That Preston Fellow
There's been a great deal of attention around these parts about Robert Preston, thanks to the Apple commercial that uses a sound-alike for him with the "Chicken Fat" song. While it's a shame they didn't use Preston's majestic performance that made such a goofball song mesmerizing, I can understand the reason -- either they couldn't get the rights, or it was too difficult to edit the original for the needs of the ad.
Robert Preston is of course best known (and adored) for his iconic performance as Harold Hill in both the Broadway and Hollywood version of The Music Man. (It's always struck me as bizarre that the movie got a nomination as Best Picture yet Preston didn't get a nomination for Best Actor. I know that any nomination isn't just contingent on how good someone is, but how extensive the competition is. And there were wonderful performances by others that year, indeed some legendary ones -- Gregory Peck won for To Kill a Mockingbird, and the nominees were Burt Lancaster (The Birdman of Alcatraz), Jack Lemmon (Days of Wine and Roses), Marcello Mastroianni (Divorce - Italian Style), and Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia). But The Music Man only works if the actor playing Harold Hill does, and the film was, as I said, nominated for Best Picture. So, clearly the film worked for Academy voters. Looking at that list, and impressive as it is, I think he could have fit in. The best I can guess is that enough voters who were on the edge thought, "Well, he played it on stage, so he had an advantage." But Robert Preston was a movie actor, and it's a great movie performance. Still, the film and performance have lived long past the awards, so life goes on just fine.
As I noted here the other day, Robert Preston's movie career is sort of divided into two parts -- he largely played B-movie bad guys before The Music Man, and was a leading man or roguish good guy in substantive supporting roles after. He's a terrific bad guy in the classic Cecil B. DeMille train epic Union Pacific. And post-Music Man, his most memorable film is certainly Victor, Victoria. But as has been discussed here, he's absolutely wonderful with joyous ease in the hard-to-find HBO film, Finnegan Begin Again opposite Mary Tyler Moore. And there's the very light-hearted, arcade game inspired The Last Star Fighter in which he has a showy supporting role that has a lot of fans. (I was at Universal Studios when we made that film, and remember going down to visit the set one day, on an afternoon when I believe Preston was shooting.) Also, he has the lead in a great TV movie, "Rehearsal for Murder," written by the creators of "Columbo," Levinson and Link, that I believe is on Netflix, and I recommend it, if you like smart mysteries. (He also had a major role in the movie version of the musical Mame. It's only a fair film, but he does get to sing the famous title song.)
But that's movies. Because The Music Man also opened up a new career for him on the Broadway stage in musicals. He did the moderate show, Ben Franklin in Paris, but had a good success in I Do! I Do!, written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, the team who wrote The Fantasticks. The two-person show was most known for having arguably the greatest cast a two-person musical could want -- Mary Martin and Robert Preston. The score of the show (that follows the lifetime of a marriage) isn't especially rich and deep, but very tuneful and quite enjoyable.
And this is six minutes from it on the 1967 Tony Awards, a scene in which the husband and wife have their first fight. The video quality isn't very good. Everything else is impeccable.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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