R.I.P. Robert Morse

The date of birth of Robert Morse (1931-2022) falling less than a month after that of his passing, we resolved to wait until today to send him off. Whether or not his spirit will return to entertain you with a posthumous song and dance like his final moments on Mad Men, is between you and your own work-induced hallucinations.

There was naturally no one quite like him. He seemed a combination of a leprechaun, Daffy Duck, maybe a little Jerry Lewis, but with a dark, edgy intensity blazing out of his eyes not unlike that of Roddy McDowell (indeed — and I don’t mean this as a joke — Morse’s eyes might have done some wonderful acting from behind a Planet of the Apes mask — not everyone can do that). As if he weren’t already distinctive enough, there was his trademark gap-toothed smile, framed by dimples. Prior to his career resurrection with Mad Men, most of us knew him from a string of goofy, wacky, satirical or otherwise strange vehicles that typified the 1960s (and several of which I’ve written about here): Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Oh Dad Poor Dada Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1967), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), A Guide for the Married Man (1968), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), and Walt Disney’s The Boatniks (1970). He also starred in a musical TV sitcom called That’s Life (1968-69) during that period.

Morse seemed to come from out of nowhere during the era and then to have vanished with it but of course that’s never true. Broadway stage audiences already knew him well from the series of hit plays that had launched the Newton Mass. native, starting with the original production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955-57, as well as the 1958 movie); how unfortunate that he wasn’t also in its musical adaptation Hello, Dolly! It seems a cruel omission by fate! This was followed by Say Darling (1958-59). He was in the original productions of two Bob Merill shows (whom we wrote about yesterday), Take Me Along (1959-61) and Sugar (1972-73). It was the original stage production of How To Succeed…(1961-65) which put him on the map, and became his best remembered turn, or at least his establishing one.

Morse’s prominence seemed to ebb drastically for several decades, but he reappeared here and there over the years. He was in episodes of Love American Style and other shows in the early ’70s. In 1976 he returned to Broadway in So Long 174th Street (1976), the musical version of Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing. He did voice overs on Rankin-Bass animated holiday specials like The Stingiest Man in the World (1978) and Jack Frost (1979). He was in a bizarre TV movie called The Calendar Girl Murders (1984) with Tom Skerritt, Robert Culp, Barbara Parsons, Alan Thicke and an early career Sharon Stone. Plus many guest shots on television and lots of regional and touring theatre.

In 1989 Morse returned to prominence again for a time by starring as Truman Capote in the Broadway production of Tru, as well as the 1992 TV adaptation, a piece of genius casting, a perfect role for his talents and one that acknowledged that he was no longer a spritely, boyish young man. In 1995 he was cast in Al Lewis’s role as Grandpa in the Munsters reboot Here Come the Munsters. In 2000 he had a regular role on Steven Bochco’s short-lived medical drama City of Angels.

Then came his Emmy nominated role as Bert Cooper on Mad Men (2007-2015), a bit of stunt casting that very cleverly harkened back to How to Succeed in Business...Morse was now wizened and slow moving, the Nestor of the ad agency, with a liking for Ayn Rand and Japanese culture. It seemed a a wonderful capstone to his career…but it wasn’t his last work! In 2016 he returned to Broadway one last time for a revival of The Front Page. That same year he played Dominick Dunne in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. His final role — quite wonderfully — was Santa Claus on Teen Titans Go!, which he played from 2015 to 2021.