"I've made all the money I'm ever gonna want," says Robert Preston. "That's no longer an incentive for me. But I still love what I'm doing. Acting is unlike any 9-to-5 job in the world. You're not going on the same bus on the same street to meet the same faces every day of your life. You're constantly being replenished. I've always felt that if you're going to be on a stage for 2 1/2 hours, or on a set for six weeks, you might as well be there happily. Because you're going to have to be there anyway. So enjoy."
Somewhere, Pollyanna is beaming in approval.
In an often cynical business that can leave performers burned out, bitter and broke, Preston's mellow attitude is an unexpected refreshment. He has been through more phases as an actor than an autumn moon -- he likes to joke that he's onto his sixth career, which is playing older character parts -- but the demand for his services runs as high as ever. If, at 66, he has acquired a certain portliness around the belt, the warm, rough-hewn face remains unchanged. And he still possesses the elfin mischief that made him a natural as one of the more likable con men in Broadway annals -- Harold Hill, otherwise known as "The Music Man."
He's currently turning up on movie screens across the country as Centauri, a recruitment officer from outer space, who talks fast and drives automobiles even faster in "The Last Starfighter." Preston took the role, he says, so that "all those kids, who were 10 when they saw me in 'The Music Man' on July 4th, could find out what I've been up to lately. You know, kids won't go to westerns anymore and Harrison Ford has a lock on everything else. I just saw 'Starfighter' the other night and it's a gentle, strangely wonderful, ironic picture. But the biggest irony, I think, is that it's going to be as popular with the adults as the kids."
Now in this steamy southern city with the temperatures climbing toward 100, he is shooting "Finnegan, Begin Again," a bittersweet drama targeted for unveiling on HBO early next year. This time, he's playing Mike Finnegan, a broken down 65-year-old journalist with a half-batty wife (Sylvia Sydney) and the remains of a newspaper career as a lonely hearts columnist, who finds renewal in the arms of a widowed art teacher (Mary Tyler Moore).
"As it turns out," Preston explains, "she has all these feelings and sexual urges and so does he." So there's an actual on-screen embrace? "Hell," snorts Preston, "there's an actual sacking out. Yeah, I get to sack out with Mary Tyler Moore. Isn't that a shame! That's the day's salary you give to the Red Cross. But come on! Who in the world would offer a 65-year-old man a romantic lead?"
Director Joan Micklin Silver ("Hester Street," "Chilly Scenes of Winter"), that's who. Although she is not exactly the latest director on the block, Preston enthusistically refers to her as "a kid" and her style as "this nouveau . . . um . . . nouveau whatever that all the kids are doing." For the past four weeks -- two more to go -- the company has been filming in and around Richmond, but lately most of the effort has been concentrated on a musty two-story Victorian house in a lower-class neighborhood on the South Side. The house was virtually abandoned until the crew purchased enough junk to stock a hundred yard sales and moved it in. Now the paint-flecked walls look ready to burst with dilapidated furniture, stacks of rotting newspapers and a riot of worthless mementoes.
Outside, the crape myrtle has sprung into photogenic bloom, and a hired hand waters the weeds daily so that they'll be "nice and rich and sturdy." Residents of the neighboring bungalows tend to spend a lot of time on their porches, ogling, while barefoot boys with cheeks of grime swarm around the set, getting autographs or just getting underfoot. Preston takes it all in stride, his stride being somewhat that of a country patriarch surveying his domain.
At a canteen hastily improvised on the back porch, he pours himself a cup of coffee and wanders back to the battered trailer on McDonough Street that serves as his dressing room. "I know a lot of people in this business who go crazy," he says. "But acting has never been an agonizing process for me. I was in a play once with Margaret Sullavan and she hated performing so much I often wondered why she did it. On the other hand, I remember Barbara Stanwyck, who, if she was through by noon, went into her trailer on the set, took off her makeup, then threw open the door and sat on the steps for the rest of the day, talking to the crew. I don't think Barbara had much to go home to at that time. But the point is, she loved what she did and her work showed it."
Over the next two hours, a makeup girl, wardrobe mistress and hairdresser will come and go, fussing over Preston the way maiden aunts fuss over a baby at a christening. "The other day," he says, oblivious as they oil his hair and add a scar above his left eye, "I had this big scene, sort of the culmination of all the bad things that have been happening to Mike Finnegan. Mary Tyler Moore's character takes me out of this house and brings me back to her own home. You see me in a bathtub, you see me shaving. And now I'm sitting down to this big Mexican dinner she's prepared. Well, as she's talking to me, something she says hits me the wrong way and I start to cry like a baby. Hell, it was easy. It just happened. The tears flowed.
