b. Robert Preston Meservey, 8 June 1918, Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, USA, d. 21 March 1987, Santa Barbara, California, USA. An actor and singer, Preston had already enjoyed a busy, but undistinguished career in Hollywood for nearly 20 years when he landed the role of a lifetime on Broadway in The Music Man (1957). He grew up in Hollywood, and spent several of his teenage years in the theatre before signing for Paramount and making his first movie, King Of Alcatraz, in 1938. From then, until 1942, he made some 15 films, including Union Pacific, Beau Geste, Typhoon, Moon Over Burma, Northwest Mounted Police, and This Gun For Hire (1942). After serving in the US Army Air Force during World War II, Preston resumed his film career in features such as The Macomber Affair, Tulsa and When I Grow Up, until 1951 when he moved to New York. He appeared on Broadway in a number of straight plays including Twentieth Century, The Tender Trap and Janus, and was out of town in Philadelphia with Boy Meets Girl when he was asked to audition for The Music Man. His portrayal of the likeable con man, Harold Hill, who travels to small US towns such as Iowa, selling band instruments (which never materialize) to parents for their children to play, made Preston a gilt-edged Broadway star. Meredith Willson’s fine score featured numbers such as ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’, ‘Till There Was You’, and Preston’s tour de force, ‘Ya Got Trouble’. Preston won the Tony Award for Best Actor In A Musical, and stayed with the show for over two years. After being virtually ignored during initial casting, he recreated the part in the 1962 film version. Cary Grant was one of the actors to whom the role was offered, and he reportedly said: ‘Not only won’t I play it, but unless Robert Preston plays it, I won’t even go see it.’
After appearing in several more straight parts, Preston returned to the musical stage in 1964 with Ben Franklin In Paris, but, unlike the large onstage floating balloon in which Preston rode, the show did not really take off. Much more satisfying was I Do! I Do!, a two-hander with Mary Martin for which Preston won another Tony. His final Broadway musical appearance came in 1974 with Mack And Mabel, which, despite a splendid Jerry Herman score, only lasted for six weeks. During the 50s and 60s he had continued to make films, and in the 70s and early 80s he appeared in several more, including the musical Mame (1973), with Lucille Ball, and S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria (1982), both with Julie Andrews. He also starred in several television movies, including the highly regarded Finnegan Begin Again, a poignant story of the love of an older man for a young woman played by Mary Tyler Moore. Preston died of lung cancer in 1987, and in the same year was awarded a special posthumous Tony, the Lawrence Langner Memorial Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in the American Theatre.