Baritone Harve Presnell Dies; Starred in 'Unsinkable Molly Brown' on Broadway

Harve Presnell, shown in 1969, was the baritone leading man in
Harve Presnell, shown in 1969, was the baritone leading man in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." (Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

Harve Presnell, a tall, strapping baritone who was the leading man in the 1964 Broadway musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," spent 10 years touring the country as Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" and flourished as a Hollywood character actor, notably in "Fargo" as an outrageously bullying father-in-law, died of pancreatic cancer June 30 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 75.

Mr. Presnell, a 6-foot-4 former rodeo rider, made several well-received folk and opera recordings in the 1950s and early 1960s and performed at Carnegie Hall and on other leading stages.

His full-throated voice and virile good looks inspired Broadway composer Meredith Willson to write for him the romantic lead of Johnny "Leadville" Brown in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1960).

The show ran two years, with Tammy Grimes in the title role of a self-made society matron who survives the Titanic disaster. Mr. Presnell sang "Colorado, My Home" and "I'll Never Say No" and repeated the performance in the 1964 film version, with Debbie Reynolds replacing Grimes.

Mr. Presnell hoped to make a career as a star of Hollywood musicals, but the genre had long passed its prime. He was reduced to the teen musical "When the Boys Meet the Girls" (1965), with Connie Francis, Liberace and Herman's Hermits, and the risible film adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe horse opera "Paint Your Wagon" (1969) starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg.

In "Paint Your Wagon," Mr. Presnell was singled out for critical praise as a bordello manager who sings "They Call the Wind Maria."

Afterward, Mr. Presnell began an active career with touring stage productions, including "Annie Get Your Gun" as sharpshooter Frank Butler and "Carousel." He also played a singing and dancing Rhett Butler in a 1972 musical version of "Gone With the Wind," staged in London. Critics did not give a damn.

Then came "Annie," in which he replaced another actor on Broadway in 1980 as the baldheaded tycoon Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks and then toured in the show for a decade. He told USA Today, "From 1979 to '89, I shaved my head every day."

Older but still intimidating, Mr. Presnell began working regularly in films and on television in the 1990s, often in menacing roles. The work that most impressed audiences and critics was his supporting part in the Coen brothers' film hit "Fargo" (1996) as a rich and miserly businessman whose daughter is kidnapped.

"Mr. Presnell has just the gruff, booming manner to explain why Mr. Macy, as his son-in-law, looks scared to death," New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote.

George Harvey Presnell was born in 1933 on a ranch in Modesto, Calif., and participated in rodeos as a young man. He briefly attended the University of Southern California on a sports scholarship until a music teacher, impressed by Mr. Presnell's voice, urged him to focus on a career in opera. He later said he "ended up going into music because it was easier than being a jock."

He left school to train in Europe and then sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale on albums including "Joy to the World" and "Folk Songs of the New World."

He sang with the San Francisco Opera in an acclaimed 1957 staging of Francis Poulenc's "The Carmelites" and on the 1960 Columbia recording of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," with Eugene Ormandy conducting. Willson, the Broadway composer best known for "The Music Man," heard him sing "Carmina Burana" in Berlin.

Survivors include his wife, Veeva, and several children. His agent was unavailable to provide a complete list of survivors.

After the success of "Fargo," Mr. Presnell saw his career revitalized. He appeared in films including Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) as Gen. George C. Marshall and Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006) as an Iwo Jima survivor whose voiceover about war starts the film.

In a comic twist on such authority figures, he played a university administrator in "Old School" (2003) starring Will Farrell and a congressman in the Steve Carell comedy "Evan Almighty" (2007).

On television, he had recurring roles on "Andy Barker, P.I.," "The Pretender" and "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," among other shows.

"I started as a star, and now I have to climb the ladder again," he told USA Today in 1996.

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