He would say I get the best role in every B picture and the second best in A pictures. He was under contract to Paramount for a number of years, most unhappily, usually playing villains, although usually charming ones. He appeared in several Alan Ladd films and Preston was one of those actors who stood next to Ladd who would be on a box.
Preston was born in 1918 in Massachusetts but soon moved to California with his parents and attended high school in Hollywood. His musical tastes developed early and he could play several instruments. While he had considered a career in sports, he decided early on that he wanted to be an actor and he took up with a Shakespearean troupe after graduation. He credited his time at the famed Pasadena Playhouse where he acted in some 40+ plays as providing him with most all of the acting tools he needed. It was at the Playhouse where he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout and signed to a contract... or indentured servitude as he would call it.
I think it's accurate to say the studio never really knew what they had in Preston. Understandably they had their Hopes, Crosbys, Ladds, MacMurrays and Coopers on whom they kept close tabs. But they also employed such actors as Brian Donlevy and Robert Cummings who got more of their attention than Preston did.
He did manage smaller roles in three Cecil B. DeMille epics, Union Pacific (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940) and Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and he loathed the director and made it known, incurring DeMille's wrath. He was no director, Preston said. He didn't know what to do or what to tell us. He was not a very nice person, politically, or in any other way. It's no secret how I felt about him. The funny thing is that Preston was well-liked in Hollywood and didn't have a problem getting on with coworkers, although a leading lady in 1949 certainly got his knickers all twisted.
He did manage a decent part as one of Cooper's brothers in Beau Geste (1939). In 1942 he appeared in a film noir classic, This Gun for Hire, his first film with Ladd. Preston was the star of the crime caper but Ladd was so impressive as a baby-faced killer that in many of the subsequent ads and posters, his name was listed first and Preston's usually vanished. Such was his career in the 1940s.
He took time out for WWII and then returned to Paramount and such films as Wild Harvest, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith and The Lady Gambles, his second movie with Barbara Stanwyck, an actress he greatly admired. The one he didn't admire was Susan Hayward. They played lovers in the oil drama, Tulsa (1949), but barely spoke if the cameras were whirring. He said she was the rudest, most ill-tempered actress I ever worked with. I'd quit the business before working with her again.
|With Shirley Jones in "The Music Man"|
His movie career in the 1950s was even worse (in fact, not one film worth mentioning) but he made his way across the country to Broadway. He would appear in eight plays during the decade, although none would garner him the acclaim that was to come his way in 1957 when Meredith Willson asked him to play the brassy, fast-talking, warm-hearted confidence man, Professor Harold Hill, in The Music Man. It would win him the first of two Tony awards and would become the role he is most remembered for. He would go on to play the movie role in 1962.
My favorite Preston role occurred two years earlier as the edgy but likeable, sexually-frustrated husband of Dorothy McGuire in William Inge's wonderful turn-of-the-century family drama, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Migawd he was given wonderful words to say. You may recall it as one of my 50 Favorite Films as well.
|Pleading with Dorothy McGuire|
He tried to woo Debbie Reynolds away from Gregory Peck in the all-star How the West Was Won (1962) and the following year made another heartfelt, if brief, appearance as the loving husband who makes Jean Simmons an early widow in All the Way Home. He would not make another film for nine years, so happily entrenched was he on the Great White Way. Another Tony came his way for I Do, I Do and he was nominated for one for Mack and Mabel. Go to hell Paramount Studios.
His movie time was fairly limited in the 70s as well. He began 1972 with Ida Lupino as rodeo performer Steve McQueen's world-weary parents in Junior Bonner.
We wouldn't speak of Mame (1974).
I recall liking Semi-Tough, the 1977 Burt Reynolds football comedy where Preston was fun as Jill Clayburgh's hardass old man. But to be fair, as with all but one of Reynolds's movies, I've forgotten them as quickly as a Chinese dinner.
Ok I'm getting there... gay boys and movie fans everywhere.
The 1980s brought about a lovely working relationship with Julie Andrews and her husband, director Blake Edwards... not once, but twice, in a row. The first was the self-indulgent, over-produced S.O.B. (1981), a satire of the inner-workings of Hollywood. It was not completely without value. It had a large and talented cast and Preston as a drug-happy quack-doctor was among the most entertaining.
|As Toddy in "Victor/Victoria"|
And the following year came the impeccable musical-comedy, Victor/Victoria. I find Preston's turn as the irrepressible Toddy perhaps the screen's most beloved gay character. After Toddy and Victoria are both down on their luck (and enjoy one of the most hysterical dinner sequences in movie history), they determine to find a way out of it all. He becomes the master of ceremonies at a transvestite club after having her pretend to be a man who performs as a woman and their good fortune is guaranteed. Ours too. We all helped it become Le Jazz Hot at the box office.
Isn't it odd that he gave such a wonderful performance in a mega-popular film and instead of collecting on the resurgence it must have provided, it basically spelled the end of his career... or almost. He made only one more theatrical film and a few television movies.
Robert Preston died at age 68 of lung cancer in 1987 in Montecito, California, survived by his only wife of over 40 years.
You Don't Know Jack