Robert Preston
Robert Preston Meservey

(1918-06-08)June 8, 1918
DiedMarch 21, 1987(1987-03-21) (aged 68)
Occupation(s)Actor, singer
Years active1938–1987
(m. 1940)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army Air Forces
Years of service1942–1945
Rank Captain
Unit386th Bombardment Group
Battles/warsWorld War II

Robert Preston Meservey (June 8, 1918 – March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor and singer. He is best known for originating the role of Professor Harold Hill in the 1957 musical The Music Man for which he received the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. He reprised the role in the 1962 film adaptation, for which he received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy nomination.

Preston made his Broadway debut in The Male Animal in 1952. He won two Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical for The Music Man (1957) and I Do! I Do! (1967) and was Tony-nominated for Mack and Mabel (1975). Preston collaborated twice with filmmaker Blake Edwards, first in S.O.B. (1981) and again in Victor/Victoria (1982), the later earning him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[1]

Early life and education

Preston was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth L. (née Rea) and Frank Wesley Meservey, a garment worker and a billing clerk for American Express.[2][3][4]


1938–1942: Career beginnings

Advertisement for Typhoon (1940) featuring Preston and Dorothy Lamour

Preston appeared in a stock company production of Julius Caesar and a Pasadena Playhouse production of Idiot's Delight. A Paramount Pictures attorney liked his work and recruited him to the studio.[5] The Los Angeles Times reported that Preston's mother was employed by Decca Records, Bing Crosby's label and was acquainted with Crosby's brother Everett, a talent agent; she convinced him to watch one of Preston's performances at the Pasadena Playhouse. The result was a contract with the Crosby agency and a movie deal with Paramount Pictures, Crosby's studio. Preston made his screen debut in 1938, in the crime dramas King of Alcatraz (1938) and Illegal Traffic.[6]

The studio ordered Preston to stop using his family name of Meservey.[7] As Robert Preston, the name by which he was known for his entire professional career, he appeared in many Hollywood films, predominantly but not exclusively Westerns. He was Digby Geste in the sound remake of Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, and he featured in North West Mounted Police (1940), also with Cooper. He played a Los Angeles police detective in the noir This Gun for Hire (1942).

1942–1945: Military service

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World War II interrupted Preston's Paramount assignments. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the United States Army Air Forces and served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. 9th Air Force with the 386th Bombardment Group (Medium). At the end of the war in Europe, the 386th and Captain Robert Meservey, an S-2 Officer (intelligence), were stationed in Sint-Truiden, Belgium. Meservey's job had been receiving intelligence reports from 9th Air Force headquarters and briefing the bomber crews on what to expect in accomplishing their missions.

1947–1956: Return to acting

When Preston resumed his movie career in 1947, it was as a freelance character actor, accepting roles for Paramount, RKO, MGM, and various independent producers. Although Preston acted in many movies, he never became a major star. In a 1984 interview, he recalled, "I played the lead in all the B pictures and the villain in all the epics. After a while, it was clear to me I had sort of reached what I was going to be in movies."[8] Preston found additional roles in 1950s television.

1957–1979: The Music Man and acclaim

Gregory Peck, Joan Bennett and Preston in The Macomber Affair (1947)

Preston is probably best known for his performance as Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's musical The Music Man (1957). "They'd run through all the musical comedy people before they cast me", Preston remembered years later.[8] He won a Tony Award for his performance. Preston appeared on the cover of Time on July 21, 1958.[9] He continued in the role until January 1959, when he was replaced by Eddie Albert for 18 months. In June 1960, Preston returned to the role for two weeks, until his successor, Bert Parks, became available. Parks finished the run while Preston was in Hollywood, busy with the film version of the show.[citation needed]

In 1961, Preston was asked to make a recording as part of a program by the President's Council on Physical Fitness to encourage schoolchildren to do more daily exercise. Copies of the recording of the song, Chicken Fat, written and composed by Meredith Willson, performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, were distributed to elementary schools across the nation and played for students as they performed calisthenics. The song later became a surprise novelty hit and part of many baby-boomers' childhood memories.[citation needed] In 1962, Preston played an important supporting role, as wagonmaster Roger Morgan, in MGM's epic How the West Was Won.

