June 8, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The actor Robert Preston was born 102 years ago today. His name has snuck his way into a number of the columns I’ve been writing for the past four years due to my ample admiration and affection for him, serving as he did for my inspiration to become an actor. I wrote extensively of the effect his performance in The Music Man had on me in my book Up in the Cheap Seats, when as a five-year old I first saw him in the 1962 film version of the fabled Broadway production. I was awestruck at how the intense energy of his “Professor” Harold Hill leaped off the screen of the Radio City Music Hall and how I wished that he would have come to my hometown of Great Neck, Long Island to start a band. Believe me, this five-year-old would surely have followed him to the ends of the earth.
He was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, June 8, 1918, a city that has been the birthplace of some other pretty talented actors over the years such as Jack Lemmon, Robert Morse, Matt Damon, Amy Poehler, B.J. Novak and Matt LeBlanc. His parents moved across the country to East Los Angeles when Preston was two-years-old to live with his maternal grandparents in a home they had purchased in Lincoln Heights, one of the poorest sections of town. It was there that Preston was raised in a house that totaled eleven people, consisting of cousins and uncles and aunts. The neighbors were largely Mexican immigrants, and when it was time for Preston to enroll in school, he was the only white kid in the class. “I was also younger than the other children,” Preston said. “I felt strongly that I was a member of a minority group. It made a listener out of me. I hung around bashfully, listening to what everybody else said, and I’ve been a very careful listener ever since.”
It’s interesting to discover that someone who would grow up to exemplify such overbrimming confidence and brashness on stage and screen began as a shy child. But any actor worth their salt will tell you that listening is one of the key skills to being as good at the game as you can. Preston’s practice extended to the records that his mother would bring home. “I heard John Barrymore doing passages from Shakespeare long before I could appreciate them. Still, I always liked to listen and play them on the family Victrola — one of the early models, with the big horn and the picture of a white puppy dog on it”.
Being taken to plays at a young age, and even falling under the spell of a school janitor who was once a Shakespearean actor, led Preston to seeking ways to express himself through the spoken word. When the Depression hit, leaving his father to fend for whatever work he could get, Preston’s abilities as a young actor gained him employment that helped the family survive, such as when the fledgling Pasadena Playhouse (still standing and in operation today), gave him his first job at age sixteen. It was there he met his future wife, the actress Catherine Craig (née Feltus).
While still a teenager, he managed to get a part in a B-film titled King of Alcatraz, playing a crewman on a tanker, at a salary of $100 a week. Two other negligible films followed, but while playing the starring role in Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight at the Pasadena Playhouse, he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout which led to a long-term contract and his first big part under his first big director. And at that studio, they didn’t come any bigger than Cecil B. DeMille — and Preston was ready for his close-up. At age twenty (he always looked older), he was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s husband in Union Pacific, and from there on in was a steady and reliable player for the next twenty years, mostly at Paramount.
But the majority of the parts Preston was assigned didn’t satisfy him, tapping only a small portion of his talents as they did. There is a famous story that he liked to tell of how he thumbed his nose at The Great DeMille, balking when ordered by the dictatorial director not to mention his previous three films in order that DeMille could lay claim to discovering Preston as an unknown. “It’s not like you ever did any real work before I gave you your chance,” he told his young charge. Preston didn’t agree. “What about all I’ve done in the theatre?” DeMille sniffed and said, “I mean work.”
“Well, the only thing I’ve done that you’d call work was when I was at the Pasadena Playhouse and on the cleaning crew in the morning, then parking cars at Santa Anita Racetrack in the afternoon. After I told him that, from that point on, whenever DeMille talked me up on the press tour for Union Pacific, it was all about how he found this poor young boy in the parking lot of Santa Anita! Then the next year, after giving me the script for Northwest Mounted Police, he asked me how I liked it. I said, ‘it’s the same part I played for you last year. I’ll change costumes and play it again,’ and he said, ‘You ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, if it weren’t for me, you’d still be parking cars at Santa Anita!’ And he meant it.”
Only two years into his newfound status as a film star, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Preston, as so many young men did, enlisted. His three years of World War II service seasoned and matured him, but when he returned to Hollywood, the same old parts he was ordered to play offered nothing to reflect that. It wasn’t until 1950, and finally out of his Paramount contract, that he went to London to shoot a film. While there, he was exposed to the lives of English actors who would work at the studio by day, then head off to the theatre at night. It was a revelation to Preston that actors could do both. “I got green with envy,” he told the Washington Post in a 1984 interview. “America is the only country in the world where the capital of the theater and the capital of movies are 3,000 miles apart, so you have to make a choice on how you’ll spend your season.”
While en route from London to his California home, he decided to stop in New York and by chance ran into José Ferrer, who had just directed and starred in a revival of the comedy Twentieth Century. Timing being everything, it turned out Ferrer was looking for someone to replace him in the lead role of Oscar Jaffe. Without thinking twice, Preston volunteered himself. “Christ, I jumped at the chance and we signed a contract right there on a Dinty Moore’s napkin. I guess everything that’s happened to me in this business has always had a bit of luck accompanying it. But let’s face it, I deliver. All the New York critics came back to re-review Twentieth Century and watch this punk, Hollywood western actor fall on his ass. They were so thrilled I didn’t, I got a marvelous set of notices.”
Over the next six years Preston appeared in seven Broadway plays, excelling at both comedy and drama (not, however, in a musical). That opportunity came only when the creative team of The Music Man had already exhausted a long list of actors to play the larger-than-life role of Harold Hill. It was turned down by Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and Ray Bolger (among many others) before Preston was even given the chance to sing at an audition. Having never done a musical (can you believe it?), he charmed everyone on the spot and the decision was made then and there to forgo a “name” and offer the role to Preston, who didn’t even receive above the title billing when the show opened on December 19, 1957.
As a result of The Music Man, Preston’s career was set for the rest of his life. And for those that got to see him live over the ensuing two decades, especially in musicals, surely considered themselves lucky. Seeing him onstage was to experience pure joy, as Preston was present (in the best sense of the word) with both his fellow actors and audiences alike.
I’m a hell of a lot older now than the five-year-old that fell in love with Robert Preston and I’m still grateful he was the one who led me on the path to becoming an actor. Even in film roles that held him back a bit, you could always feel his energy seething below the surface; an animal ready to pounce. And when given the chance to let loose, the delight he got in performing was infectious, especially when towards the end of his career writer-director Blake Edwards wisely tapped Preston for his personal back-to-back triumphs in S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria (for which he received his one and only Academy Award nomination). Though he died thirty-three years ago, that majestic voice on the original cast albums of The Music Man, Ben Franklin in Paris, I Do! I Do! and Mack and Mabel is there for the listening, allowing listeners to feed off that incredible, positive energy that made him such a special and unique talent.
Robert Preston will always remain my favorite factor.
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 sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.