Harve Presnell: Prolific actor who starred in the Coen brothers’ cult classic ‘Fargo’

An athletic 6ft 4ins actor with a silken baritone voice, Harve Presnell made a perfect “Leadville” Johnny Brown, the virile gold prospector in both the stage and screen versions of the Meredith Willson/Richard Morris musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964).



It is the role for which he will be best remembered, along with his more recent portrayal of William H Macy’s domineering father-in-law in the Coen brothers’ Fargo(1996). His other movies include Paint Your Wagon, which starred non-singers Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, in which Presnell received the most favourable notices for his persuasive rendition of Lerner and Loewe’s “They Call the Wind Maria”.

Had Presnell been born a decade earlier, there is little doubt that he would have had a major career in screen musicals, but by the Sixties the genre was all but finished, and star baritones such as Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae had been forced to rely on television or the stage to showcase their musical talents.

He was born George Harvey Presnell in Modesto, California, in 1933. After attending Modesto High School he won a sports scholarship to the University of California where, three weeks after enrolling, a music professor heard him sing and switched the scholarship to a musical one. After operatic training, he toured Europe, then became a featured singer with the Roger Wagner Chorale in 1955, and can be heard soloing “O Holy Night” on their classic Joy to the World album, one of the first stereo recordings made by Capitol Records. On a later album by the Chorale, Folk Songs of the New World, he sang “O, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” and duetted with Marilyn Horne on “He’s Gone Away”. He later provided some fine solo work on the 1960 Columbia recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, a version regarded highly enough to have been reissued on CD.

Presnell was singing at the Hollywood Bowl when he was spotted by Meredith Willson, who wrote the role of “Leadville” Johnny Brown especially for him. When Willson – who was seeking a follow-up to his highly successful show The Music Man – was told the story of the real-life Molly Brown by writer Richard Morris, he recalled the advice of Richard Rodgers: “Be sure the story is something you cannot resist.”

With Morris supplying the libretto, and Willson the music and lyrics, The Unsinkable Molly Brown opened with Tammy Grimes starring as the dauntless but illiterate Molly, who tried unsuccessfully to crash Denver society after her husband, Johnny, struck it rich, but became a national heroine when she saved herself and others on the sinking Titanicby taking command of an unsteady lifeboat. (Coincidentally, the show, never hitherto produced in the UK, was given its premiere performance at London’s Landor Theatre this year, with Sean Pol McGreevy ably taking on the role of Johnny).

MGM bought the screen rights as a vehicle for Doris Day, but the failure of Day’s lavish musical Jumbo (1962) soured both the star and studio on the idea, and instead Debbie Reynolds became Molly (winning an Oscar nomination) and Presnell was signed to repeat his stage role. Despite Willson’s enthusiasm for the singer, he had not served Presnell too well in the show, but for the film version he gave Presnell a soaring rhythmic ballad, “Colorado, My Home”, and added a rousing production number, “He’s My Friend”, which Presnell sang while Reynolds led the dancers in the film’s rousing highlight.

The New York Times listed as among the film’s assets, “fine, manly singing by Harve Presnell.” MGM then gave him a starring role opposite Connie Francis in the cheaply produced (by Sam Katzman) When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), a remake of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, filmed twice before, notably in 1941 with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. This time Presnell was the playboy Danny who flees New York and finds himself on a broken-down ranch where he falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Ginger (Francis). Presnell did justice to some fine Gershwin songs, including “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me”, but there was little chemistry between the two leads, and the addition of rock and pop songs, plus a raft of guest stars including Louis Armstrong, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, Herman’s Hermits and Liberace resulted in a ragbag that pleased no-one.

Presnell then played a cavalry scout in The Glory Guys (1965), a turgid Western despite a screenplay by Sam Peckinpah.

Though awarded a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer of 1965 (alongside Topol and George Segal), Presnell was not on screen again until his role as Rotten Luck Willie in Paint Your Wagon. He then concentrated on stage work, touring in such shows as On a Clear Day You Can See Foreverand Annie Get Your Gun. In 1972 he was a strikingly handsome Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind at Drury Lane Theatre, but his performance was considered stiff compared to that of June Ritchie as Scarlett. The show had a score by Harold Rome, and though better than the recent short-lived version, it was not distinguished and had only a moderate run.

In 1979 he was asked if he would like to tour in Annie, and he later recounted that he assumed it was a revival of Annie Get Your Gun, before realising that he was being asked to play the middle- aged, balding millionaire Daddy Warbucks, who takes little orphan Annie under his wing. “It was good for me,” he later said. “It made me realise that I was no longer a young leading man.” Presnell won acclaim in the role, and after touring for two years he took over in the Broadway production in 1981, and remained with it until closing night in 1983, having played the role over one thousand times.

He played the tycoon again in the sequel, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge (1989), later retitled Annie Warbucks, but it was unsuccessful.

Presnell returned to films after more than 25 years with a new persona as a crusty, balding despot in such films as the Coen Brothers’ cult hit, Fargo (1996), in which he was the dominating father-in-law of petty crook William H. Macy, The Whole Wide World (1996), the thriller Face/Off (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), in which he was General George C. Marshall, and Flags of Our Fathers (2006).

His prolific television appearances embraced daytime soaps, such series as Monk and ER, and musical specials including The Julie Andrews Hour (1973), in which he and Andrews duetted memorably on Frank Loesser’s “My Heart is So Full of You”, and Lerner and Loewe: Broadway’s Last Romantics (1988). He had a recurring part in the sci-fi series The Pretender, and earlier this year he had a role in an episode of the crime series Cold Case. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by his second wife and six children.

Tom Vallance

Harve Presnell, actor: born Modesto, California 14 September 1933; married first Sherri (marriage dissolved, three children), second Veeva Suzanne (three children); died Santa Monica, California 30 June 2009.



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