Two-time Tony-winning stage and screen actor Robert Morse died April 20 at the age of 90. The news was confirmed on Twitter by Larry Karaszweski, a writer and producer who worked with Mr. Morse on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Mr. Morse made his Broadway debut at the age of 24, creating the role of Barnaby Tucker in Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, the work that would go on to serve as source material for the musical Hello, Dolly!. Thus launched a career that quickly saw Mr. Morse follow up with appearances in Jule Styne's Say, Darling and Bob Merrill's Take Me Along, earning Tony nominations for both. It was the latter that elevated Mr. Morse to a new level of esteem on the theatre scene, with Brooks Atkinson lauding in his New York Times review of the work, "In a production that is not ideally cast in all the principal roles, Mr. Morse plays young Richard without a false note. He describes the bumptious innocence of a youth struggling with literary ideas that are beyond him. And he does not forget that in addition to being comic, Richard is honest and lovable. Mr. Morse does not sentimentalize a very real character." As for those "not ideally cast?" Atkins was ranking Mr. Morse ahead of none other than stage legends Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon.
Success in Take Me Along led to what would become arguably Mr. Morse's most iconic performance, in Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert's Pulitzer-winning musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, opening on Broadway in October 1961. Based on Shepherd Mead's satirical self-help book on climbing the corporate ladder, the musical satirized the then-new corporate world. The musical dramatization centered on J. Pierrepont Finch, played by Mr. Morse. Starting out as a window washer, the ruthless and conniving J. Pierrepont uses How to Succeed... to quickly climb the ranks until he's in the executive suite, all while never learning just what his employer actually makes or does. Mr. Morse's wry charm suited the role perfectly, turning what could have easily become an unlikable character into one that audiences rooted for with delight. In his New York Times review, Howard Taubman described Mr. Morse's performance as possessing "unfaltering bravura and wit." Mr. Morse won his first Tony Award for the performance.
How to Succeed catapulted Mr. Morse into the big time, with Hollywood quickly signing him to a four-movie deal. He had made some early screen performances prior, including reprising his stage performance in the 1958 film version of The Matchmaker, but after How to Succeed he suddenly found himself with major roles in The Cardinal, Honeymoon Hotel, Quick Before It Melts, and The Loved One. He starred opposite Rosalind Russell in the 1967 film version of Arthur Kopit's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad in 1967, and reprised his How to Succeed... performance for its screen adaptation the same year.
A triumphant Broadway return came in 1972 with Sugar, the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical version of the Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot. Mr. Morse co-starred with Tony Roberts as two jazz musicians who dress as women to hide out in an all-girl band after witnessing a mob hit, earning another Tony Award nomination. Mr. Morse also appeared in the short-lived musical So Long, 174th Street in 1976.
Mr. Morse would spend much of the '80s focused on TV and film work, appearing in such series as All My Children, One Day at a Time, Masquerade, The Fall Guy, The Dukes of Hazard, and Murder, She Wrote. He also established a voice over career, voicing animated characters in The First Easter Rabbit and The Stingiest Man in Town and later in animated series Pound Puppies and Tiny Toon Adventures. He still found time to revisit the stage, starring in the first national tour of Sugar Babies with Carol Channing in 1980, a 1984 revival of Sugar in Los Angeles, and Walnut Street's Mike, inspired by the life of stage and film producer Mike Todd, in 1988. The latter had aspirations of a Broadway transfer that never materialized.
A Broadway return came in 1989 with a solo show that saw Mr. Morse inhabiting novelist and playwright Truman Capote. Though reviews were less than kind to Tru—Frank Rich described it in the New York Times as a "creep show"—Mr. Morse would win Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his performance. He filmed the work for PBS's American Playhouse in 1992, and won a Primetime Emmy Award in the process. Soon after, Mr. Morse played Cap'n Andy in the premiere Toronto run of the Hal Prince-helmed Show Boat, though he would not stay with the production for its Broadway transfer the following year. Similarly, Mr. Morse created the role of The Wizard in the 2003 pre-Broadway run of Wicked in San Francisco but did not bring that performance to the Main Stem.
After many years of sticking mainly to TV guest appearances and voice over, Mr. Morse would find the greatest success of his later career playing Sterling Cooper founding partner Bertram Cooper on AMC's Mad Men. He received five Emmy nominations for his work on the series, in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014. The role allowed the Tony winner to harken back to his Broadway roots with a 2014 episode that featured Mr. Morse singing "The Best Things in Life Are Free" following his character's death, in a fantasy sequence. Mr. Morse also played investigative journalist Dominick Dunne in the limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in 2016.
After nearly three decades away from Broadway, Mr. Morse made his final appearance on the Main Stem in a 2016 revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page, part of an all-star cast that included Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott, and Christopher McDonald.
Born May 18, 1931 in Newton, Massachusetts, Mr. Morse married twice, in 1961 to dancer Carol Ann D'Andreá, with whom he had three daughters, Andrea Doven, Hilary Morse, and Robin Morse; and in 1989 to advertising executive Elizabeth Roberts, with whom he had two children, Charles Morse and Allyn Morse. Mr. Morse is survived by Roberts and his five children.