Robert Preston Meservey
June 8, 1918
Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||March 21, 1987 (aged 68)|
Montecito, California, U.S.
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Years of service||1942–45|
|Unit||386th Bomb Group|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
Robert Preston Meservey (June 8, 1918 – March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor and singer of Broadway and cinema, best known for his collaboration with composer Meredith Willson and originating the role of Professor Harold Hill in the 1957 musical The Music Man and the 1962 film adaptation; the film earned him his first of two Golden Globe Award nominations. Preston collaborated twice with filmmaker Blake Edwards, first in S.O.B. (1981) and again in Victor/Victoria (1982). For portraying Carroll "Toddy" Todd in the latter, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the 55th Academy Awards.
Preston was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth L. (née Rea) (1895–1973) and Frank Wesley Meservey (1899–1996), a garment worker and a billing clerk for American Express. After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Robert Preston split his time evenly, appearing in plays and films as well.
In high school, Preston was interested in music and he appeared in operettas. He 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. 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.
The studio ordered Preston to stop using his family name of Meservey. 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).
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 Bomb 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.
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." Preston found additional roles in 1950s television.
Robert 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. He won a Tony Award for his performance. Preston appeared on the cover of Time on July 21, 1958. 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.
Warner Bros. executive Jack L. Warner wanted to cast James Cagney, Cary Grant, or Frank Sinatra for the lead in the movie. Warner was foiled by author-composer Meredith Willson, who had cast approval written into his contract for the property. Willson threatened to void the contract unless Robert Preston was cast. Warner was forced to comply.
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.
In 1962, Preston played an important supporting role, as wagonmaster Roger Morgan, in MGM's epic How the West Was Won. That same year he appeared as Pancho Villa in a musical called We Take the Town, which closed during its Philadelphia tryout and never made it to Broadway.
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 famed 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.
In 1978, Preston starred in another musical that didn't 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.
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.
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. 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.
Preston married actress Catherine Craig in 1940. He was an intensely private person, but he gave several interviews, especially late in his career.
In March 1987, at age 68, Preston died of lung cancer.
He is the subject of a 2022 biography, Robert Preston: Forever the Music Man, written by Debra Warren.
|1950||Lux Radio Theatre||Alexander's Ragtime Band|
|National Society of Film Critics Awards||Best Supporting Actor||S.O.B.||Won|
|National Board of Review Awards||Best Supporting Actor||Victor/Victoria|
|Academy Awards||Best Supporting Actor||Nominated|
|New York Film Critics Circle Awards||Best Supporting Actor (3rd place)|
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Actor – Musical or Comedy|
|The Music Man|
|Saturn Awards||Best Supporting Actor||The Last Starfighter|
|Tony Awards||Best Actor in a Musical||The Music Man||Won|
|I Do! I Do!|
|Mack & Mabel||Nominated|