NEW YORK (AP) — Actor Robert Morse, who won a Tony Award as the hilariously brash corporate climber in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and a second a generation later as the brilliant and troubled Truman Capote in “Tru,” died. He was 90 years old.
Morse died at his home on Wednesday after a brief illness, said David Shaul of BRS/Gage Talent Agency.
Handsome boy Morse made a name for himself on Broadway in the 1950s and landed a few roles in Hollywood comedies in the 1960s. “I consider myself an actor — shyly,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1964. “I love acting. It’s a great use of body and mind… In all humility, you hope you’re doing something worthwhile.
Most recently, he played the autocratic and eccentric head of an ad agency in AMC’s hit drama “Mad Men,” which debuted in 2007. The role earned him an Emmy Award nomination in 2008. as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.
“He radiated a wicked joy; it was impossible to watch it without instantly sharing in its giddy delight,” wrote playwright Paul Rudnick.
Morse was already well established on Broadway, with two Tony Award nominations under his belt, when he shot to national fame at age 30 as the star of Abe Burrows and the hit 1961 Broadway satire by Frank Loesser on corporate life, “How to succeed…”. . The show won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Musical and ran for over three years.
Morse-eyed J. Pierrepont Finch was a master of corporate backstabbing – with a toothy grin – as he rose from Manhattan window cleaner to World Wide Wicket corporation titan with the help of of a small “how-to” pocket book on office politics.
The musical’s song titles hint at the pre-feminist business world: “The Company Way,” a theme song for yes-men; “A Secretary Is Not a Toy,” a song that nods to office banter; “Coffee Break”, a tribute to caffeine; and the anthem Finch sings to himself: “I Believe in You.” Finch turns to the aging boss, played by 1920s crooner Rudy Vallée, joining in the old man’s fight song, “Grand Old Ivy.”
“Imagine a collaboration between Horatio Alger and Machiavelli and you have Finch, the fearless hero of this outing into the canyons of commerce,” writes the New York Times. “As played with unwavering bravery and wit by Robert Morse, it’s a crumpled, dimpled angel with a Lucifer streak.”
The 1967 film version of “How To Succeed” dropped a few songs but remained close to the stage original. Morse was back, as was Vallee.
But Morse’s film career largely failed to take off.
He was back on Broadway in 1972 – and landed another Tony Award nomination – for “Sugar”, producer David Merrick’s musical version of “Some Like It Hot”. Morse starred as Jerry, the part played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s comedy about two male musicians who disguise themselves as women to escape murderous gangsters.
“Tru”, a one-man show based on Capote’s writings, reignited Morse’s stage career in 1989.
“His Capote is wickedly funny, a snarky pixie ready to deliver an offbeat Queen Mama joke, zing Robert Goulet or rave about the time he tap danced for Louis Armstrong. …,” Associated Press drama critic Michael Kuchwara wrote in his review. “But there is also a desperate side to Capote, and Morse rises to the pain.”
In 1993, the television version of “Tru” (PBS) won Morse an Emmy for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Special. (Meanwhile, a 1995 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed…” brought in another Tony for its Finch, Matthew Broderick.)
Television’s “Mad Men” sent Morse back into the “How to Succeed” milieu of 1960s-style Manhattan office politics.
When Morse landed in Hollywood after his ‘How to Succeed’ triumph, columnist Hedda Hopper predicted in 1963: “If Robert Morse appears on screen the way he does on stage, he’ll have teenagers screaming and mothers wanting it.” adopt. He has an innate sense of comedy and a funny face to match.”
Among his films was “The Loved One”, a 1965 dark comedy about an Englishman’s encounter with Hollywood and the funeral industry, based on Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel.
“I don’t wonder if an image is going to help or hinder my career,” Morse told the Los Angeles Times when the film was in production. “I think about who I work with.” Among his “Loved One” co-stars were Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud and Tab Hunter.
Morse was born May 18, 1931, in Newton, Massachusetts, and made his Broadway debut in 1955 in “The Matchmaker.”
He received back-to-back Tony nominations for his next two roles: in 1959 for Best Featured Actor in a Play for “Say, Darling” and in 1960 for Best Actor in a Musical for “Take Me Along”. who also played Jackie Gleason.
“Say, Darling” was a comedy about a young writer’s experience as his novel is turned into a Broadway show. The play was based on the creation of “The Pajama Game”, and the character of Morse, a “producer boy” who hated being called that, was modeled after Harold Prince, a co-producer of “The Pajama Game”.
Reviewing his career, Morse told the New York Times in 1989, “Things change. I never had the chance to be in a play or a movie where I played a father, or had a family, or where I could feel or show something. The wild child in me never had a chance to grow.
He said he had successfully battled alcoholism and drug addiction, but added: “I don’t think alcohol got in the way of my work. I did my job. These are the other 22 hours I had a problem with.
Still, he said of his career, “I didn’t think it was going to end or not end. I just plowed. One day you hear “We love you, Bobby”. The next day, you do voiceovers.
He is survived by five children, a son Charlie and four daughters, Robin, Andrea, Hilary and Allyn.
Marc Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits