Robert Preston (June 8, 1918 – March 21, 1987) was an American stage and film actor best remembered for originating the role of Harold Hill in the 1957 musical The Music Man and the subsequent film adaptation.
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 billing clerk for American Express. After attending Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, he studied acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. He would later serve in the United States Army Air Forces as an intelligence officer with the U.S. 9th Air Force during World War II.
In 1940, he married actress Catherine Craig, to whom he remained married until his death.
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 is probably best remembered 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 Broadway production in 1957. When Willson adapted his story for the screen, he insisted on Preston's participation over the objections of Jack L. Warner, who had wanted Frank Sinatra 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 musicalBen Franklin in Paris, and originated the role of Henry II in the original production of The Lion in Winter (Peter O'Toole got an Oscar nod for the film version). 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 to sing 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. The song, "Chicken Fat", which was written and composed by Meredith Willson and performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, was distributed to schools across the nation and played for students in calisthenics every morning. The song later became a surprise novelty hit and part of many baby-boomers' childhood memories.
In 1979 and 1980, Preston portrayed determined family patriarch Hadley Chisholm in the CBS western miniseries, The Chisholms. Rosemary Harris played his wife, Minerva. The Preston character died in the ninth of the thirteen episodes of the program. Other co-stars were Ben Murphy, Lance Kerwin, Brett Cullen, and James Van Patten. In the storyline, the Chisholms lost their land in Virginia by fraud and left for 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 last role in a theatrical film was in The Last Starfighter (1984), in which he portrayed 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. He also starred in the HBO 1985 movie Finnegan, Begin Againalong with Mary Tyler Moore. His final role was in the TV movie Outrage! (1986).
An intensely private person, no official biographies exist for the actor, although several interviews given late in his career shed light on the guarded actor, and a Tumblr account which focuses on his personal life and acting career features articles and interviews he gave during his lifetime.
Preston died of lung cancer on March 21, 1987, at the age of 68.