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THEATRICAL THROWBACK THURSDAY: Robert Morse Turns 84

Today we are saluting an iconic stage and screen star in honor of his 84th birthday this week, Robert Morse.

I Believe In You

Born on May 18, 1931, recognizable character actor and comedic leading man Robert Morse has carved out a distinctively unique career for himself over the course of his 60-plus years in show business. Making his Broadway debut in the acclaimed 1955 premiere production of Thornton Wilder's THE MATCHMAKER, Morse displayed an early cachet for comedy and winsomely winning ways with audiences, traits which he would further develop and explore in his many future endeavors both onstage and onscreen. Although he made his mainstage debut with a play, his most notable Broadway appearances in the decades that followed almost all resided in musicals, kicking off a few short years later with the run of the unique play with music SAY, DARLING, featuring a score by Golden Age dream team Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green along with a book by Abe Burrows, Richard Bissell and Marian Bissell, based on Bissell's book of the same name. As the 1950s came to a close, Morse found yet another musical showpiece in which to strut his considerable musical comedy stuff - this one based on no less than Eugene O'Neill's AH, WILDERNESS - titled TAKE ME ALONG, which boasted a score by Bob Merrill and a book by Joseph Stein and Robert Russell. Then destiny came calling.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING is unlike any other musical before or since, particularly given its absolutely gigantic focus on the leading character, and the smart and sharp book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilberg based on the book of the same name by Shepherd Mead along with the effervescent and endlessly entertaining Frank Loesser score ranks among the best of the best - even coming at the tail end of the Golden Age, as 1961 undoubtedly was. With assured direction by Burrows along with choreography by a newcomer named Bob Fosse, HOW TO SUCCEED was a smash hit in its own time - going on to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as a matter of fact - and Morse became one of the few Broadway performers to bring his stage performance to the silver screen via the 1967 film adaptation, Best Actor In A Musical Tony Award in tow. Today, those yearning to glean a glimpse of why this was a performance for the ages need look no further than the film version for an ample assortment of reasons - his incandescent joviality is nearly overwhelming, while one cannot help but be amused by how perfectly well-suited Morse is to the role of corporate ladder climber J. Pierrepont Finch. A match made in musical comedy heaven - and an unmistakably cherubic angel, too.

As history would have it, Morse enjoyed a varied film career following his big breakthrough to the culture at large with HOW TO SUCCEED, but he returned to Broadway 10 years later in yet another Jule Styne property, this one the stage adaptation of unforgettable Billy Wilder screen classic SOME LIKE IT HOT, titled SUGAR!, which managed to run over 500 performances in its original 1972 run. After that, one more major musical remains on his resume thanks to the short-lived SO LONG 174th ST., although Morse famously participated in the out of town tryout of musical sensation WICKED as The Wizard before leaving the production prior to its Broadway bow this century, as well. Of course, his moving performance as Truman Capote in one man tour de force TRU was his last Broadway appearance to date, winning a Tony Award for his efforts, and, thankfully, the entire production has been preserved on video for future generations to enjoy - which, needless to say, they certainly will.

Now, as MAD MEN fans around the world mourn the finale of the series this week, one could not ask for a more fitting time to tribute one of the show's most beloved and memorable characters - not to mention the actor who plays him. Therefore, a toast to Bert Cooper, to J. Pierrepont Finch, and, most of all, to the one and only Robert Morse.

Take a look at Robert Morse in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.

Also, see Morse accept his 1990 Tony Award for Best Actor In A Play.

Lastly, see Bert Cooper (aka Robert Morse)'s heavenly musical send-off on MAD MEN.

So, what has been your absolute favorite Robert Morse performance to date? Furthermore, what role would you like to see him take on some season soon - whether onstage or onscreen? With a talent this big and skills so versatile, even at 84 Robert Morse could very well surprise us all with what's next - especially given all the glories that have come before.


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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)