Robert Morse: The Original Mad Man
One Saturday in the early spring of 1963, the Cosgroves schlepped out to Huntington, Long Island, for a party hosted by the publisher of the magazine where my mom worked as an associate editor. I believe the party was a birthday celebration for the publisher’s son. Since the son and I were roughly the same age (eleven), my parents dragged me along.
My mom’s magazine was “Sportswear Merchandiser,” a trade publication of McCall’s aimed at the buying departments of clothing stores big and small. She often traveled around the country interviewing buyers and profiling their stores. I remember one trip took her to Phoenix to do a piece on Goldwater’s Department Store, a chain then owned by Barry Goldwater’s family.
That day at the party, we met a friendly, older man whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. Somehow the discussion turned to the theater and the fact that I’d never seen a Broadway play or musical. The man asked me what show I’d like to see, and I said, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” I’d seen the cast perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and my dad, who played piano, had bought the sheet music. We didn’t have a record player that worked, but I knew the score well before I saw the show.
A few days later, my mom received two front-row tickets for a matinee during Easter Week. It turned out that the man we’d spoken to at the party owned the company that printed tickets to all Broadway events. I’ve been in his debt for nearly 50 years.
With one exception we got to see the original cast: Robert Morse, as the charming, conniving J. Pierrepont Finch, Rudy Vallee as the slightly bewildered company head J.B. Biggley, and Charles Nelson Reilly as the ridiculous, conniving Bud Frump (both Morse and Reilly won Tonys, as did the play and its creators. It also won the Pulitzer Prize).
The exception was the actress who played Finch’s love interest, Rosemary Pillkington. Bonnie Scott, the original Rosemary, had left, replaced by a talented young actress named Michele Lee (more on her later).
“How To Succeed” had been running for 18 months, but the cast performed like opening night. Morse’s energy was contagious, and after a few minutes he started glancing at my mother and me and grinning “that grin of impetuous youth” as Finch sings—to himself in the mirror—in one of the show’s famous songs, “I Believe In You.” My mother, who had a distinctive laugh, was enjoying herself so much that Morse could hardly avoid gazing her way. The fact that she was a very pretty woman might also explain his attention (that’s my mom circa ’62 at her desk at the magazine).
A thrilling day: walking around Manhattan—or “The City” as we bridge-and-tunnelites referred to that borough—striding through the lobby of the just-opened Pan Am Building (my mother’s office was next door at 230 Park, the skyscraper then known as the New York General Building before the Helmsleys got their gilded hands on it), having lunch somewhere in Times Square, then going to the show. This was big stuff for a kid from Queens. I’ve never forgotten the excitement—even today I knew exactly what box to unearth in the garage to find the Playbill I’d clutched going home on the subway five decades ago.
Robert Morse, of course, now plays the enigmatic, goateed Bertram Cooper on “Mad Men,” a brilliant piece of casting not just because Morse is such a good actor but—at least for me—because of the association with the original mad man he played in “How To Succeed.”
Morse himself has said in interviews that he feels that on “Mad Men” he’s playing Rudy Vallee’s part in a non-musical version of “How To Succeed.” Wouldn’t it be great if they did a musical episode of “Mad Men,” using some of Frank Loesser’s great songs? I can see Don Draper staring at himself in the mirror in the executive washroom, crooning a variation of the original showstopper tune, retitled “I Can’t Believe In You.”
As for Michele Lee, who would go on to a terrific career on TV (notably on “Knots Landing”), we met about ten years ago at a black-tie event in LA during my days at TV Guide. After I told her I’d seen her in “How To Succeed,” I started singing “Rosemary”: Suddenly there is music/In the sound of your name/Rosemary! Rosemary! /Was the melody locked inside me/Till at last out it came? /Rosemary! Rosemary!
Instead of running away from an obvious lunatic, Michele Lee started singing from the score, and soon we were duetting, despite the sad fact that I cannot carry a tune. Thankfully, Michele Lee has a wonderful voice. A lovely moment with a lovely lady.
It’s just a few hours until the “Mad Men” season-opener. I hope Robert Morse is in it. I think before that, I’ll play the original cast album of “How To Succeed” and pretend it’s that memorable day in 1963, when my mother laughed and laughed.