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Robert Preston

Robert Preston

American actor
The basics
Occupations Actor Stage actor Film actor
Countries United States of America
Gender male
Birth June 8, 1918 (Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
Death March 21, 1987 (Montecito, Santa Barbara County, California, U.S.A.)
Spouse: Catherine Craig
Authority All Movie id IMDB id ISNI id Library of congress id Musicbrainz id NNDB id VIAF id
The details

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.

Early life

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 probably best known 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 1957 Broadway production. When Willson adapted his story for the screen, he insisted on Preston's participation over the objections of Jack L. Warner, who had wanted to cast 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, receiving 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).

Personal life and death

Preston married actress Catherine Craig in 1940. He was an intensely private person and has no official biographies but he gave several interviews, especially 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.

Stage productions

  • The Male Animal (May 15, 1952 – January 31, 1953)
  • Men of Distinction (April 30, 1953 – May 2, 1953)
  • His and Hers (January 7, 1954 – March 13, 1954)
  • The Magic and the Loss (April 9, 1954 – May 1, 1954)
  • The Tender Trap (October 13, 1954 – January 8, 1955)
  • Janus (November 24, 1955 – June 30, 1956)
  • The Hidden River (January 23, 1957 – March 16, 1957)
  • The Music Man (December 19, 1957 – April 15, 1961)
  • Too True to be Good (March 12, 1963 – June 1, 1963)
  • Nobody Loves an Albatross (December 19, 1963 – June 20, 1964)
  • Ben Franklin in Paris (October 27, 1964 – May 1, 1965)
  • The Lion in Winter (March 3, 1966 – May 21, 1966)
  • I Do! I Do! (December 5, 1966 – June 15, 1968)
  • Mack & Mabel (October 6, 1974 – November 30, 1974)
  • Sly Fox (December 14, 1976 – February 19, 1978)
  • The Prince of Grand Street (March 7, 1978 – March 25, 1978, Philadelphia; March 28, 1978 – April 15, 1978, Boston; closed during pre-Broadway tryouts)


  • King of Alcatraz (1938) as Robert MacArthur
  • Illegal Traffic (1938) as Charles Bent Martin
  • Disbarred (1939) as Bradley Kent
  • Union Pacific (1939) as Dick Allen
  • Beau Geste (1939) as Digby Geste
  • Typhoon (1940) as Johnny Potter
  • North West Mounted Police (1940) as Ronnie Logan
  • Moon Over Burma (1940) as Chuck Lane
  • The Lady from Cheyenne (1941) as Steve Lewis
  • Parachute Battalion (1941) as Donald Morse
  • New York Town (1941) as Paul Bryson, Jr.
  • The Night of January 16th (1941) as Steve Van Ruyle
  • Pacific Blackout (1941) as Robert Draper
  • Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) as Himself (uncredited)
  • Reap the Wild Wind (1942) as Dan Cutler
  • This Gun for Hire (1942) as Michael Crane
  • Wake Island (1942) as Pvt. Joe Doyle
  • Night Plane from Chungking (1943) as Capt. Nick Stanton
  • Wings Up (1943)
  • The Macomber Affair (1947) as Francis Macomber
  • Variety Girl (1947) as Himself
  • Wild Harvest (1947) as Jim Davis
  • Big City (1948) as Rev. Philip Y. Andrews
  • Blood on the Moon (1948) as Tate Riling
  • Whispering Smith (1948) as Murray Sinclair
  • Tulsa (1949) as Brad Brady
  • The Lady Gambles (1949) as David Boothe
  • The Sundowners (1950) as James Cloud ('Kid Wichita')
  • When I Grow Up (1951) as Father Reed
  • Cloudburst (1951) as John Graham
  • Best of the Badmen (1951) as Matthew Fowler
  • My Outlaw Brother (1951) as Joe Waldner
  • Face to Face (1952) as Sheriff Jack Potter ('The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky')
  • The Last Frontier (1955) as Col. Frank Marston
  • Sentinels in the Air (1956) (narrator)
  • The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) as Rubin Flood
  • The Music Man (1962) as Harold Hill
  • How the West Was Won (1962) as Roger Morgan
  • Island of Love (1963) as Steve Blair
  • All the Way Home (1963) as Jay Follett
  • Junior Bonner (1972) as Ace Bonner
  • Child's Play (1972) as Joseph Dobbs
  • Mame (1974) as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
  • Semi-Tough (1977) as Big Ed Bookman
  • The Chisholms (1979-1980, TV Series) as Hadley Chisholm
  • S.O.B. (1981) as Dr. Irving Finegarten
  • Victor Victoria (1982) as Carole "Toddy" Todd
  • Rehearsal for Murder (1982, TV Movie) as Alex Dennison
  • September Gun (1983, TV Movie) as Ben Sunday
  • The Last Starfighter (1984) as Centauri
  • Finnegan Begin Again (1985, TV Movie) as Mike Finnegan
  • Outrage! (1986, TV Movie) as Dennis Riordan (final film role)

Radio appearances

Year Program Episode/source
1950 Lux Radio Theatre Alexander's Ragtime Band

Honors and awards


Award Category Title Result
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Supporting Actor S.O.B. Won
National Board of Review Awards Best Supporting Actor Victor Victoria
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor Nominated
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Supporting Actor (3rd place)
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Musical or Comedy
The Music Man
Saturn Awards Best Supporting Actor The Last Starfighter


Award Category Title Result
Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical The Music Man Won
I Do! I Do!
Mack & Mabel Nominated

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Early life Career Personal life and death Stage productions Filmography Radio appearances Honors and awards
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