|Occupation Actor, Singer|
Years active 1938–1985
Name Robert Preston
|Role Film actor|
Years of service 1942–45
Awards Grammy Hall of Fame
|Full Name Robert Preston Meservey|
Born June 8, 1918 (1918-06-08) Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.
Allegiance United States of America
Died March 21, 1987, Montecito, California, United States
Spouse Catherine Craig (m. 1940–1987)
Albums The Music Man, I Do! I Do! (Original Broadway Cast), The iPhone T.V. Advert Collection
Movies The Music Man, Victor Victoria, The Last Starfighter, Beau Geste, Junior Bonner
Similar People Shirley Jones, Meredith Willson, Catherine Craig, Barbara Cook, Mary Martin
Service/branch U.S. Army Air Forces
Robert Preston Meservey (June 8, 1918 – March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor best remembered for 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 Award 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 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor 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 respectively. After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II, he joined the United States 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 St. Trond, 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.
When he began appearing in films, the studio ordered Meservey to stop using his actual family name. As Robert Preston, the name by which he would be known for his entire professional career, he appeared in many Hollywood films, predominantly Westerns but not exclusively. He was "Digby Geste" in the sound remake of Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, and featured in North West Mounted Police (1940), also with Cooper. He played an LAPD detective in the noir This Gun for Hire (1942).
Preston is, however, probably best remembered for his performance as "Professor" Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's musical The Music Man (1962). He had already won a Tony Award for his performance in the original Broadway production in 1957. When Willson adapted his story for the screen, he insisted on Preston's participation over the objections of Jack L. Warner, who had wanted Frank Sinatra or Cary Grant for the role. Preston 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. He played the title role in the musical Ben Franklin in Paris, and originated the role of Henry II in the stage production of The Lion in Winter, which Peter O'Toole portrayed in the film version and received 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 was written and composed by Herman especially for Preston 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. 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 an important supporting role as wagon master Roger Morgan, in the epic Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film How the West Was Won.
In 1979 and 1980, Preston portrayed determined family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in the CBS western miniseries, The Chisholms. Rosemary Harris played his wife, Minerva. Preston's character died in the ninth of the thirteen episodes which also included co-stars Ben Murphy, Brian Kerwin, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten. The story chronicled how the Chisholm family lost their land in Virginia by fraud and migrated to 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 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. He also starred in the HBO 1985 movie Finnegan, Begin Again with Mary Tyler Moore. His final role was in the television film Outrage! (1986).
He was an intensely private person. There are no official biographies of Preston but he gave several interviews late in his career.
Preston died of lung cancer on March 21, 1987, at the age of 68. He was survived by his wife, Catherine, and father, Frank.