STAGE TO SCREENS: Robert Morse of "Mad Men," Plus "Ugly Betty" Producer Marco Pennette

By Michael Buckley
29 Jul 2007

Robert Morse in AMC's "Mad Men."
Robert Morse in AMC's "Mad Men."
Photo by AMC

This month we talk to two-time Tony Award winner Robert Morse about his new AMC series "Mad Men," and to producer Marco Pennette, who discusses casting stage actors on the hit ABC series "Ugly Betty."

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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. Continued...