The highest of High Society's highfalutin' set has to be altar-bound Tracy Lord's girl-chasing, gin-fueled Uncle Willie -- the show's funniest invention -- and darned if seasoned veteran John McMartin doesn't wickedly run off with the show. "It's a very theatrical part," he concedes. "You get to do everything" -- and, by that, he means three songs, broad comedy and, out of nowhere, a poignant moment where he laments his booze-ruined marriage. "I don't know if they did that to be politically correct, but it's touching -- a surprise; I like surprises."
McMartin began his Broadway career with two Bob Fosse flops ( The Conquering Hero, Pleasures and Palaces), and when Fosse hired him again, he was relieved. "I told him, 'I brought you such bad luck I thought you'd never work with me again.'" The part was Sweet Charity's claustrophobic Casanova, and his elevator-flip out scene ("I'm the Bravest Individual") won him the first of three Tony nominations (for Don Juan and now High Society) -- plus the right to repeat the role in the movie. (Fosse insisted.)
Musical hysteria is McMartin's specialty. Who can ever forget his classic breakdown in midsong ("Live, Laugh Love") in Follies? "That show's cult following fascinates me. I was shooting an episode of 'Touched By an Angel' in Arizona, and the make-up kid told me he wore the record out. He'd never even seen the show, and he loved it."
He doesn't regret missing a screen career. "Theatre was -- and is -- important to me." His grown daughters must agree. One married a stage actor; the other is one -- and recently a mother. Just imagine learning your first steps from a spry musical-comedy grandfather!