It can safely be said that Robert Morse, now 83, is more famous today than at any time since 1961, when he took the entertainment world by storm with his classic performance as cheerful corporate ladder-climber J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
His fattened profile is completely owing to his seven-seasons run as ruthless, Ayn Rand-reading, Madison Avenue sage Bertram Cooper in the AMC series “Mad Men.” (Morse’s work in the film version of How to Succeed, as well as the film “A Guide for the Married Man,” were early inspirations of “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.)
Earlier this year, the character of Cooper died. Weiner, however, gave the character a fitting send-off, with Morse returning as an apparition to sing and dance his way through “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
Watch Morse perform here. That number reminded the world that Morse was Finch before he was Cooper, and a stage actor before he became a TV star. Morse is currently reminding the public yet again of his potential for fancy footwork, as a member of the cast of Christopher Gattelli’s dance ensemble piece In Your Arms, currently playing at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater through July 13. Playbill.com spoke to Morse about his return to the boards.
How did you come to be involved in In Your Arms?
Robert Morse: I was in Los Angeles finishing the final season of “Mad Men” and I got a call from Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer of Newsies, and he told me about how he was doing this thing called In Your Arms at the Powerhouse Theatre on the Main Stage at Vassar. I said, “You know, I was there 25 years ago. That’s where Tru started.”
He explained to me, “We have all these vignettes written by Douglas Carter Beane, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage and Alfred Uhry. And we have 20 performers, plus you, to perform these with dance.” They’re portraits of the lovers, told in music and dance. I said, “That sounds like something I’d really love to be part of.”
It sounded like something really worthwhile. I practically ended the last day of shooting of “Mad Men” and I got on a plane to New York and we rehearsed for four or five days. And here I am at the Powerhouse. Carole Shelley and myself appear in Terrence McNally’s Sand Dancing.
When is the last time you did any theatre? Is this your first stage project in a while?
RM: I would say it’s a long time. Because I was seven years on “Mad Men.” Imagine, on the last week of “Mad Men,” I get this call.
So the call just came out of the blue.
RM: Oh, yes! Things just happen, don’t they? It fit right in, it fit right in. If I was still filming, I couldn’t have done this.
Do you dance in your piece?
RM: I move quite a bit. (Laughs.) I move, I do a little pas de deux. It’s very compelling and very sweet. We sort of interpret the story. Christopher Gattelli sets all of these vignettes to dance, and it’s very exciting.
It’s interesting that this show is happened now, so soon after the episode of “Mad Men” in which your character dies. I think that episode, in which you sing and dance, helped remind people of your performance roots as a musical theatre star.
RM: Maybe that’s what Christopher Gattelli saw and thought, “Hey, wait a minute. Where is that young fellow! Get him on the phone!”
Were you surprised by the reaction to that episode?
RM: Absolutely. I was utterly surprised. I was deeply moved myself. It was a present. It was given to me by Matthew Weiner. He said four weeks before we shot it, “I have this idea for you.” The episode was about the moon landing. And I do pass away in that episode. “I want you to come back,” he said, “and sing, ‘The moon is there for everyone/The best things in life are free.'" In other words, telling Don Draper, “Get your life straightened out.”
It was very touching. Jon Hamm had tears in his eyes. We filmed it for four or five hours. I’m amazed at the reaction. And thank God it wasn’t about Robert Morse as Finch in How to Succeed... It belonged to the piece. We tried to make it from “Mad Men,” with my bare feet and socks and goatee.