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Robert Morse Biography


Home > Actors > M > Morse, Robert > Biography


Birth Name: Robert Morse
Born: 05/18/1931
Birth Place: Newton, Massachusetts, USA






Born May 18, 1931 in Newton, MA, Morse was the son of Charles Morse, an assistant manager at a record store, and his wife, May Silver. He made his theatrical debut in a 1949 production of "Our Town" in New Hampshire shortly before setting out to serve in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. After his discharge, he traveled to New York City to study at the American Theater Wing and under Lee Strasberg. His Broadway debut came in 1955 with the original production of "The Matchmaker" opposite Ruth Gordon. Three years later, he would recreate the role in the 1958 feature film version; this time with Shirley Booth in the lead. Morse had made occasional forays into film and television prior to "The Matchmaker;" he was briefly an original cast member of the daytime soap "The Secret Storm (CBS, 1954-1974), and made his feature debut as a dead soldier in "The Proud and the Profane" (1956). Stage, however, would be his primary showcase, and after "The Matchmaker," he went on to earn his first Tony nomination in "Say, Darling" (1958), playing a character thought to be based on producer Hal Prince. "Take Me Along" (1959) with Jackie Gleason further expanded his profile on the Great White Way, but it was 1961's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" that made Morse a star.



As J. Pierrepont Finch, who possesses an unwavering belief in his own abilities, as prescribed by an eponymous self-help book, Morse found the perfect showcase for his trademark talents: boundless energy, an impish charm and an infectious warmth that made theaterg rs fall head over heels for him. His performance, which earned him a Tony, made him the toast of Broadway, with expectations that Hollywood would soon be calling. However, Morse and the film and television industries were never a good match. Try as he might, he simply could not find the quality of roles on screen to equal his stage work; there were wan sex comedies, like "Honeymoon Hotel" (1964) with Morse and fellow Broadway vet Robert Goulet on the prowl at a couples' resort, and scatterbrained goofs like "Quick Before It Melts" (1964), with Morse as a hapless reporter sent to the South Pole to look for Communists. A high point during this period was "The Loved One" (1965), Tony Richardson's exquisitely macabre adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel about a Brit (Morse) who becomes embroiled in the bizarre world of the funeral business in Los Angeles; dismissed as the depths of bad taste during its release, it found a cult audience in later years.



A 1967 film adaptation of "How to Succeed in Business" gave Morse's film career a shot in the arm, as did Gene Kelly's then-racy, now dated sex comedy "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), with Morse as the swinging suburbanite who instructs Walter Matthau in the art of adultery. However, their follow-ups - a 1967 adaptation of Arthur Kopit's play "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad," with Morse as a mother-domineered son, and "Where Were You When the Lights Go Out?" (1968), a Doris Day comedy about hijinks during a blackout, kept Morse in the same character rut - childlike eccentrics - that he had been in since the early part of the decade. A sitcom, "That's Life" (ABC, 1968-69), which blended family comedy with musical numbers, did little to further Morse's career, despite its Emmy nomination.



The dreadful Disney live-action comedy "The Boatniks" (1970), with Morse as an accident-prone Coast Guard ensign, was his last feature film for nearly two decades. Morse returned to the Broadway stage in 1972 for "Sugar," a musical adaptation of "Some Like It Hot" (1959), with Morse in the Jack Lemmon role and music by Jule Styne. It earned him a Tony nomination, and spurred a spate of follow-up stage roles, including a 1975 reprisal of "How to Succeed in Business" in Los Angeles and a 1980 tour in "Sugar Babies." Television was Morse's other regular showcase, especially voiceover roles for animated TV specials like the Rankin-Bass-produced "Jack Frost" (syndicated, 1979). He returned to features in 1987 with two low-budget efforts - an Israeli-lensed adaptation of the fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," with Sid Caesar, and the ghastly comedy "Hunk."



Thankfully, Morse had "Tru" on deck. A one-man play based on the life of author Truman Capote as seen through the alcohol and medication haze he inhabited in his final years, Morse labored under layers of makeup and costuming to bring Capote to life, and presented a melancholy portrait that emphasized the loss of a prodigious talent while underscoring the wit and genius that made him famous. Theaterg rs and critics heaped praise upon Morse's performance, which earned him a Tony for Best Actor; in doing so, Morse became one of only three actors in history to earn the coveted theater award for a play and a musical (the others being Rex Harrison and Zero Mostel). He later earned an Emmy for his recreation of the role in a 1992 presentation on "American Playhouse" (PBS, 1982-1993).



"Tru" put Morse back into the spotlight, where he soon found himself in demand for various television and stage projects. Some were lightweight material similar to his past work, like 1995's "Here Comes the Munsters" (Fox, 1995), a revival of the CBS horror-comedy series (1964-66), with Morse donning a cape and widow's peak to play Grandpa; others were more nuanced roles, like the fawning lounge singer Chap Starfall, whose holographic image serenades the cast of Oliver Stone's miniseries "Wild Palms" (ABC, 1993) with syrupy renditions of Bob Dylan and Beach Boys tunes. In 2000, he was cast as a sympathetic administrator who helps new doctor Vivica A. Fox navigate the perils of a major city hospital in Steven Bochco's "City of Angels" (CBS, 2000). Two years later, he returned to the stage to play the Wizard in the original San Francisco run of "Wicked." Unfortunately, he would not follow the production to Broadway, where he was replaced by J l Grey.



In 2007, Morse received one of his best roles in Bertram Cooper on "Mad Men." The "Cooper" in the show's ad firm of Sterling Cooper, he displayed some of the mild personality quirks of his previous characters - a passion for Japanese art and culture, as well as a fondness for Ayn Rand - but Cooper was also a rock of stability and the moral compass for his younger partners, as well as a formidable businessman who uses his wisdom to extricate his best executives from the sale of his firm to a rival company and form his own powerhouse at the end of the show's third season. For his wry, subtle turn on "Mad Men," Morse was nominated for Emmys in 2008, 2010 and 2011, and shared a Screen Actors Guild award with his castmates in 2010. Morse was written out of the show in the 2014 midseason finale, when Bertram Cooper died shortly after witnessing Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. In deference to Morse's background in musical theater, the episode ended with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) hallucinating Cooper singing the Broadway standard "The Best Things In Life Are Free," complete with choreographed secretaries.