Recently, I was asked about Robert Preston by someone who had read on my website that I had
worked with him. I decided to write down my recollections of him and add them to my website.
I first became aware of Robert Preston when I saw an old western called "The Sundowners" on
TV. Preston was playing a bad guy who was different from any bad guy I had ever seen. He was
gleeful, full of the joy of living. He sang a jolly song, about a miscreant named O'Reilly, as he
rustled cattle. When his brother, a good guy played by Robert Sterling, asked him, "Wichita, did
you shoot Elmer Gall?" Preston (who had shot the gentleman) replied, "What? Did something
happen to Elmer?"
I had never seen a villain played like that. I asked my dad, "Who is that guy?" and my father
replied that he was Robert Preston and added that he had left Hollywood a few years before. I
was thirteen. About a year later, I heard the song 76 trombones on the radio. When the
announcer identified the singer as Robert Preston, I thought to myself, "So that's where he went–
In 1962, I was a lost soul attending Hollywood High School. My grades were so bad that I been
kicked off every team and dropped from the cast of every play or activity I'd ever tried to
participate in. Honestly, there'd been few bright spots in my educational career and now I was in
12th grade. One thing that had lifted my spirits was the movie The Music Man. The movie came
out in ’62 and when I saw it, I was introduced to the incredible “Ya Got Trouble” number. Everyone
who ever saw Robert Preston perform “Trouble” was knocked sideways by it. And by Preston! It
was kind of astonishing.
In the fall of 62, it was announced that the high school spring musical would be the Music Man and
that the roles would be cast before the end of the fall semester. I focused on getting that role. I
use that word because I think it was the first time I had ever focused on anything having to do with
school in my entire life.
There was a series of auditions and I was up against a bunch of talented guys. In those days,
Hollywood High could almost be considered a motion picture industry school there were so many
kids whose parents worked in the business. I auditioned and auditioned until I was one of three
guys who might play Harold Hill. I might mention that all three of us went on to become
professional actors. During the audition process, I saw the movie another dozen times.
Miraculously, I got the part.
The director was a wonderful man named John Ingle who had a long and glorious career as an
educator and then retired and has since had a long and glorious career as an actor. He was
against casting me because he was pretty sure that my academics would catch up with me again
and he would have to recast the part, as he had when I got bounced out of the cast of “the
Crucible” the previous semester. He was outvoted by the music teacher and the orchestra
I had to con nearly every one of my teachers into grading me so kindly as to not upset the only
applecart I had ever been given a chance to push. It was good practice for the role.
I believe it was a good production. It was Hollywood High after all. Two of the original
Mousketeers, Mike Smith and Johnny Crawford, were in the cast. The girl that played Zaneeta,
Joan Conrath, had just come off the road after performing in the National tour of Bye Bye Birdie
and she and her Tommy Djilas, Mike Smith, were both in the movie. Joan played Zaneeta that
same year with Bert Parks and with Preston's understudy, Norwood Smith. Every principal
member of the cast went on to become a professional actor.
We performed a Thursday matinee for the students, then, two more performances on Friday and
Saturday night. Harry Hickox, who had played the anvil salesman in the movie and had played
Harold Hill all over the country in the bus and truck company, showed up at the Saturday night
performance as an emissary from Meredith Willson. Because we were using the bus and truck
company sets and costumes, I was wearing Harry's old clothes. It was a great thrill to meet him
and we began a friendship that lasted 35 years.
Since the bus and truck company had inherited costumes from the Broadway and national
companies, I had also worn one of Robert Preston's costumes--his white flannel suit from the
footbridge scene. It meant a lot to me.
a couple of years later, I was actually in the acting profession. I was a member of Screen Actors
Guild and Actors Equity by then. Early in 1967, I was in New York studying acting with James
Edwards. Edwards, who had co-starred in movies like Home of the Brave and the Manchurian
Candidate, was staying with his first wife, Leola, and her family and she was wardrobe supervisor
for the David Merrick play "I Do, I Do" starring Preston and Mary Martin. It was impossible to get a
ticket for the show, but, Leola Edwards managed to get me in and she gave me to understand that
Preston might hang out at the Theater Bar and Restaurant on 46th Street after the show.
