Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Salute to Two Jolly Good Fellows

I never met the late Robert Morse, who recently passed away at age 90. But I saw him onstage in his breakout Broadway hit, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. In this bouncy but pointed Frank Loesser musical satire, which won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Morse combined his skills as a song-and-dance man with the personal charm that radiated through his every role. In portraying J. Pierrepont Finch, who rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company, Morse parlayed his trademark combination of innocence and chutzpah into a long. lively career. After winning a Tony for his portrayal, the gap-tooth Morse transitioned to Hollywood, starring in the screen version of How to Succeed and also appearing in several parts that traded on his distinctive presence. He was featured as a naïve, bereaved young Englishman in The Loved One, a satire of the California funeral industry, while also appearing in such Sixties dark comedies as A Guide for the Married Man,  Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. (It was the era of long titles.)

 Once these youthful roles dried up, he went back to Broadway to don Jack Lemmon’s frocks and heels in Sugar, an attempt to transfer the magic of Some Like It Hot to the musical stage. As he aged, he tried on more mature but still whimsical roles, like that of the Wizard in Wicked. His greatest stage success in his later years was playing Truman Capote in a one-actor play, Tru. But TV lovers in this century of course cherish his appearances as Bertram Cooper, the eccentric, sometimes mystical ad agency partner in Mad Men. His on-screen death (while watching a man walking on the moon) is followed, remarkably, by a fantasy sequence in which—surrounded by chorus girls—he cheerily croons “The Best Things in Life are Free.” What a way to go!

 David Birney never reached the same pinnacle of fame as Robert Morse, but I mourn him too. It’s especially sad that this dedicated actor and intellectual died of Alzheimer’s disease, at the age of 83. I first became aware of Birney in 1972, with the debut of a well-intentioned TV sitcom called Bridget Loves Bernie. The show, an update of the old Broadway chestnut, Abie’s Irish Rose, focuses on the marriage of a nice Catholic girl (Meredith Baxter) and a nice Jewish boy. Of course the in-laws aren’t happy, and hilarity ensues. Though the show was innocent enough in its intentions, it was rife with stereotypes, and many Jewish communities, worried about high rates of assimilation, were not amused. The fact that Birney’s background was in no way Jewish hardly made the naysayers any happier.

 Once the show was cancelled, Birney continued on with stage and TV roles. In 1988 he signed on for one of Julie Corman’s most ambitious projects, a screen adaptation of Issac Asimov’s outer-space story, “Nightfall.” It’s a brilliant story in concept, but it’s extremely short, so writer-director Paul Mayersberg tricked it out with details of an exotic extra-terrestrial civilization and a lot of bad wigs.  While we were making the film, I somehow met with David at a local spot called the Brentwood Country Mart for a chat. He lent me a wonderful book by the actor/writer Simon Callow called Being an Actor, and I’ve since bought it for my home library. David was serious abut his craft, and I’m sorry his life didn’t permit him more triumphs.



  1. Robert M Levinson continues to remain Anonymous despite innumerable efforts to correct the problem. One must assume Anonymous is a dope. Got Debby’s book out of the library, am prepared to enter genteel debouchery Didn’t like Morse very much, not even in Mad Men and doubt I saw Briney at all. Did love “American Way of Death.” I read the serious book chastising the “funeral” industry, sadly (bad pun), the book and the movie changed nothing, they still prey on your shattered condition. Each “Home” should have “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter” on TV on a wall. Stay well. Bob.

  2. Anonymous may be a dope, but he certainly gets around! I look forward to your opinion of "Madam."