judy Harris)

News has just broken that the Tony®, Emmy®, Drama Desk® and Grammy® award-winning actor Robert Morse has died aged 90.

A personal favourite of mine, Morse is one of the few actors to have won Tony® Awards for both Best Actor in a Play and Best Actor in a Musical, in an impressive career spanning more than 6 decades, with notable roles across television, film and, of course, the stage.

Robert Morse may be best known to younger folk from the series MAD MEN, where he played Bertram Cooper, a founding partner in the advertising agency Sterling Cooper. Morse was Emmy-nominated for his guest role in the series in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, notching up 58 episodes in which he appeared, with a memorable finale as an angel, a link to which is at the foot of this article.

For those of us who can remember further back, Robert Morse came to light as a gifted actor from his work in many Broadway plays, notably as Barnaby in Thornton Wilder’s THE MATCHMAKER in 1955 in a cast headed by Ruth Gordon as Dolly Levi (and featuring in a supporting role a young Prunella Scales!) . Morse later reprised his role in the 1958 film version of the play, being the only cast member to do so. Thankfully, this preserves a delightful Morse performance, full of youthful ambition and idealism.

Comedy-lovers would have glimpsed Morse in 1956, when he had a bit part in TV’s best comedy show, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka SGT. BILKO), in an episode called BILKO GOES TO COLLEGE (series two, episode three) where Morse played a member of a puny football team built up by Bilko to appear as giant-killers. (Morse and Silvers worked together again in Disney’s 1970 film THE BOATNIKS – by which time their statures had equalised).

Phil Silvers (centre) and Robert Morse (right) in SGT BILKO, series 2 episode 3 – 1956

He was Tony-nominated for Best Featured Actor in 1958 for SAY, DARLING and in 1959 for Best Actor in TAKE ME ALONG. But his stardom came fully to fruition in the role of sly New York window-cleaner, J. Pierrepont Finch, who begins a meteoric rise from the mail room to president of the company in the satirical musical HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (by Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows) also directed by Burrows, the show was choreographed and staged by Bob Fosse.

The show won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The cast album won the Grammy Award and the show was eventually filmed complete with Morse (and Broadway co-star Rudy Vallee as gullible boss J B Biggley- a role originally offered in the stage version to Terry-Thomas) in 1967 for The Mirsich Corporation, distributed by United Artists. The movie is a rare successful translation from stage to screen, as impish and light on its feet as its star.

HOW TO SUCCEED… began rehearsals on August 3, 1961 and opened on October 14, 1961 at the 46th Street Theatre in New York City, where it ran for over 3 years, in 1,417 performances, closing on March 6th 1965, making it the fifth longest running musical of that time. Morse stayed with the show for two years before moving on. In his time there, he recalled that John F. Kennedy came to see the show. “He came backstage and shook my hand. He sent me a lovely, lovely picture, ‘With Esteemed and Best Wishes, John F. Kennedy.’ Those are the memories that I now hold on to because as you get older, sometimes you think ‘Oh my God, I didn’t do anything.’ And then you go to IMDb and you look at everything you’ve done and go, ‘Hey, be proud of yourself.’”

HOW TO SUCCEED… opened in London’s West End at the Shaftesbury Theatre on the 28th March, 1963 notching up 520 performances. There were also productions in Paris, Australia, Israel, Denmark and Japan as well as two US national tours.

Sadly, London was not to see Morse as Finch. Warren Berlinger (Finch), Billy De Wolfe (Biggley) were the leads for London.

The Broadway stage had more treats in store for Morse- playing the Jack Lemmon part in the first stage musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 movie SOME LIKE IT HOT, entitled SUGAR in 1972 bringing him another Tony nomination; and later his one man show about Truman Capote, TRU in 1989 bringing him the Tony and Drama Desk Awards. The show was later adapted for television, winning Morse Best Actor in the 1993 Primetime Emmy Awards.

Aged 85, Morse returned to Broadway for a delightful cameo (Silas Pinkus) in a revival of Hecht and MacArthur’s THE FRONT PAGE alongside Nathan Lane, John Slattery and John Goodman in a limited run starting in September 2016.

So it appears that Morse never made it to England. But if you look closer into the history books, you’ll find that he did. And I was lucky enough to be there. Let me tell you a bit about it.

LIGHT UP THE SKY was a Moss Hart (1904-1961) play about the theatrical lives of theatrical folk, in three acts centred around an opening night. This was the world that Hart knew, and loved, like the back of his hand. Hart’s writing flows with affection, wry observation and a knowingness of the special world of theatre, and the uncertainty, bravado and high-stakes gambling of putting on a show. It’s a love letter to the Golden Age of American theatre, crammed with charismatic personalities, quick-fire dialogue and all the quips, tricks and business you’d expect of a master craftsman like Hart.