I was already feeling elated when I arrived at the bar. I had just seen a terrific musical with two of
the greatest performers that ever lived. I sat at the bar and sipped a bloody Mary and watched
the door. It wasn't long until Robert Preston and his wife, Katie, made their entrance. I think he
was about 50 at that time and he was a human dynamo. His dresser, the fellow who helped him
make the fast costume changes in his shows was already there and I had been chatting with him.
He introduced me to Preston, who began to tell me stories. He also bought me a drink every time
he bought a drink.
Jack Warden came in and he and Preston started to swap yarns and opinions and every time
Preston bought a drink he would buy one for Jack and for me and every time Jack bought a drink
he would buy one for Preston and for me. I would offer to buy a round but they wouldn't hear of it.
It was a pretty heady experience for me. When the two of them finally exited the bar, I made my
way to the bathroom and threw up. Then I staggered out into the night air and caught a cab back
to St. Albans where I was staying with Edwards. I was 22 and I had spent a joyful hour-and-a-half
with my idol who had treated me like a colleague.
I never thought I would have the chance to work with him, but, in 1985 Irwin Allen cast me as the
bailiff in an All-Star court room drama called The Outrage. Burgess Meredith was the judge,
Anthony Newley and Mel Ferrer were in the cast and, miracle of miracles, Robert Preston was the
murder defendant. I worked on the movie for four days.
At one point in the afternoon of the first day, Preston came over to join several of us actors where
we were sitting around in canvas chairs. After a while, I said to Preston, "I saw you twice in 'I Do, I
He said, "Tell you story about that show I'll bet you never heard. Do you remember the number
where Mary played the violin and I played the saxophone?"
I said, "Sure. "When the Kids Get Married."
"Gower Champion asked Mary and me if we played instruments and I told him I had played the
sax. The next day, the company had the most beautiful, brand new, expensive saxophone for me.
I thanked the guys, but told them I wanted them to find the cheapest, most beat-up, pawn shop sax
in New York. They found one with dents and all the plating worn off and that's what I played in the
I told him I remembered it.
All the guys started talking to Preston about things he'd done that they loved. They would mention
a picture and he would tell them something fun about it.
The following morning, I was in the makeup chair when Preston strolled up. The makeup man
said, "Let me finish you in a bit, Pat. I'll get Bob now." Preston said, "I'm in no hurry. Finish Pat."
I said, "Can I call you Pres?" he said, "Sure."
I said, "I've got to tell you, I'm a fan and I guess I've read everything I've ever run across in print
about you. But I never found very much about your brother Frank."
Preston began to tell me about his kid brother. Frank Meservey was two years younger than
Preston (Robert) Meservey and the family had moved out to California from Massachusetts when
the boys were six and four. They lived in Lincoln Heights and the brothers were the only non-
Hispanics in their grammar school. He told me that Frank had been an actor and a stunt man, that
he tried to get Frank jobs on his movies. He told me that Frank had died, "eight years ago, of
leukemia" (this was 1985. Frank actually died Feb. 19, 1972. Pres must have been hurt badly
when his kid brother Frank died two months shy of his 52nd birthday).
If you want to get a look at Frank Meservey, he is in the movie "The Court Jester" as a young man
who is being knighted.
After that, when there would be a break in the shooting, Preston would tell me and some of the
other actors more of his stories. I told him that I had seen him give an award at the Figueroa
Street Theater one night and he had remarked that he had made his professional debut on that
stage. I asked him what the play was and he told me that when he was 9 years old his mother
worked in a sheet music store in downtown Los Angeles. One day a vaudevillian came in to buy
some music. He had been looking for a young fellow who could play him as a child in a vaudeville
sketch and when he saw Pres, he hired him on the spot.
I've found that very revealing. The whole world was amazed at Preston's abilities as a song and
dance man when he played the Music Man on Broadway. The fact that he had been a
vaudevillian, and a child vaudevillian at that, explained a lot.
I told him a former boss of mine, Craig Noel, the artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theater
had told me that he was in Mrs. Power's (Tyrone Power's mother) young people's Shakespeare
Company with him. And he told me a little about that. Then he said, "If you see Craig, give him my
It wasn't until the next morning that I showed Preston some pictures of me as the Music Man at
Hollywood High. I told him that I was a senior in high school at the very time that they began to
license the rights to the Music Man to schools and community theaters. I mentioned that another
friend, David Carradine, had played Harold Hill when he was in the Army at Virginia Beach,
Virginia. Preston said, "David never told me he played the Music Man. I'd like to see him."
