Uncle Of The Bride: John McMartin in High Society

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."

He's Got That Thing: John McMartin and Melissa Errico in High Society
He's Got That Thing: John McMartin and Melissa Errico in High Society (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

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!