Nationality: American. Born: Robert Preston Meservey in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, 8 June 1918. Education: Attended Lincoln High School, Hollywood. Family: Married Catherine Feltus Craig, 1941. Career: 1934—joined Shakespearian group managed by Mrs. Tyrone Power Sr.; then worked at Pasadena Community Theatre for two years; 1938—film debut in King of Alcatraz ; contract with Paramount; also acted on stage in 18 Actors company; 1942–46—served in U.S. Army Air Force; 1951—in TV series Man against Crime, Anywhere, U.S.A. series, 1952–54, and mini-series The Chisholms , 1980; 1951—on stage in Twentieth Century ; later stage roles include The Male Animal , The Tender Trap , 1954, His and Hers , 1954, The Music Man , 1957 (and film version, 1962), I Do! I Do! , 1968, and Mack and Mabel , 1974. Awards: Tony Awards, for I Do! I Do! , 1967, and The Music Man , 1958; Best Supporting Actor Award, U.S. National Film Critics, for S.O.B. , 1981. Died: Of lung cancer, in Santa Barbara, California, 21 March 1987.
King of Alcatraz (Florey) (as Robert MacArthur); Illegal Traffic (Louis King) (as Bent Martin)
Disbarred (Florey) (as Bradley Kent); Union Pacific (Cecil B.DeMille) (as Dick Allen); Beau Geste (Wellman) (as Digby Geste)
Typhoon (Louis King) (as Johnny Porter); Moon over Burma (Louis King) (as Chuck Lane); Northwest Mounted Police (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Constable Ronnie Logan)
New York Town (Charles Vidor) (as Paul Bryson Jr.); Lady from Cheyenne (Lloyd) (as Steve); Night of January 16th (Clemens) (as Steve Van Ruyle); Parachute Battalion (Goodwins) (as Donald Morse)
Pacific Blackout ( Midnight Angel ) (Murphy) (as Robert Draper); Reap the Wild Wind (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Dan Cutler); This Gun for Hire (Tuttle) (as Michael Crane); Wake Island (Farrow) (as Joe Doyle); Star Spangled Rhythm (George Marshall) (cameo role)
Night Plane from Chung-King (Murphy) (as Capt. Nick Stanton)
Wild Harvest (Garnett) (as Jim Davis); The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda) (as Francis Macomber); Variety Girl (George Marshall) (cameo role)
Whispering Smith (Fenton) (as Murray Sinclaire); Blood on the Moon (Wise) (as Tate Biling)
The Big City (Taurog) (as the Reverend Phillip A. Andrews); The Lady Gambles (Gordon) (as David Boothe); Tulsa (Heisler) (as Brad Brady)
The Sundowners (Templeton) (as Wichita Kid)
My Outlaw Brother (Nugent) (as Joe Warnder); When I Grow Up (Kanin) (as Father Reed); The Best of the Badmen (Russell) (as Matthew Fowler)
Face to Face (Windust) (as Sheriff); Cloudburst (Searle)(as John)
The Last Frontier (Anthony Mann) (as Col. Frank Marston)
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Delbert Mann) (as Rubin)
The Music Man (Da Costa) (as Professor Howard Hill)
How the West Was Won (Hathaway) (as Roger Morgan); Island of Love (Da Costa) (as Steve Blair); All the Way Home (Segal) (as Jay)
Junior Bonner (Peckinpah) (as Ace Bonner); Child's Play (Lumet) (as Joseph Dobbs)
Mame (Saks) (as Beauregard)
My Father's House (Segal—for TV)
Semi-Tough (Ritchie) (as Big Ed Bookman)
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (Rosenblum—for TV)(as Mr. Stranger)
S.O.B. (Edwards) (as Dr. Irving Finegarten)
Victor/Victoria (Edwards) (as Toddy); Rehearsal for Murder (Greene—for TV)
The Last Starfighter (Castle) (as Centauri); The September Gun (Taylor—for TV)
Finnegan, Begin Again (Joan Micklin Silver—for TV) (as Mike Finnegan)
Outrage! (Grauman—for TV) (as Dennis Riordan)
Interview in American Classic Screen (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), September-October 1982.
Preston, Catherine Craig, "The Movies and I," as told to John Springer, in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1957.
Current Biography 1958 , New York, 1958.
Peper, W., "Robert Preston," in Films in Review (New York), March 1968.
Hurley, Joseph, in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1982.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 25 March 1987.
Obituary in Films and Filming (London), May 1987.
Briggs, C., "Remembering," in Hollywood Studio Magazine (Studio City), no. 3, 1989.
* * *
Robert Preston is best known for his stage and screen performances as "Professor" Harold Hill in The Music Man . His portrayal of the disarming confidence man underscores the paradox that informs his work: here and elsewhere, Preston's feather-light grace and sense of comedic timing belie his rugged and sturdy visage.
Preston was signed by Paramount in 1938, and first gained wide approval in Union Pacific . After serving in World War II, he was a success in The Macomber Affair . Tired of playing leads in only smaller pictures, Preston accepted an offer in 1951 to appear on Broadway, and he soon became known as a stage actor. In 1957, Preston arrived as "the music man," and won his first of two Tony Awards. Preston's success on Broadway renewed Hollywood's interest in him; he became known as one of the ablest character actors in Hollywood, and continued work on both coasts. In the 1980s, work with Blake Edwards brought Preston renewed acclaim. His performance as Toddy in Victor/Victoria brought Preston an Academy Award nomination.
There is always a touch of fraud about Preston's characters. They gain sympathy in direct proportion to the degree they acknowledge their own facade. Preston frequently emphasizes the function of acting in his roles, adding to his fraudulent image an element that colors and shades each performance. Preston's paradoxical image has been used in a variety of ways. Though often serving a humorous purpose, his double-sided quality can generate a deep tragic resonance: he dies playing a practical joke in Beau Geste , his whimsical attitude foreshadows his death in All the Way Home , and his delusions about aging impair his relationship with his wife and son in Junior Bonner .
Preston's persona has proved to be uncommonly malleable: witty and dashing in Beau Geste , devil-may-care in Northwest Mounted Police , romantic and rough-hewn in Reap the Wild Wind , heroic in Wake Island , stiff-backed and humorless in The Last Frontier , and explosively charming in The Music Man . The quality of his work ennobles even his contractual obligations and gives a sense of history to his career. When he gives a "Viking's Funeral" to Richard Mulligan in S.O.B. it reminds one of the funeral Preston gave Gary Cooper in Beau Geste . The difference between the two deny simple repetition; they represent significant variations of Preston's image and his incessant vitality.
—Frank Thompson, updated by Cynthia Baron