It just happened that David Carradine was filming a Kung Fu movie two sound stages away. When
I got a break I went over to the Kung Fu set where David greeted me with, "Hey, man, how's it
going with Robert Preston?"
I said, "You talking about my friend Pres? He said he'd like to see you."
I didn't think David would be able to get away. He was in nearly every shot of the movie he was
doing, and co-producing as well. David said, "Oh, great!"
A couple of hours later I was sitting in Robert Preston's motor home in my bailiff uniform with
Robert Preston (in his murder defendant suit) and David, who was in his Kwai Chang Caine rags
and dirty bare feet. Preston said, "You know, when I'm with other actors who've played the Music
Man, I can't help but remember how it all began for me. The producers and I had an
understanding: if it didn't work, we'd go our separate ways, nobody would be hurt. But it seemed
to work from the very first day."
He told us about playing the part, things he had discovered in rehearsal. I told him that a friend
who had second-acted the Broadway production of the Music Man fifty times had told me that he
(Preston) shot on and off the stage like a bullet. Preston said, "You know where that came from? I
was rehearsing the acting on one floor of the rehearsal hall, the singing on another floor and the
dancing on another floor. I was always running up and down stairs and I got the idea that this guy
was always running to catch a train."
David said, "I made a couple of discoveries when I played the Music Man. For the first three
weeks of rehearsal, I had a cane in my hand and I was doing all kinds of cane moves. Then the
director said, after three weeks mind you, 'What's that in your hand?' I said, ' a cane' and he said,
'you can't play the Music Man with a cane in your hand.' so, he made me cut the cane, but, I kept
all the cane gestures.'" and he demonstrated. Then he said, "The other discovery I made was that
from the time Harold meets Marian, the Angel of Death is perched on his shoulder."
We spent about an hour talking mostly about the role of Harold Hill.
The next day, the headline in the paper read, "Yul Brynner, the King in the King and I, Dies" and
the subtitle was "Played the King 4,873 Times." As Preston was entering the sound stage, an extra
ran up to him and said, "Mr. Preston, what do you think about Yul Brynner dying?"
Preston answered with a jaunty wave, "Well, he certainly had enough practice."
That day, Preston and I chatted quite a bit. At one point, while a scene it was being lit, I leaned
over and quietly asked Pres about a show he had done that had never made it into New York
called "We Take the Town." In it, Preston played Pancho Villa and it was a musical. He told me a
bit about the show and its history then went into a monologue as Villa. He did this in an
impeccable accent which, of course, he came by honestly having spent his early school years in
almost completely Hispanic schools. He performed it in a very quiet voice, because people were
working around us and he didn't want to disturb them. At the end of the monologue, he sang a
song. An entire song. This was an amazing experience for me because while we were
surrounded by a cast and crew, the conversation, the performance, was pretty much between him
Later that day, we were outside the sound stage, still chatting, and I asked him how it was that he
had done 22 plays at the Pasadena Playhouse without ever having been a student at the
Playhouse. He explained that in addition to being a school for actors, the play house was also a
community theater and he had started working there as a kid. He talked about some of the
Playhouse's famous alumni. "Dana Andrews went there," he told me. Then he said, "I played the
old man of the forest in 'Cymbeline' there. I had those lines:
“Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
Nor the furious winters' rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
The next day, I wrapped on the show. As I was leaving, I popped by Preston's motor home to say
goodbye. I told him, "I just want to say thanks." He told me to keep in touch, which I should have
done but didn't, thinking that we would run into each other again. But I had gotten to know one of
my heroes who turned out to be a great guy. In the few days I was around him, he befriended me,
taught me, and entertained me.
In 2000, I played Harold Hill again and I brought something to it that I had discovered when I got to
know Pres. In the movie, Preston is like a sociopath, less like a human, more like a fox or monkey,
a clever little animal who loves to fool people. Then, Marion tells him she's known since the third
day he was in town he was a phony but that she likes him anyway. At that point, Pres. turns into
the fellow who told me about his brother Frank. A real human being. When I played Harold, I tried
to get that into my characterization.
I also tried not to imitate Robert Preston. That was hopeless. I don't think any actor will ever play
the Music Man that Pres isn't right there with him.
|How the Music Man (Robert Preston) met Houdini's
Ghost (Patrick Culliton)