Preston and Mary Martin in the Broadway play I Do! I Do! (1966)

In 1965, he was the male part of a duo-lead musical, I Do! I Do! with Mary Martin, for which he won his second Tony Award. He played the title role in the musical Ben Franklin in Paris, and he originated the role of Henry II in the stage production of The Lion in Winter, whom Peter O'Toole portrayed in the film version, receiving an Academy Award nomination. In 1974, he starred alongside Bernadette Peters in Jerry Herman's Broadway musical Mack & Mabel as Mack Sennett, the famous silent film director. That same year, the film version of Mame, another Jerry Herman musical, was released with Preston starring, alongside Lucille Ball, in the role of Beauregard Burnside. In the film, which was not a box-office success, Preston sang "Loving You", which Herman wrote especially for Preston's film portrayal.[citation needed]

In 1978, Preston starred in another musical that did not make it to Broadway, The Prince of Grand Street, in which he played a matinee idol of New York's Yiddish theater who refused to renounce the roles he had played in his youth, despite having aged out of them. With a libretto and songs by Bob Merrill and direction by Gene Saks, the show closed during its Boston tryout.[10] In 1979, Preston portrayed a snake-handling family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in a CBS Western miniseries, The Chisholms, with Rosemary Harris as his wife, Minerva. The story chronicled the Chisholm family losing their land in Virginia and migrating to the west to begin a new life. When CBS tried to continue the saga as a series the following year, Preston reprised his role, his character dying in the fifth episode. The series, which also featured co-stars Ben Murphy, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten, lasted only four more episodes after Preston's departure.

1980–1987: Work with Blake Edwards

Preston appeared in several other stage and film musicals, including Victor/Victoria (1982), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His other film roles include Ace Bonner in Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner (1972), "Big Ed" Bookman in Semi-Tough (1977), and Dr. Irving Finegarten in Blake Edwards' 1981 Hollywood satire, S.O.B. His last theatrical film role was in The Last Starfighter (1984) as an interstellar con man/military recruiter called Centauri. He said that he based his approach to the character of Centauri on that which he had taken to Professor Harold Hill. Indeed, the role of Centauri was written for him with his performance as Harold Hill in mind.[11] In 1983, Preston played an aging gunfighter in September Gun, a CBS TV Western film opposite Patty Duke and Christopher Lloyd. He also starred in the well-received HBO 1985 movie Finnegan, Begin Again with Mary Tyler Moore. Preston's final role was in the television film Outrage! (1986); he portrayed a grief-stricken father who seeks justice for the brutal rape and murder of his daughter.[12]

Personal life and death

Preston married actress Catherine Craig in 1940.[13]

On March 21, 1987, at age 68, Preston died of lung cancer.[12]

He is the subject of a 2022 biography, Robert Preston: Forever the Music Man, written by Debra Warren.[14]

Acting credits


Year Title Role Notes
1938 King of Alcatraz Robert MacArthur
Illegal Traffic Charles Bent Martin
1939 Disbarred Bradley Kent
Union Pacific Dick Allen
Beau Geste Digby Geste
1940 Typhoon Johnny Potter
North West Mounted Police Ronnie Logan
Moon Over Burma Chuck Lane
1941 The Lady from Cheyenne Steve Lewis
Parachute Battalion Donald Morse
New York Town Paul Bryson, Jr.
The Night of January 16th Steve Van Ruyle
Pacific Blackout Robert Draper
1942 Star Spangled Rhythm Himself uncredited
Reap the Wild Wind Dan Cutler
This Gun for Hire Michael Crane
Wake Island Pvt. Joe Doyle
1943 Night Plane from Chungking Capt. Nick Stanton
Wings Up
1947 The Macomber Affair Francis Macomber
Variety Girl Himself
Wild Harvest Jim Davis
1948 Big City Rev. Philip Y. Andrews
Blood on the Moon Tate Riling
Whispering Smith Murray Sinclair
1949 Tulsa Brad Brady
The Lady Gambles David Boothe
1950 The Sundowners James Cloud ('Kid Wichita')
1951 When I Grow Up Father Reed
Cloudburst John Graham
Best of the Badmen Matthew Fowler
My Outlaw Brother Joe Waldner
Face to Face Sheriff Jack Potter
1955 The Last Frontier Col. Frank Marston
1956 Sentinels in the Air Narrator Voice;
1960 The Dark at the Top of the Stairs Rubin Flood
1962 The Music Man Harold Hill
How the West Was Won Roger Morgan
1963 Island of Love Steve Blair
All the Way Home Jay Follett
1972 Junior Bonner Ace Bonner
Child's Play Joseph Dobbs
1974 Mame Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
1977 Semi-Tough Big Ed Bookman
1981 S.O.B. Dr. Irving Finegarten
1982 Victor/Victoria Carroll "Toddy" Todd
1984 The Last Starfighter Centauri


