Oscar Actors: Preston, Robert–Background, Career, Awards (Cumulative Advantage) (LGBTQ, Gay)

Updated July 4, 2022
Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Nationality: US; Newton, MA

Social Class: Lower-Middle; mother, garment worker, father billing clerk for American Express

Race/Ethnicity/Religion

Family:

Education:

Training: studied acting at Pasadena Community Playhouse

Teacher/Inspirational Figure: Mother; Paramount lawyer

Radio Debut: Yes

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: King of Alcatraz, 1938, at 20; Beau Geste, 1939; at 21

Breakthrough Role: Music Man; 1957 stage; 1962 movie

Oscar Role:

Other Noms: Victor/Victoria, 1982; aged 64 (supp)

Other Awards: 2 Tony Awards

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: character actor; typecast; “I played the lead in all the B-pictures and the villain in all the epics. After a while, it was clear to me I had sort of reached what I was going to be in movies

Last Film:

Career Output:

Film Career Span: 1939-1987

Marriage: one wife; gay

Politics:

Death: 1987; aged 68; lung cancer

Robert Preston Meservey (June 8, 1918–March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor of Broadway and cinema, best known for his collaboration with composer Meredith Willson and originating the role of Professor Harold Hill in the 1957 musical The Music Man and the 1962 film adaptation; the film earned him his first of two Golden Globe nominations.

Preston collaborated twice with filmmaker Blake Edwards, first in S.O.B. (1981) and again in Victor/Victoria (1982). For portraying Carroll “Toddy” Todd in the latter, he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 55th Academy Awards.

Preston was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth L. (née Rea) (1895–1973) and Frank Wesley Meservey (1899–1996), a garment worker and a billing clerk for American Express.

After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in L.A;, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Robert Preston split his time evenly, appearing in plays and films as well.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II, he joined the US Army Air Forces and served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. 9th Air Force with the 386th Bomb Group (Medium). At the end of the war in Europe, the 386th and Captain Robert Meservey, an S-2 Officer (intelligence), were stationed in Sint-Truiden, Belgium. Meservey’s job had been receiving intelligence reports from 9th Air Force headquarters and briefing the bomber crews on what to expect in accomplishing their missions.

In high school, Preston was interested in music and appeared in operettas.

Spotted by Paramount Attorney

He appeared in a stock company production of Julius Caesar and a Pasadena Playhouse production of Idiot’s Delight. A Paramount attorney liked his work and recruited him to the studio.

Influential Mother

The L.A. Times reported that Preston’s mother was employed by Decca Records, Bing Crosby’s label, and was acquainted with Crosby’s brother Everett, a talent agent. She convinced him to watch Preston’s performance at the Pasadena Playhouse. The result was a contract with the Crosby agency and featured roles in King of Alcatraz (1938) and Illegal Traffic.

When he began making films, the studio ordered Meservey to stop using his actual family name. As Robert Preston, the name by which he was known for his professional career, he appeared in Hollywood films, predominantly but not exclusively Westerns.

He was Digby Geste in the sound remake of Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, and he featured in North West Mounted Police (1940), also with Cooper.

He played an LAPD detective in the noir This Gun for Hire (1942). Although Preston acted in many movies, he never became a major star.

B-Pictures

In a 1984 interview, he recalled, “I played the lead in all the B-pictures and the villain in all the epics. After a while, it was clear to me I had sort of reached what I was going to be in movies.”

Tony Awards

Preston is best known for his performance as Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s musical The Music Man (1957). “They’d run through all the musical comedy people, before they cast me,” he remembered later. He won a Tony Award for his performance. When Willson adapted his story for the screen, he insisted on Preston’s participation over the objections of Jack L. Warner, who had wanted to cast Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant for the role. Preston appeared on the cover of Time on July 21, 1958.

In 1965, he was the male part of a duo-lead musical, I Do! I Do! with Mary Martin, for which he won his second Tony Award.

He played the title role in the musical Ben Franklin in Paris, and he originated the role of Henry II in the stage production of The Lion in Winter, whom Peter O’Toole portrayed in the film version, receiving an Academy Award nomination.

In 1974, he starred alongside Bernadette Peters in Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical Mack & Mabel as Mack Sennett, the famous silent film director.

That same year, the film version of Mame, another famed Jerry Herman musical, was released with Preston starring, alongside Lucille Ball, in the role of Beauregard Burnside. In the film, which was not a box-office success, Preston sang “Loving You,” which Herman wrote especially for Preston.

In 1961, Preston was asked to make a recording as part of a program by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness to encourage schoolchildren to do more daily exercise. Copies of the recording of the song, “Chicken Fat,” written and composed by Meredith Willson, performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, were distributed to elementary schools across the nation and played for students as they performed calisthenics. The song later became a surprise novelty hit and part of many baby-boomers’ childhood memories.

Also in 1962, Preston played supporting role, as wagon master Roger Morgan, in the epic MGM film, How the West Was Won. That same year he appeared as Pancho Villa in a musical called We Take The Town, which closed during its Philadelphia tryout and never made it to Broadway.

In 1978, he starred in another musical that didn’t make it to Broadway, The Prince of Grand Street, in which he played a matinee idol of New York’s Yiddish theater who refused to renounce the roles he had played in his youth despite having aged out of them.

With a libretto and songs by Bob Merrill and direction by Gene Saks, the show closed during its Boston tryout.

