Tony-winning mischievous comedy star Robert Morse dies at 90


Robert Morse, whose mischievous smile and gaped teeth and expert comedic timing made him a Tony-winning Broadway star as the charming business schemer in the 1961 musical ‘How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying’ , who went on to win another Tony for his eerily realistic portrayal of writer Truman Capote in “Tru,” and who capped his long career with a triumphant return to the corporate world in the acclaimed television series “Mad Men “, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90 years old.

His death was confirmed by his agent, David Shaul.

Small in stature but larger than life as a performer, Mr. Morse was still a relative newcomer to the scene when he took Broadway by storm in ‘How to Succeed’. Directed (and partly written) by Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and based on a book by Shepherd Mead, the show, a broad business satire, was set at World Wide Wicket headquarters. Company, led by its brooding president, JB Biggley (Rudy Vallée). The plot revolved around the determined efforts of an ambitious young window cleaner named J. Pierrepont Finch, played with sly humor by Mr. Morse, to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Among the many highlights of the show was the restroom scene in which Mr. Morse delivered a heartfelt rendition of the song “I Believe in You” while looking rapturously at himself in a mirror.

“How to Succeed” ran for more than 1,400 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including one for Mr. Morse for Best Actor in a Musical, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 1967 film adaptation, with Mr. Morse and Mr. Vallée repeating their roles, was also a success, and the show was revived twice on Broadway.

Mr. Morse has always seemed more comfortable on stage than on screen. Five years before “How to Succeed” opened, he made his uncredited and virtually unseen Hollywood debut (his face was wrapped in bandages) in the World War II drama “The Proud and Profane.” With no other screen roles in sight, he returned to New York, where he had previously studied acting with Lee Strasberg, and where he auditioned for director Tyrone Guthrie and landed his first Broadway role in “The Matchmaker.” “, the comedy of Thornton Wilder. on the search for a new wife by a widowed merchant. Ruth Gordon played the title role, and Mr. Morse and Arthur Hill played the clerks in the merchant’s shop. Mr. Morse would reprise his role in the 1958 film adaptation.

Mr. Morse’s Broadway career continued with the comedy “Say, Darling” (1958), in which he played an avid young producer, and “Take Me Along” (1959), a musical based on the play. “Ah, Wilderness” by Eugene O’Neill. ! in which Mr. Morse was an uncertain teenager, Walter Pidgeon his sympathetic father and Jackie Gleason his alcoholic uncle. Then came his turn to star in “How to Succeed”.

His success on this show led to movie offers, but not movie stardom; he rarely had a screen vehicle that fit him comfortably. “The roles I might play”, he observed to the Sunday News of New York in 1965, “they give to Jack Lemmon”.

When he co-starred with Robert Goulet in the sex farce “Honeymoon Hotel” in 1964, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “It’s hard to imagine good actors being given worse material to work with.” He fared better, but only marginally, in “The Loved One” (1965), a freewheeling adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s scathing novel about America’s lucrative funeral industry in which he was improbably cast as a British poet who finds work in a pet graveyard, and “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967), in which Mr. Morse gives another husband (Walter Matthau) advice on how to cheat his wife.

Television was more hospitable. In addition to appearances on various shows in the 1960s and 1970s, he co-starred with actress EJ Peaker in the 1968 series “That’s Life,” an unusual hybrid of sitcom and variety show that chronicled the courtship story of a young couple. and marriage through sketches, monologues, songs and dances. Perhaps too ambitious for its own good – “We produce what amounts to a new musical every week,” Mr. Morse told an interviewer – it only lasted one season.

Mr. Morse returned to Broadway in 1972 in “Sugar”, a musical based on the Billy Wilder film “Some Like It Hot” about two Chicago musicians – Tony Roberts in the role originally played by Tony Curtis and Mr. Morse, fittingly, as Jack Lemmon – who runs away from local gangsters by dressing up as women and joining a group of girls en route to Miami. It earned Mr. Morse another Tony nomination and was a modest success, lasting over a year.

