By Laurence Lerman / New York City
In the course of a career that spanned more than 60 years, actor Robert Morse was instantly recognizable by his gap-toothed grin and an easy-going vibe. That hallmark trait seasoned his characters for decades, beginning with his role as corporate ladder-climber J. Pierrepont Finch, in the 1961 Broadway musical-comedy hit How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Morse died on Wednesday, April 20, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
Morse won the first of two Tony Awards for his How To Succeed role of “Finchy,” a window washer at the Manhattan headquarters of the World Wide Wicket Company who gets his hands on the titular self-help book and follows its occasionally questionable advice to rise from window washer to chairman of the board. Along the way, he does a lot of singing and dancing and finagling and romancing.
The lively musical, which ran for nearly 1,500 performances, won seven Tonys overall. The play and its 1967 film version are probably what Morse will be best remembered for. A fascinating collateral result was that the impish Morse’s splendid performance as a young, ambitious Everyman in Gotham painted an unforgettable picture of the New York City of the mid-1960s for the rest of the world—a brightly colored Manhattan that was buzzy, breezy, loopy and full of possibilities.
How To Succeed was one of eight Broadway shows featuring Morse, who picked up his second Tony Award 28 years later for his portrayal of Truman Capote in Jay Presson Allen’s 1989 play Tru. Adapted from the pronouncements and writings of Capote, Tru’s two-act monodrama finds Morse alone onstage as Capote in his apartment—fueled by pills, booze, cocaine and chocolate truffles—musing about his life and career. Dramatic, sad and morbidly funny, it was another perfect showcase for Morse, whose warmth and accessibility somehow made it all palatable.
There were a healthy handful of other movies over the years, most of them forgettable (like the leering 1967 bedroom farce The Guide for the Married Man. Oy.). Ditto for his dozens of appearances on episodic television shows, ranging from The Naked City (1961) to Love, American Style (1971) to Murder, She Wrote (1985) to Suddenly Susan (1998)
Fabulously, Morse “returned” to New York for his final career triumph, a featured role on Mad Men, the long-running AMC show (2007-2015) centered on 1960s Manhattan’s world of advertising agencies and its many Madison Avenue denizens. Not that Morse wasn’t busy in the years following the end of Mad Men— he popped up as author Dominick Dunne in FX’s true crime anthology series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016) and had a nice role in a 2017 Broadway revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s newspaper comedy The Front Page.
But as Mad Men’s Bertram Cooper, the eccentric senior partner and founder of ad agency Sterling Cooper, his very presence brought with it a feeling of both his character’s and own personal history as someone attuned to the rhythms of New York City—its highs and lows, its entrepreneurial spirit, its challenges, its pleasures—and its dangling challenge to all comers to approach and conquer it. It’s almost as if a much-older J. Pierrepont Finch had continued working in New York at the end of How To Succeed but moved over to the advertising business, bringing with him a lifetime of knowledge and experience.
In his final episode on Mad Men in the show’s last season, Morse’s Bert Cooper dies in his sleep, having marveled at the historic 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on TV only a few hours before. But Bert wasn’t quite done yet—during the next episode’s final minutes, he appears in a climactic dream sequence to sing and dance to the Broadway standard “The Best Things in Life are Free” for the troubled protagonist Don Draper. It’s both an affectionate callback to Morse’s musical-comedy roots and a sly reminder for us all to enjoy what we have while we still have it—particularly those special, personal moments like a loved one’s smile or the scent of honeysuckle or a glowing sunset.
As the song declares, “The sunbeams that shine—they’re yours and they’re mine.”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.