Actor Robert Morse, of Mad Men and Broadway scenes, dies at 90


Actor Robert Morse, who won a Tony Award as the hilarious and brash corporate climber in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and a second a generation later as the brilliant and troubled Truman Capote in True, is dead. He was 90 years old.

Morse died at his home on Wednesday after a brief illness, said David Shaul of BRS/Gage Talent Agency.

Handsome boy Morse made a name for himself on Broadway in the 1950s and landed a few roles in Hollywood comedies in the 1960s. “I consider myself an actor — shyly,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1964. “I love acting. It’s a great use of body and mind… In all humility, you hope you’re doing something worthwhile.”

More recently, he played the autocratic and eccentric leader of an advertising agency in Mad Menthe hit AMC drama that debuted in 2007. The role earned him an Emmy Award nomination in 2008 as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series.

Morse was already well established on Broadway, with two Tony Award nominations under his belt, when he shot to national fame at age 30 as the star of Abe Burrows and the hit 1961 Broadway satire by Frank Loesser on Corporate Life, “How to Succeed…”. The show won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Musical and ran for over three years.

Robert Morse, left, and Carol Channing are shown during a rehearsal for the road company’s production of Sugar Babies in New York on July 18, 1977. Morse won a Tony Award in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and had a long career on stage. . (Mary Lederhandler/Associated Press)

Morse-eyed J. Pierrepont Finch was a master of corporate backstabbing – with a toothy grin – as he rose from Manhattan window cleaner to World Wide Wicket corporation titan with the help of of a small “how-to” pocket book on office politics.

The musical’s song titles suggest the pre-feminist business world: The way of businessa theme song for yes-men; A secretary is not a toya song that nods to office banter; Coffee break, a tribute to caffeine; and the hymn Finch sings to himself: I believe in you. Finch turns to the aging boss, played by 1920s crooner Rudy Vallée, joining in the old man’s fight song, big old ivy.

“Imagine a collaboration between Horatio Alger and Machiavelli and you have Finch, the fearless hero of this outing into the canyons of commerce,” writes the New York Times. “As played with unwavering bravery and wit by Robert Morse, it’s a crumpled, dimpled angel with a Lucifer streak.”

The 1967 film version of How to succeed dropped a few songs but stayed close to the stage original. Morse was back, as was Vallee.

But Morse’s film career largely failed to take off.

He was back on Broadway in 1972 – and landed another Tony nomination – for Sugarmusical version by producer David Merrick Some like it hot. Morse starred as Jerry, the role played by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s comedy about two male musicians who disguise themselves as women to escape murderous gangsters.

Truea one-man show based on Capote’s writings, reignited Morse’s stage career in 1989.

In 1993, the television version of True on PBS, Morse won an Emmy for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Special.

Television Mad Men sent Morse back into the middle of 1960s-style Manhattan office politics.

Career ups and downs

Morse was born May 18, 1931 in Newton, Mass., and made his Broadway debut in 1955 in The matchmaker.

He received consecutive Tony Award nominations for his two following roles: in 1959 for Best Featured Actor in a Play for say, darlingand in 1960 Best Actor in a Musical for Take mewhich also starred Jackie Gleason.

Among his films was The loved onea 1965 dark comedy about an Englishman’s encounter with Hollywood and the funeral industry, based on Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel.

Robert Morse is introduced on June 3, 1990, alongside fellow Tony Award winners that year, left to right, James Naughton, Maggie Smith and Tyne Daly. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

Reviewing his career, Morse told The New York Times in 1989: “Things change. I never had the chance to be in a play or a picture where I played a father, or had a family, or where I could feel or show something. The wild child in me never had a chance to grow.”

He said he had successfully battled alcoholism and drug addiction, but added: “I don’t think the alcohol interfered with my work. I did my job. It’s the other 22 hours that bothered me.”

Still, he said of his career: “I didn’t think it was going to end or not end. I just kept going. One day you hear ‘We love you, Bobby’. The next day you do voice-overs.”

He is survived by five children, a son Charlie and four daughters, Robin, Andrea, Hilary and Allyn.