Wednesday, July 28, 2010
SPOTLIGHT ON ROBERT PRESTON
Preston was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of Ruth L. (née Rea) and Frank Wesley Meservey, a garment worker and billing clerk for American Express in 1918. After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, California, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. He would later serve in the United States Army Air Forces as an intelligence officer with the U.S. 9th Air Force during World War II.
In 1940, he married actress Catherine Craig, to whom he remained married until his death.
Preston appeared in many Hollywood films, predominantly Westerns, but is probably best remembered for his portrayal of "Professor" Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's musical The Music Man (1962). He won a Tony Award for his performance in the original Broadway production (1957). He appeared on the cover of Time magazine 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 and in 1974, he starred opposite Bernadette Peters in Jerry Herman's Broadway musical "Mack and Mabel" as Mack Sennett, the famous silent film director. That same year (1974) 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 which he sang 'Loving You' which was written by Jerry Herman especially for Preston to sing in the film.
In 1961, Preston was asked to make a recording as part of a program by the President's Council on Physical Fitness to get schoolchildren to do more daily exercise. The song, "Chicken Fat," written by Meredith Willson and performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, was distributed to schools across the nation and played for students in calisthenics every morning. The song later became a surprise novelty hit and a part of many baby-boomers' childhood memories.
In 1979 and 1980, Preston portrayed determined family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in the CBS western miniseries, The Chisholms. Rosemary Harris played his wife, Minerva. The Preston character died in the ninth of the thirteen episodes of the program. Other co-stars were Ben Murphy, Lance Kerwin, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten. In the story line, the Chisholms lost their land in Virginia by fraud and left for California to begin a new life.
Although he was not known for his singing voice, Preston appeared in several other stage and film musicals, notably Mame (1974) and Victor/Victoria (1982), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His last role in a theatrical film was in The Last Starfighter (1984), in which he played intergalactic con man/military recruiter "Centauri." Preston said that he based the character of Centauri on Professor Harold Hill. He also starred in the HBO 1985 movie Finnegan Begin Again along with Mary Tyler Moore. His final role was in the TV movie Outrage! (1986).
Preston died of lung cancer in 1987, at the age of 68.