Robert Morse sounds as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, as if Santa has brought the gift he most wanted. He's overjoyed to be playing ad-agency exec Bertram Cooper ("a nice guy") on the new AMC hour drama "Mad Men," which received raves for its July 19 premiere (Thursdays at 10 PM ET).
"There are a million TV shows, and there are no 76-year-olds on them — except what comes over from the BBC. The competition to play the head of a company or a grandfather — with people who are 50 or 60, and could play older — is so great that I'm on my knees, saying, 'Thank God!'"
The upbeat Morse, who often punctuates his comments with laughter, is concerned about not coming across as egotistical. While things haven't always worked out to his advantage, he doesn't dwell on the negative. Of an unpleasant experience with a leading lady, he claims, "She's a pain in the neck, but I'm very happy for her success [in recent projects]." But, referring to a certain director, Morse admits, "I can't tell you how much I hate him."
He's adjusted to changing times. "Now, people say, 'Aren't you Walter Matthau?' or 'Are you Robert Morley?' I lead a simple life. I get residuals. I have a family; we're doing alright. I thought: I'm 76; I'm never going to work again. And I've got kids to put through school." (Married since 1989 to Elizabeth "Libby" Roberts, the Morses are parents of a 16-year-old daughter, Allyn, and an 11-year-old son, Charlie.) "Then comes a phone call about ["Mad Men"]," he says. "All I know is that, so far, the talk about this show — and what I've seen — make it one of the finest television shows ever. The reviews are outstanding. It's different. It grows on you. "It's a delight to go to work. Senior citizens belong to golf clubs, or play gin rummy, or go to a senior center. With me, I go to the set; that's my club. I go two or three times a week. They say, 'What are you doing here? You don't work today.' I say, 'I came for lunch.' The food and catering are very good. [Laughs]"
For Morse, the series — set on Madison Avenue in 1960 — is sort of the flip side of the satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Frank Loesser (score), Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert (book), that catapulted the actor to stardom. The role of J. Pierrepont Finch earned Morse a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical. (He later won as Best Actor in a Play for Tru, the PBS presentation of which also garnered him an Emmy.)
Continues Morse, "I'm very fortunate to be playing the Rudy Vallee part [referring to his How to Succeed co-star, who played the head of an international corporation based in Manhattan]. I say to everybody on the set, 'Of all of you, I'm the only one who was alive then.' I remember it well." [Laughs]
Morse's character sports "a lovely mustache and a little goatee. It's a charming part." On his first episode (albeit briefly, July 27), he told ad men of client Richard Nixon's bid for the presidency: "Make no mistake. We know better what Dick Nixon needs, better than Dick Nixon." He then padded away in his stocking feet. "That's explained [in a later episode]," states Morse. "I have a Japanese [style] office. You have to remove your shoes."
He relates that, off-camera, "Everybody comes up to me and says, 'How great to see you again. Where have you been?' A producer told me, 'This show is going to change your life.' I thought: What the f--- is he talking about?
"Other producers have said, 'What a great idea to have Robert Morse play the head of the company.' I say, 'Yes, it is.' It makes you feel good. [Laughs]" Credit for the idea goes to the series creator, Matthew Weiner, whose research on the period (set five years before his birth) included watching the movie "A Guide for the Married Man," a 1967 comedy, directed by Gene Kelly, that co-starred Morse (as a husband who cheats) and Walter Matthau (as his buddy who's considering extramarital adventures). Weiner also included the incessant smoking and drinking of the time, and unprotected sexual encounters.
Born May 18, 1931, in Newton, MA, Morse acted in and directed high-school shows, and played Gabey in a summer-stock production of On the Town before coming to New York. Early Manhattan jobs included operating a spotlight for children's theatre, selling cookies at Schrafft's, and being a Fuller Brush salesman. After four years in the Navy, he studied acting under the G.I. Bill at the American Theatre Wing.
A stint as stand-in for game-show contestants (to test lighting, etc.) on "Name That Tune" attracted the attention of an agent, who got him a small role in the 1956 film "The Proud and the Profane," starring William Holden, Deborah Kerr, and Thelma Ritter, and an appointment with director Tyrone Guthrie, who signed Morse (without an audition) to play Barnaby Tucker in The Matchmaker, his 1955 Broadway debut. "That was very important to me — to be with Ruth Gordon, one of the leading ladies of the American stage." Morse reprised his role for the 1958 movie version, starring Shirley Booth.
