Today marks the 99th birthday of Robert Preston, who has snuck his way into a number of the columns I've been writing for the past year, due to my intense admiration and affection for him. Since launching this blog on June 12th, this is the first time I get to celebrate his birthday. As I've already written in the Preface for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, it was his performance in the 1962 film of The Music Man that captivated me. As a five-year-old, his energy was such that I felt he leaped off the screen at me. And had his Professor Harold Hill come to my home town of Great Neck, Long Island to start a band, I surely would have followed him to the end of the earth.
Robert Preston (at the start and at his zenith).
He was born Robert Preston Meservey in Newton, Massachusetts, a city that has been the birthplace of some other pretty talented actors over the years such as Jack Lemmon, Robert Morse, Matt Damon, Amy Poehler, B.J. Novak and Matt LeBlanc. His parents moved across the country to East Los Angeles when Preston was two years old to live with his maternal grandparents in a home they purchased in Lincoln Heights, one of the poorest sections of town. It was there that Preston was raised in a house that totaled eleven people, consisting of cousins and uncles and aunts. The neighbors were largely Mexican immigrants, and when it was time for Preston to enroll in school, he was the only white kid in the class. "I was also younger than the other children," Preston said. "I felt strongly that I was a member of a minority group. It made a listener out of me. I hung around bashfully, listening to what everybody else said, and I've been a very careful listener ever since."
It's interesting to discover that someone who would grow up to exemplify such overbrimming confidence and brashness on stage and screen began as a shy child. But any actor worth their salt will tell you that listening is one of the key skills to being as good at the game as you can. Preston's practice extended to the records that his mother would bring home. "I heard John Barrymore doing passages from Shakespeare long before I could appreciate them. Still, I always liked to listen and play them on the family Victrola—one of the early models, with the big horn and the picture of a white puppy dog on it".
His Master's Voice, as the advertisements for the RCA Victrola once declared.
Being taken to plays at a young age, and even falling under the spell of a school janitor who was once a Shakespearean actor, led Preston to seeking ways to express himself through the spoken word. When the Depression hit, leaving his father to fend for whatever work he could get, Preston's abilities as a young actor gained him employment that helped the family survive, such as when the fledgling Pasadena Playhouse (still standing and in operation today), gave him his first job at age sixteen. It was there he met his future wife, the actress Catharine Craig (née Feltus).
By age nineteen, he managed to get a part in a B-film titled King of Alcatraz, playing a crewman on a tanker, at a salary of $100 a week. Two other negligible films followed, but while playing the starring role in Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight at the Pasadena Playhouse, he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout which led to a long-term contract and his first big part under his first big director. And at that studio, they didn't come any bigger than Cecil B. DeMille—and Preston was ready for his close-up. He was cast as Barbara Stanwyck's husband in 1939's Union Pacific, and from there on in was a steady and reliable player for the next twenty years.
But the majority of the parts Preston was given didn't satisfy him and tapped only a small portion of his talents. There is a famous story that he liked to tell of how he thumbed his nose at The Great Man, when DeMille demanded Preston not mention his previous three films in order that the dictatorial director could lay claim to discovering him as an unknown. "It's not like you ever did any real work before I gave you your chance," he told his young charge. Preston didn't agree. "What about all I've done in the theatre?" DeMille sniffed and said, "I mean work."
"Well, the only thing I've done that you'd call work was when I was at the Pasadena Playhouse and on the cleaning crew in the morning, then parking cars at Santa Anita Race Track in the afternoon. After I told him that, from that point on, whenever DeMille talked me up on the press tour for Union Pacific, it was all about how he found this poor young boy in the parking lot of Santa Anita! Then the next year, after giving me the script for Northwest Mounted Police, he asked me how I liked it. I said, 'it's the same part I played for you last year. I'll change costumes and play it again,' and he said, 'You ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, if it weren't for me, you'd still be parking cars at Santa Anita!' And he meant it."
It wasn't long before Preston was drafted into World War II, and the three years of service matured him. But the same old parts he was given offered nothing to reflect that. It wasn't until 1950, while on loan out for Cloudburst, a British film shot in London, that he was exposed to the lives of English actors that would work at the studio by day, then head off to the theatre at night. It was a revelation to him that actors could do both. Once he finished the film and was en route to his California home, Preston decided to stop first in New York. By chance he ran into Jose Ferrer, who had just directed and starred in a revival of the comedy Twentieth Century and was looking for someone to replace him as Oscar Jaffe. Without thinking twice, Preston volunteered himself. “I said, ‘Here, here’s a paper napkin, and let’s sign a contract right here and now!’”
And that did it. Over the next seven years Preston appeared in a play every season, excelling at both comedy and drama. Then, once he took the town by storm with The Music Man, Preston proved he could do just about anything and his career was set. And for those that got to see him live over the ensuing two decades, especially in musicals, surely considered themselves lucky. Seeing him onstage was to experience pure joy, as Preston was present (in the best sense of the word) with both his fellow actors and audiences alike.
My favorite photo of Preston staged in 1958 in the alley between the Royale and Majestic Theatres, with Laurence Olivier (then appearing as Archie Rice in The Entertainer) lighting a cigarette for Preston while he was playing in The Music Man (1958).
I'm a hell of a lot older now than the five-year-old that fell in love with Robert Preston—and still grateful he was the one who led me on the path to becoming an actor. Over the years, I've seen greater performances by actors of every stripe, but Preston will always remain my favorite. Seeing him on screen, even in roles that held him back a bit, you could always feel his energy seething just below the surface. And when given the chance to let loose, the delight he got in performing was infectious. Though he died thirty years ago, Preston's majestic voice on the original cast albums of The Music Man, Ben Franklin in Paris, I Do! I Do! and Mack and Mabel are there for the listening; to feed off that incredible positive energy that made him a special and unique talent that will forever endure.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book