Presnell went on to star in a few more films during the 1960s, but by the early 1970s that aspect of his career came to a standstill. From 1970 to 1995 he mostly worked as a musical theatre performer on Broadway, the West End, and in touring productions out of New York. In his early 60s, Presnell saw a resurgence in his movie career which lasted until his death. He played character roles in films like Fargo (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). He also appeared on television as Mr. Parker in The Pretender and Lew Staziak in Andy Barker, P.I.. He had recurring roles on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Dawson's Creek.
Presnell was born as George Harvey Presnell in 1933, in Modesto, California. He made his professional stage debut performing in an opera at the young age of sixteen. He attended the University of Southern California, earning a bachelor's degree in vocal performance. He then pursued further vocal studies in Europe and at the Music Academy of the West. He appeared with a number of opera companies and orchestras during the 1950s. In 1957 he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera as the Officer in Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. He went on to sing several more comprimario roles with the company that year, including the Jailer in the United States premiere of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. During the late 1950s he made several appearances and recordings with both the Roger Wagner Chorale and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the latter under the baton of Eugene Ormandy.
In 1956, Presnell co-starred with Herva Nelli in the American premiere of Darius Milhaud's opera David at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1960, he was a featured soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in another concert at the Bowl. In attendance at the concert was musical theater composer Meredith Willson who was at that time in the midst of creating his musical on the life of Molly Brown, Titanic survivor. Willson contacted him after the concert and asked him to audition for him. Presnell complied and Wilson ended up offering him the role of "Leadville Johnny." At this point the musical was not completed and Wilson went on to compose much of the music for Leadville Johnny with Presnell's voice in mind.
On November 3, 1960, The Unsinkable Molly Brown opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre to a resounding success. Presnell stayed with the show for its entire 532 performance run, which ended on February 10, 1962. He reprised the role in the 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown for which he won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. He starred in two films in 1965: portraying Sol Rogers, a cavalry scout, in The Glory Guys and Danny Churchill, the romantic lead, in the musical film When the Boys Meet the Girls.
He had one more sizable film role in the 1960s, the role of "Rotten Luck Willie" in Paramount's 1969 musical Western film Paint Your Wagon. He sang "They Call the Wind Mariah". The New York Times said that Presnell's role in the film "delivered the golden opportunity to sing the unforgettable ballad." Theater writer Thomas Hischak said that "in one of the film's few pleasing moments, Harve Presnell gave full voice to They Call the Wind Mariah and it was lovely to hear". Referring to Eastwood and Marvin, film reviewer Brian W. Fairbanks wrote that "Harve Presnell steals both stars' thunder with a knockout version of the best song"
Presnell did some other film and television work in the 1960s and early 1970s, but for the next couple of decades concentrated primarily on stage work, playing Rhett Butler in the West End production of Scarlett and touring the United States as Daddy Warbucks in Annie and its sequel, Annie Warbucks, among other productions. In 1966, Presnell played the role of Sir Lancelot in Camelot in the Regional Equity production at The Houston Music Theatre, owned by Art Linkletter and Nick Mayo (the partnership also owned the Valley Music Theatre in California).
In 1984 Presnell appeared as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at the Darien Dinner Theater, an appearance well received by The New York Times. Theater critic Alvin Klein called Presnell "a winning leading man", and wrote:
As an actor, Mr. Presnell promises much, and as a singer, he delivers. Here is one of the shiniest vocal accounts of the role yet. The actor is on the verge of suggesting that in his implausible way, the Don can bring a measure of grace to the world and fulfill that old impossible dream.
His film career was revived when he played William H. Macy's testy father-in-law in Fargo (1996). Subsequent films included The Whole Wide World (1996), Larger than Life (1996), The Chamber (1996), Face/Off (1997), Julian Po (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998, as General George Marshall), Patch Adams (1998), Walking Across Egypt (1999), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), The Family Man (2000), Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001), Mr. Deeds (2002),Super Sucker (2003), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Evan Almighty (2007). He also starred on television as Mr. Parker on The Pretender, Dr. Sam Lane on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, A.I. Brooks on Dawson's Creek, and NBC's Andy Barker, P.I..
Presnell sang the baritone role in Eugene Ormandy's 1960 recording of Carmina Burana, released by Columbia/Sony on LP and CD. His earliest recordings were as a soloist with the Roger Wagner Chorale (Capitol) in the 1950s with the Chorale in the background particularly in the LP Joy to the World where he sang in "O Holy Night" and the LPs Folk Songs of the New World [Capitol P8324 (1955)] and Folk Songs of the Frontier [Capitol P8332 (1956)], where he sang, among other songs, "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" and "Streets of Laredo".
Presnell died on June 30, 2009, aged 75, from pancreatic cancer, at Saint John's Health Center, in Santa Monica, California.