The Chisholms

In 1979, Preston portrayed a snake-handling family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in a CBS Western miniseries, The Chisholms, with Rosemary Harris as his wife, Minerva.

The story chronicled the Chisholm family losing their land in Virginia and migrating to the west to begin a new life. When CBS tried to continue the saga as a series the following year, Preston reprised his role, his character dying in the fifth episode. The series, which also featured co-stars Ben Murphy, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten, lasted only 4 more episodes after Preston’s departure.

Preston appeared in several other stage and film musicals, including Victor/Victoria (1982), for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

His other film roles include Ace Bonner in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), “Big Ed” Bookman in Semi-Tough (1977), and Dr. Irving Finegarten in Blake Edwards’ 1981 Hollywood satire, S.O.B. His last theatrical film role was in The Last Starfighter (1984) as an interstellar con man/military recruiter called Centauri. He said that he based his approach to the character of Centauri on that which he had taken to Professor Harold Hill. Indeed, the role of Centauri was written for him with his performance as Harold Hill in mind.[10] In 1983, Preston played an aging gunfighter in September Gun, a CBS TV Western film opposite Patty Duke and Christopher Lloyd. He also starred in the well-received HBO 1985 movie Finnegan, Begin Again with Mary Tyler Moore. Preston’s final role was in the television film Outrage! (1986); he portrayed a grief-stricken father who seeks justice for the brutal rape and murder of his daughter.

Preston married actress Catherine Craig in 1940. He was an intensely private person and has no official biographies.

In March 1987, at age 68, Preston died of lung cancer. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Stage Productions

Twentieth Century (June 4, 1951 – June 30, 1951)
The Male Animal (May 15, 1952 – January 31, 1953)
Men of Distinction (April 30, 1953 – May 2, 1953)
His and Hers (January 7, 1954 – March 13, 1954)
The Magic and the Loss (April 9, 1954 – May 1, 1954)
The Tender Trap (October 13, 1954 – January 8, 1955)
Janus (November 24, 1955 – June 30, 1956)
The Hidden River (January 23, 1957 – March 16, 1957)
The Music Man (December 19, 1957 – April 15, 1961)
Too True to be Good (March 12, 1963 – June 1, 1963)
Nobody Loves an Albatross (December 19, 1963–June 20, 1964)
Ben Franklin in Paris (October 27, 1964 – May 1, 1965)
The Lion in Winter (March 3, 1966 – May 21, 1966)
I Do! I Do! (December 5, 1966 – June 15, 1968)
Mack & Mabel (October 6, 1974 – November 30, 1974)
Sly Fox (December 14, 1976 – February 19, 1978)
The Prince of Grand Street (March 7, 1978 – March 25, 1978, Philadelphia; March 28, 1978 – April 15, 1978, Boston; closed during pre-Broadway tryouts)

Filmography

King of Alcatraz (1938) as Robert MacArthur
Illegal Traffic (1938) as Charles Bent Martin
Disbarred (1939) as Bradley Kent
Union Pacific (1939) as Dick Allen
Beau Geste (1939) as Digby Geste
Typhoon (1940) as Johnny Potter
North West Mounted Police (1940) as Ronnie Logan
Moon Over Burma (1940) as Chuck Lane
The Lady from Cheyenne (1941) as Steve Lewis
Parachute Battalion (1941) as Donald Morse
New York Town (1941) as Paul Bryson, Jr.
The Night of January 16th (1941) as Steve Van Ruyle
Pacific Blackout (1941) as Robert Draper
Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) as Himself (uncredited)
Reap the Wild Wind (1942) as Dan Cutler
This Gun for Hire (1942) as Michael Crane
Wake Island (1942) as Pvt. Joe Doyle
Night Plane from Chungking (1943) as Capt. Nick Stanton
Wings Up (1943)
The Macomber Affair (1947) as Francis Macomber
Variety Girl (1947) as Himself
Wild Harvest (1947) as Jim Davis
Big City (1948) as Rev. Philip Y. Andrews
Blood on the Moon (1948) as Tate Riling
Whispering Smith (1948) as Murray Sinclair
Tulsa (1949) as Brad Brady
The Lady Gambles (1949) as David Boothe
The Sundowners (1950) as James Cloud (‘Kid Wichita’)
When I Grow Up (1951) as Father Reed
Cloudburst (1951) as John Graham
Best of the Badmen (1951) as Matthew Fowler
My Outlaw Brother (1951) as Joe Waldner
Face to Face (1952) as Sheriff Jack Potter
The Last Frontier (1955) as Col. Frank Marston
Sentinels in the Air (1956) (narrator)
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) as Rubin Flood
The Music Man (1962) as Harold Hill
How the West Was Won (1962) as Roger Morgan
Island of Love (1963) as Steve Blair
All the Way Home (1963) as Jay Follett
Junior Bonner (1972) as Ace Bonner
Child’s Play (1972) as Joseph Dobbs
Mame (1974) as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
Semi-Tough (1977) as Big Ed Bookman
The Chisholms (1979-1980, TV Series) as Hadley Chisholm
S.O.B. (1981) as Dr. Irving Finegarten
Victor/Victoria (1982) as Carroll “Toddy” Todd
Rehearsal for Murder (1982, TV Movie) as Alex Dennison
September Gun (1983, TV Movie) as Ben Sunday
The Last Starfighter (1984) as Centauri
Finnegan Begin Again (1985, TV Movie) as Mike Finnegan
Outrage! (1986, TV Movie) as Dennis Riordan