Year Title Role Venue
1979–1980 The Chisholms Hadley Chisholm 9 episodes
1982 Rehearsal for Murder Alex Dennison Television movie
1983 September Gun Ben Sunday Television movie
1985 Finnegan Begin Again Mike Finnegan Television movie
1986 Outrage! Dennis Riordan Television movie


Year Title Role Venue Ref.
1951 Twentieth Century
1952–1953 The Male Animal Joe Ferguson City Center, Broadway
1953 Men of Distinction Peter Hogarth 48th Street Theatre, Broadway
1954 His and Hers Clem Scot
1954 The Magic and the Loss George Wilson Booth Theatre, Broadway
1955 The Tender Trap Joe McCall Longacre Theatre, Broadway
1955 Janus Gil Plymouth Theatre, Broadway
1957 The Hidden River Jean Monnerie Playhouse Theatre, Broadway
1957–1961 The Music Man Prof. Harold Hill Majestic Theatre, Broadway
1963 Too True to be Good The Burglar 54th Street Theatre, Broadway
1963–1964 Nobody Loves an Albatross Nat Bentley Lyceum Theatre, Broadway
1964–1965 Ben Franklin in Paris Benjamin Franklin Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway
1966 The Lion in Winter Henry II Ambassador Theatre, Broadway
1966–1968 I Do! I Do! He / Michael 46th Street Theatre, Broadway
1974 Mack & Mabel Mack Sennett Majestic Theatre, Broadway
1976–1978 Sly Fox Foxwell Sly / The Judge Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway
1978 The Prince of Grand Street Philadelphia / Boston [15]


Year Program Episode/source
1950 Lux Radio Theatre Alexander's Ragtime Band[16]

Awards and nominations

Year Association Category Project Result Ref.
Film and Television Awards
1962 Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Musical or Comedy The Music Man Nominated
1981 National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor S.O.B. Won
1982 National Board of Review Awards Best Supporting Actor Victor/Victoria Won
1982 Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated
1982 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actor 3rd Place
1982 Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Musical or Comedy Nominated
1984 Saturn Awards Best Supporting Actor The Last Starfighter Nominated
Theatre Awards
1958 Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical The Music Man Won [17]
1967 I Do! I Do! Won
1975 Mack & Mabel Nominated


  1. ^ Champlin, Charles (March 23, 1987). "The 'Music Man' --and His Song". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  2. ^ Ross, Lillian; Ross, Helen (1962). The Player: A Profile Of An Art. New York City: Simon and Schuster. p. 404. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  3. ^ "Robert Preston: Overview (in his own words)". Indiana University. Retrieved February 22, 2023.
  4. ^ "Robert Preston Meservey". Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  5. ^ Harrison, Paul (December 2, 1938). "Hollywood". Salinas Morning Post. p. 6. Retrieved January 2, 2021 – via
  6. ^ "Roundabout Previews Lead to Film Contract". Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1938. p. 55. Retrieved January 2, 2021 – via
  7. ^ Mano, D. Keith (June 28, 1982). "Playing Devilishly Against Type in Victor/victoria, He's Bigger—and Campier—than Life". People. 17 (25). Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Richards, David (July 22, 1984). "Robert Preston, With a Capital P". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 17, 2021.
  9. ^ "Theater: Pied Piper of Broadway". Time. July 21, 1958. Archived from the original on September 12, 2005. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  10. ^ "'Grand Street' Will Close in Boston". The New York Times. April 11, 1978.
  11. ^ Plummer, Ryan (July 10, 2014). "Everything You Never Knew About The Making Of Last Starfighter". Io9. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  12. ^ a b Page, Tim (March 23, 1987). "Robert Preston, Actor, is dead at 68". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2015.
  13. ^ "Hollywood Couple Wed in Las Vegas". Oakland Tribune. California, Oakland. United Press. November 10, 1940. p. 20. Retrieved November 16, 2016 – via Open access icon
  14. ^ Warren, Debra (2022). Robert Preston: Forever The Music Man. Lake Forest, Illinois: Amazon Publishing. Retrieved February 20, 2023.
  15. ^ "The Prince of Grand Street: Closed on the road (1978)".
  16. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. Vol. 39, no. 1. Winter 2013. pp. 32–41.
  17. ^ Richards, David (July 22, 1984). "Robert Preston, with a Capital P". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 4, 2018.