But his next show, the 1976 musical ‘So Long, 174th Street’, based on the play ‘Enter Laughing’ – with Mr. Morse, still looking for a barely 45-year-old boy, as a budding actor about half his age – received harsh reviews and shut down within weeks. It was Mr. Morse’s last Broadway appearance in over a decade.

He kept busy in the years that followed, but choice roles were few and he struggled with depression. He also had drug and alcohol problems, although he maintained that these problems did not interfere with his work; looking back to 1989, he told The Times, “It was the other 22 hours I had a problem with.”

He performed in a number of out-of-town revivals, including a production of “How to Succeed” in Los Angeles. He was a familiar face on TV on shows like “Love, American Style” and “Murder, She Wrote” — and a familiar voice, too, on cartoon shows like “Pound Puppies.” But he longed to escape a casting locker he knew he had helped create.

“I’m the short, funny guy,” he said sadly in a 1972 Times interview. “It’s very hard to get by.” Eight years earlier, he had told another interviewer: “I consider myself an actor. I happen to have comedic flair, but that doesn’t mean I plan to spend my life as a comedian.

It took him a while to find the perfect dramatic showcase, but he found it in 1989 on “Tru,” Jay Presson Allen’s one-man show about Truman Capote. Almost unrecognizable in his heavy makeup and utterly convincing in his voice and mannerisms, he was Capote incarnate, alone in his flat in 1975 and brooding over the friendships he had lost after excerpts from his gossip novel were published in course, “Answered Prayers”. Mr. Morse’s performance earned him his second Tony Award. A television adaptation of “Tru” for the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1992 also won him an Emmy.

Robert Alan Morse was born on May 18, 1931 in Newton, Mass. His father, Charles, ran a chain of cinemas. His mother, May (Silver) Morse, was a pianist.

In high school, Mr. Morse earned a reputation as a class clown; a sympathetic music teacher helped transfer his energy from the classroom to the theatre. He spent a summer with the Peterborough Players in New Hampshire, came to New York and, after trying and failing to get an acting job, joined the Navy in 1950. After his discharge four years later, he returned to New York and enrolled in the American Theater Wing.

Mr. Morse’s first marriage, to Carole Ann D’Andrea, a dancer, ended in divorce. They had three daughters, Robin, Andrea and Hilary. He and his second wife, Elizabeth Roberts, an advertising executive, had a daughter, Allyn, and a son, Charles.

His survivors include his wife and children.

Mr. Morse’s success in “Tru” ensured that he would no longer be considered, in his own words, “an aging pixie”. A wider variety of roles followed, including, in 2016, a return to Broadway in a star-studded revival of “The Front Page.”

“In the small but crucial role of a messenger from the Governor’s office,” Ben Brantley wrote in The Times, “Mr. Morse, who made his Broadway debut more than 60 years ago, proves he can still steal a scene without breaking a sweat.

But for the last three decades of his life, he was mostly seen on television. He appeared in more than a dozen episodes of the 2000 CBS series “City of Angels” as the unpredictable president of an urban hospital. He continued to make occasional television appearances and do cartoon dubbing until last year.

In 2007, he came full circle when he was cast as the eccentric head of an advertising agency in the hit AMC series “Mad Men,” which is set around the same time as “How to Succeed.” The role earned him five Emmy nominations.

“I was thrilled when Matt called me and said, ‘We’d love for you to do this show,'” Morse told The Times in 2014, referring to show creator Matthew Weiner. “I said I’d be happy to be Bertram Cooper, chairman of the board, and sit behind a desk. It looked like the road company from “How to Succeed”.

Although Bertram Cooper had a dramatic role, Mr. Morse was able to return to his musical comedy roots in its final episode, which aired in the spring of 2014, when the character died – and then reappeared, to fantastic song and dance. sequence, to sing the old standard “The best things in life are free”.

“What a send!” said Mr. Morse. “The opportunity to shine in the spotlight that Matt Weiner gave me – it was an absolute love letter. Christmas and New Years, all rolled into one.

Peter Keepnews and Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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