Charismatic American actor Robert Preston (b. Newton Highlands, MA, June 8, 1918; d. Montecito, CA, March 21, 1987) almost never played leading men, but exhibited his irresistible charm on stage and screen playing confidence artists like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man (1957) or Foxwell J. Sly in Sly Fox (1977). Though he had important roles in nearly fifty films (“I’d get the best role in every B picture and the second best in the A pictures,” he claimed), his greatest impact was made on the Broadway stage midway through his career. For his performances in The Music Man and I Do! I Do! (1967) he won two Tony Awards® for Best Actor, and was nominated again in 1975 for his portrayal of Mack Sennett in Mack & Mabel. He was nominated for an Oscar® in 1983 for his turn as Toddy opposite Julie Andrews in the film Victor Victoria.
Robert Preston Meservey grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a garment worker and sometime minor-league baseball player. He attended Abraham Lincoln High School, training as a musician and playing several instruments, but quit at age sixteen to study acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. He apprenticed in forty-two productions there until landing a contract with Paramount studios. It was Paramount that dropped his surname. Until 1943 he made an average of three movies a year, typically portraying sidekicks, rejected suitors, or villains in westerns and adventure films. Producer Cecil B. DeMille, whose methods the actor openly despised, nonetheless cast Preston in choice roles in Union Pacific (1939), Northwest Mounted Police (1940), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942).
He married B-movie actress Catherine Craig (born Catherine Kay Feltus) in 1940. Their marriage ended only with his death forty-seven years later.
For the rest of World War II Preston served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Air Force, returning to his accustomed Hollywood schedule in 1947 with The Macomber Affair, The Lady Gambles (1949), The Sundowners (1950), and Best of the Badmen (1951). Having had enough of westerns (and his wife having had enough of B-movies), he moved to New York in 1951 and embarked on a stage career.
Preston’s Broadway debut was a star turn in a successful revival of The Male Animal (1952), which was followed by a series of six flops, or near-flops. At last in 1957 he took on the role that would make him immortal, the shady trombone salesman Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Robert Preston had never sung in public before. Besides his Best Actor Award, the show won five more 1958 Tonys®, including Best Musical, and ran for 1375 performances. Time magazine in July 1958 ran a portrait of Preston on its cover.
After this triumph, Preston was able essentially to write his own ticket, on screen as well as stage, in serious drama as well as comedy. He turned in riveting performances in films The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), All the Way Home (1963), and the film version of The Music Man, starred on Broadway as Henry II opposite Rosemary Harris in The Lion in Winter (1966) and opposite Mary Martin in the two-person musical I Do! I Do! (1966), for which he won another Tony®. In the 1970s he appeared with Steve McQueen in Junior Bonner (1972), with Lucille Ball in the film version of Mame (1974), and created the lead role in Jerry Herman’s Broadway musical Mack & Mabel (1974), earning his third Tony® nomination.
In 1979 and 1980 Robert Preston was back in westerns, playing patriarch Hadley Chisholm on the television miniseries, The Chisholms. One of Preston’s last starring roles was as a gay cabaret singer befriending Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria (1982). It brought him nominations both for a Golden Globe Award® and for an Oscar®.
Preston died in 1987 of lung cancer. His wife Catherine passed away in 2004.