June 8, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Yeah, if you read my stuff regularly, you all know pretty much know to whom I refer as my favorite actor. But first this:
When it comes to certain individuals in the arts, celebrations of their centenaries can sometimes take up the entire year of their birth. For example, 2018 has seen museum exhibits all over the country deservedly devoted to Leonard Bernstein, who was born August 25th, 1918. As a composer and conductor, he not only broadened an appreciation for classical music, he changed the way it was heard. His accomplishments were awesome, particularly to me when, as a child, I would watch his televised Young People’s Concerts, which were groundbreaking. Bernstein was a great teacher, and for that, people the world over will forever be in his dept.
Though in no way any sort of match for what Bernstein contributed to the arts, this year also marks the centenary of the actor Robert Preston, born on this date in 1918. I may be the only one marking it, but if it offers me a chance to personally write about his influence over my life, both artistically and spiritually, and the joy he brought me and the inspiration he provided, then so be it.
I’ve made no secret of how Robert Preston (without his ever knowing it, of course) encouraged me to go into the theatre by way of his extraordinary magnetism as a performer. When in 1962, I first experienced his larger-than-life Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, on one of the largest movie screens in the world at Radio City Music Hall, I was mesmerized. If you have read my book Up in the Cheap Seats, the entire Preface is about how much Preston meant to me as a five-year-old child, on that day when I essentially decided to become an actor — which miraculously — somehow came to pass.
I’m writing this birthday tribute from my temporary summer home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, only 50 miles south of Newton Highlands, the town outside Boston in which Preston was born in 1918. Three years later, his family moved to Southern California, where he grew up in a poor downtown Los Angeles neighborhood, mainly inhabited by Latino immigrants. As a child, Preston would sit outside on warm evenings, listening to Spanish songs strummed on guitars and other instruments, gaining an appreciation for music that he said stayed with him his whole life. How ironic then that he didn’t make his stage debut, in a musical — The Music Man — until he was thirty-nine, and after he had appeared in more than forty films and television shows, and eight Broadway plays.
Much has been said about Preston’s performance as Harold Hill, but my personal favorite was what appeared on the back of the Original Cast Recording album jacket of the 1967 musical, I Do! I Do!, in which he co-starred with Mary Martin. That two-hander served as my introduction to live theatre — my very first Broadway show — which I saw at the age of ten-and-a-half. The first sentence of Preston’s bio was something I committed to memory, and that has stayed with me for fifty years:
“Robert Preston’s overnight success — and it happened only after years of hard work — came on December 19, 1957, when the New York drama critics rushed to their typewriters, brushed off their dictionaries to find new superlatives, and hailed Mr. Preston ecstatically for his performance as ‘Professor’ Harold Hill in the title role of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man.”
When I first read those words, the pre-teen in me believed every one of them. And why not? It was easy to picture those critics rushing back after opening night to their newsrooms (as they really once did) to literally “brush off their dictionaries” and bang out reviews on their typewriters. And why not? As Harold Hill, Preston received just that sort of praise. Walter Kerr, who I’ve often said, wrote a love letter to an actor better than anyone, described it with his usual insight into the actor’s process few critics have ever possessed: “But even if he did not sing plausibly and swing around the stage like a ballet dancer, Mr. Preston would be ideal as the confidence man. His personal warmth puts the audience in a glow. And like all first rate comedians, he can concentrate on the business at hand with fierce and deceptive dedication. He believes in what he is doing, no matter how fantastic it may be. Every moment seems to be crucial.”
One of the other gifts given to me by Preston was that by studying his life and career, I learned how to behave like a true professional. Over the years, I would ask anyone who shared a stage or movie set with him what he was like and the answer was always the same: he was the best person to work with. You can see it even in some of the worst films he did back in the 30s and 40s, or even in something like his final film role in The Last Starfighter, where he played a sort of intergalactic Harold Hill. He was always 100% committed. I doubt he knew any other way to do it. It was said that Preston had a sign in his dressing room that read “Happiness is knowing your lyrics,” which summed him up perfectly. He was practical and humorous; always a winning combination.
I’m a hell of a lot older now than the five-year-old that fell in love with Robert Preston — and still grateful he was the one who led me on the path to becoming an actor. Over the years, I’ve seen actors of every stripe who have given greater performances, but Preston will always remain my favorite. Seeing him on screen, even in roles that held him back a bit, you could always feel his energy seething just below the surface. And when given the chance to let loose, the delight he got in performing was infectious. Though he died more than thirty years ago, Preston’s majestic voice on the original cast albums of The Music Man, Ben Franklin in Paris, I Do! I Do! and Mack and Mabel are there for the listening; to feed off that incredible positive energy that made him a special and unique talent that will forever endure.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway at Amazon.com, available in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.