Robert Preston (actor)
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|Born||Robert Preston Meservey
June 8, 1918
Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Died||March 21, 1987
Montecito, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Catherine Craig (1940-1987) (his death)|
Robert Preston (June 8, 1918 – March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor best remembered for originating the role of Harold Hill in the 1957 musical The Music Man and the subsequent film adaptation. He is also known for his Oscar-nominated role as Carroll "Toddy" Todd in Victor Victoria.
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 billing clerk for American Express, respectively.12 After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entry into World War II, he joined the United States Army Air Corps 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 St. Trond, 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 he began appearing in films, the studio ordered Meservey to stop using his actual family name.3 As Robert Preston, the name by which he would be known for his entire professional career, he appeared in many Hollywood films, predominantly Westerns but not exclusively, he was "Digby Geste" in the sound remake of Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, and featured in North West Mounted Police (1940) also with "Coop".
However, Preston is probably best remembered for his performance as "Professor" Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's musical The Music Man (1962). He had already won a Tony Award for his performance in the original Broadway production in 1957. When Willson adapted his story for the screen, he insisted on Preston's participation over the objections of Jack L. Warner, who had wanted Frank Sinatra for the role. Preston appeared on the cover of Time magazine on July 21, 1958.4 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 originated the role of Henry II in the original production of The Lion in Winter (Peter O'Toole got an Oscar nod for the film version). 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 was written and composed by Herman especially for Preston to sing in the film. Although he was not part of the original cast, he also appeared on Broadway in one of the starring roles in the play, 1776 during its extended run in the early 1970s.
In 1961, Preston was asked to make a recording as part of a program by the President's Council on Physical Fitness to get schoolchildren to do more daily exercise. The song, "Chicken Fat", which was written and composed by Meredith Willson and performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, was distributed to schools across the nation and played for students in calisthenics every morning. The song later became a surprise novelty hit and part of many baby-boomers' childhood memories.
In 1979 and 1980, Preston portrayed determined family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in the CBS western miniseries, The Chisholms. Rosemary Harris played his wife, Minerva. The Preston character died in the ninth of the thirteen episodes of the program. Other co-stars were Ben Murphy, Lance Kerwin, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten. In the storyline, the Chisholms lost their land in Virginia by fraud and left for California to begin a new life.
Although he was not known for his singing voice, Preston appeared in several other stage and film musicals, notably Mame (1974) and Victor Victoria (1982), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His last role in a theatrical film was in The Last Starfighter (1984), in which he portrayed 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). He also starred in the HBO 1985 movie Finnegan, Begin Again along with Mary Tyler Moore. His final role was in the television film Outrage! (1986).
An intensely private person, no official biographies exist for the actor, although several interviews given late in his career shed light on the guarded actor, and a Tumblr account, which focuses on his personal life and acting career, features articles and interviews he gave during his lifetime.
Preston died of lung cancer on March 21, 1987, at the age of 68.
- The Male Animal (May 15, 1952 – Jan 31, 1953)
- Men of Distinction (Apr 30, 1953 – May 2, 1953)
- His and Hers (Jan 7, 1954 – Mar 13, 1954)
- The Magic and the Loss (Apr 9, 1954 – May 1, 1954)
- The Tender Trap (Oct 13, 1954 – Jan 8, 1955)
- Janus (Nov 24, 1955 – Jun 30, 1956)
- The Hidden River (Jan 23, 1957 – Mar 16, 1957)
- The Music Man (Dec 19, 1957 – Apr 15, 1961)
- Too True to be Good (Mar 12, 1963 – Jun 1, 1963)
- Nobody Loves an Albatross (Dec 19, 1963 – Jun 20, 1964)
- Ben Franklin in Paris (Oct 27, 1964 – May 1, 1965)
- The Lion in Winter (Mar 3, 1966 – May 21, 1966)
- I Do! I Do! (December 5, 1966 – June 15, 1968)
- Mack & Mabel (Oct 6, 1974 – Nov 30, 1974)
- Sly Fox (Dec 14, 1976 – Feb 19, 1978)
- Robert Preston at the Internet Broadway Database
- Robert Preston at the Internet Movie Database
- An online MP3 recording of "Chicken Fat"
- Photographs and literature