Allegedly based on folk he knew (some saw the depictions as too close for comfort and threatened to sue), the 1948 play had never reached UK shores until 1985, when it opened at the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead for two weeks (20 August to 7 September ) before transferring to the Old Vic for a four-week run (11 September to 19 October). The show was produced by Bill Kenwright and directed by Keith Hack.

Heading the cast was a fellow called…Robert Morse. And he certainly lit up the Old Vic with his mercurial performance. With a notable supporting cast including Robert Stephens, Kate O’Mara, Hannah Gordon and Maxine Audley, it was a theatrical treat that audiences flocked to.

My dear American friend Adam was visiting the UK at the time, and we both leapt at the chance of seeing one of our favourite actors live.

Set in a Boston hotel room, the play is in three acts covering the span of an opening night of an out-of-town tryout for the first play of a truck-driver-turned-playwright who is suddenly immersed into this unfamiliar showbusiness world, where the participants walk the familiar tightrope of uncertainty as to the reception of the new play. The play is populated by comedic characters- the volcanically-temperamental leading lady; her sarcastic, gin-rummy-playing mother; the very flamboyant director; the wily producer; and his ice-skating, wise-cracking wife. Their precarious relationships are amusingly tried and tested back and forth as Hart highlights how suddenly friend can turn to foe and hit can turn to flop.

Act One is dripping with “darling”s and sweetness. Act Two, when the group start doubting the show, the bitching flies hard and fast (and very funny); then when the reactions confirm it was a hit all along, the ruffled feathers are soothed with more sweetness and we get the theatrical happy ending we and the characters needed.

“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifetime infection.” – author/director Moss Hart, in his written introduction to LIGHT UP THE SKY

Morse plays producer Sidney Black, the wily producer, and it is he that really powers the show- and what power he gave us! Every moment on that stage he was fully invested , driving it with sheer force of personality, holding the audience firmly but warmly in the very palm of his hand, in a finely-layered performance that drew several encores the night that we attended- and rightly so. As Adam said recently remembering the performance “Morse played the audience to perfection… an unforgettable performance of a master.”

We two twenty-something theatregoers loved it so much that we went back the next week and saw it again! And we never forgot it.

A funny little story arose many years later when my previously mentioned friend Adam, now married to Leigh, (one of the TV and film world’s most in-demand acting coaches, who counts several Oscar winners amongst her clientele) were off to an Awards ceremony in Los Angeles. They took a good friend of theirs, a young actor who was just starting to make a name for himself. By coincidence, this young man found himself seated next to the legendary Robert Morse. They exchanged “Hi”s and the young man settled back into his seat, completely unaware of who this old guy was sitting next to him. Adam and Leigh, sitting next along the row, were open-mouthed. It was only when the ceremony had finished and the audience were filing out that Leigh and Adam managed to greet Morse, briefly. They exchanged knowing glances. Talking to Adam and Leigh, Morse gestured to the young actor almost imperceptibly, and as he left, chuckled and simply said “Tell him”.

Thank you Robert Morse for the wonderful performances you have shared with audiences around the world, those on stage, and those we can still enjoy on film and video. I, for one, will never forget your special talent which could truly – and uniquely- light up a theatre.

See a 2011 interview with Robert Morse below (interview starts at 18minutes in)

See Robert Morse win the 1990 Tony Award for Best Actor for TRU below

See Robert Morse’s Tony and Emmy-award winning performance in TRU below (Thanks to YouTube poster erp65 for posting)

See Robert Morse starring in 1968’s THAT’S LIFE in the (incomplete) pilot episode here (Thanks to YouTube poster Times Past Television for posting)

See the THAT’S LIFE 60-minute special OUR WEDDING episode below (Thanks to YouTube poster Times Past Television for posting)

See Morse as Bert Cooper in his delightful finale from MAD MEN (2015)

Your chance to explore Broadway’s historic Theatres!

Here’s another interesting free (donations requested) online event happening on Thursday 27th January at 6.30pm GMT from Kensington and Chelsea Libraries and presented by Anthony Robins. For any of our friends joining from New York itself, your local start time is 1.30pm.

BEHIND THE BRIGHT LIGHTS: The Fabulous Broadway Theatres is presented by architectural author Anthony Robins and will definitely be worth a watch.

Visitors to New York invariably find their way to the Broadway theatre, drawn by long-running musicals, showy imports, and occasional straight plays.

What many never realize is that Broadway offers another artistic and historical resource that is unique to New York City: the theatres themselves.

With three-quarters of a century of history behind them, the forty surviving theatres are largely intact, and stand as stunning works of art in themselves, as well as monuments to the lively history of American theatre.

This will be a Zoom webinar. All those who book will get the LINK TO JOIN 24hrs and on the day of the event.

Register to attend here