Next came Say, Darling, in which Morse played Ted Snow, a character "loosely based on Hal Prince. It was the story of how The Pajama Game came to be. At that time, I met my first wife, Carole D'Andrea, who was a dancer in West Side Story." Their marriage (1961-81) produced three daughters: Hilary, Robin and Andrea.
Say, Darling brought Morse his first Tony nomination (of five, to date). The second nomination came for Take Me Along, in which he had the juvenile lead, Richard Miller (the show is based on Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!). Also nominated were co-stars Jackie Gleason (who won) and Walter Pidgeon. Recalls Morse, "Gleason liked me very much. He'd invite me into his dressing room — 'Morse, come in here!'"
One of Morse's competitors when he won a Tony for How to Succeed was Ray Bolger (for All American). As a young man, Morse had seen Bolger many times in Where's Charley?. "I loved his warmth, the way he gave of himself to an audience. I'll never forget him singing 'Once in Love with Amy' — the way he danced and looked. I went backstage to meet him. I told him, 'I'm from Massachusetts, too.' He said, 'Really? What's the matter with the Red Sox?' I'll never forget that."
Sugar, the musical version of "Some Like It Hot," earned Morse his fourth Tony nomination in the Jack Lemmon role of Jerry/Daphne. "One of the classic moments is when I danced with Cyril Ritchard [playing the millionaire]."
Coming back to "Mad Men," a genuinely enthusiastic Robert Morse concludes, with a laugh, "To be in a big fat hit again is such a wonderful feeling!"
*** "I love theatre actors," says producer Marco Pennette, as the second season of ABC's "Ugly Betty" starts production. "I grew up back east [he was born in Greenwich, CT], and I'm a big lover of theatre. I want to go into theatre; TV sort of lured me away…"
During the series' first season, guest stars included Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Rita Moreno, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. "I think we've seen everyone in L.A. When you're doing auditions, it's easy to get the same actors in the room. There are a lot of great theatre people that, just because of the proximity, aren't able to be exposed to a bigger audience.
"When I was working on 'Caroline in the City,' we needed an older lady to play a part. I said, 'Let's fly in Marilyn Cooper [a Tony winner for Woman of the Year].' They all looked at me like I was insane: 'We have plenty of older people in L.A.' 'Yeah, but we've seen them. We haven't seen Marilyn.' I flew her in myself [to play the part].
"Luckily, ABC loves theatre actors, too. 'Ugly Betty' is a Broadway-friendly show. It's over the top, flashy, extravagant. It is a Broadway musical. We're going to do a musical episode for February sweeps. We're in talks with a big Broadway director-choreographer, and we're talking to Broadway composers to write some original material. We're bringing Patti back, and we're going to try to get Kristin back. We'd love to have Bernadette Peters [as a guest star], and when Curtains ends, we want to get David Hyde Pierce on an episode. He's a good friend. We're always looking to theatre — before we start searching the Farmers Market for actors out here."
There's a new casting director, "who's also theatre-friendly. For each episode, we have a 'casting concept' meeting, where we run down the guest stars: 'We have a professor here. Check to see if Victor Garber's in town.' We work from a list, and suggestions are made. If we can't cast it that way, we bring in actors to read, which is similar to theatre. We shoot an episode in ten days. We started shooting July 9 and we premiere Sept. 27, but by Thanksgiving we're working weekends, fighting to catch up. [Laughs]"
Also upcoming "is an episode where Betty [America Ferrera] goes on a date to see Wicked, and literally stops the show. We're going to film it out here at the Pantages, doubling for the Gershwin, and show scenes from the show.
"The last episode of the [first] season centered around a production of West Side Story at Justin's school. [Justin, Betty's younger brother, is played by Mark Indelicato, who appeared on the 2007 Tony Awards.] Everybody said, 'No, no, don't use West Side Story. It's an iconic musical; they'd never give the rights for a TV production.' I said, 'Let's try.' I talked to a wonderful woman at the Leonard Bernstein Foundation. She liked ["Ugly Betty"], and got the Jerome Robbins estate, Sondheim, everybody to sign off on it. It was kind of a miracle."
I mention that part of this month's column is an interview with Robert Morse. "He's great," says Pennette, who, with partner Steve Rabiner, is raising two daughters, Ally and Chelsea. "I did an episode of 'Union Square' [a 1997 sitcom] with him. Jimmy Burrows directed it. Of course, Jimmy's dad [Abe Burrows] wrote How to Succeed. [Morse] is wonderful. We'd love to have him come on 'Ugly Betty.'"