"Afterwards, Joan said to me, 'I'm amazed you can do cry so easily.' I said, 'I can't, but Finnegan, this sad, broken-down Irishman, can.' I suppose a Method actor at that point would have been thinking, 'My mother is dead, God how I miss her, and my father is gone.' But in life, you adjust to those things. And -- thank you mama, thank you papa -- I don't happen to have a raft of emotional problems, at least that I'm aware of. Acting for me is a question of author's intent. You can't lose track of that. Whenever I'm uncomfortable with a performance, it's generally because I'm not sure what the author's asking me to do at that moment. Once I've come to grips with that, I'm cured."
If he makes no mystery of his craft, Preston does take pride in the range of his performances. He had to battle for it. His father was a shipping clerk, who also played professional baseball with the Hollywood Blues. His mother had the show business contacts . . . of a sort. She manned the record department of a Los Angeles music store, counted a fair number of silent film stars and executives among her customers, and would call them up regularly to inform them of the latest releases. Through her, Preston started out as a child actor on the vaudeville circuit; then, after limping through high school, joined a Shakespearean company run by the mother of actor Tyrone Power.
By 19, he had been spotted and signed by Paramount Pictures, which proceeded to typecast him, mostly as a rugged heavy in westerns. "I played the lead in all the B-pictures and the villain in all the epics," he says. "After a while, it was clear to me I had sort of reached what I was going to be in movies. The studios were very paternalistic in those days. Not only did they slot you quickly, but they generally forgot what they signed you for in the first place.
"As soon as I got out from under my contract in 1950, I went to London to make this little episodic picture, 'Cloudburst,' and I noticed that, almost without exception, everyone in the cast would go from their shooting day to theaters in the West End at night. I got green with envy. America is the only country in the world where the capital of the theater and the capital of movies are 3,000 miles apart, so you have to make a choice on how you'll spend your season.
"On my way home, I stopped off in New York and I ran into Jose' Ferrer, who was looking for someone to replace him on Broadway in 'Twentieth Century.' Christ, I jumped at the chance and we signed a contract right there on a Dinty Moore's napkin. I guess everything that's happened to me in this business has always had a bit of luck accompanying it. But let's face it, I deliver. All the New York critics came back to re-review 'Twentieth Century' and watch this punk, Hollywood western actor fall on his ass. They were so thrilled I didn't, I got a marvelous set of notices."
Before long, Preston had a Broadway career going, as an affable leading man in such light comedies as "The Male Animal," "The Tender Trap" and "Janus." Hollywood soon countered with leading man roles of its own. Preston was playing both ends against the middle and getting away with it. "Oh, it was great fun to watch the critics switch back and forth," he says. "In my first couple of Broadway shows, I was referred to as Hollywood's Robert Preston. Then I went back out to Hollywood to make a movie, and Bosley Crowther, in his movie review, referred to me as Broadway's Robert Preston."
Any residual notions of pigeonholing Preston were shattered once and for all in 1957, when he made his musical comedy debut in "The Music Man."
"They'd run through all the musical comedy people, before they cast me," he remembers. "Everybody had demands and the producers were getting sick of the crap. Ray Bolger liked the part, but he wanted 15 minutes in the second act to do his own thing. Finally, someone said, 'What about Preston? If he can carry a tune in a bucket, the part's his.' Well, I've never taken a singing lesson in my life. But fortunately they auditioned me with the 'Trouble' number, which is an actor's number all the way. No way an actor can fail with it. They were knocked off their feet. Enter career number three or four or whatever. From then on, I couldn't get a straight play script. Nothing but musicals."
Still, as clear as it was to Broadway that Preston was one of musical comedy's not-so-secret weapons -- he went on to star in "I Do, I Do," "Ben Franklin in Paris" and "Mack and Mabel" -- he had to fight all over again to play Harold Hill in the movies. Bing Crosby wanted the role. So did Frank Sinatra, who was so miffed at not getting it he hasn't spoken to Preston since. "Burt Lancaster wanted it so badly he used to call up director Morton Da Costa and audition over the telephone," Preston says. "But Cary Grant's the reason I got that role. He'd seen the show 12 times and loved it. When Jack Warner asked him to play Harold Hill, he said, 'Not only will I not play it, but if Preston doesn't, I won't even go see the movie.' "
Preston chuckles to himself and lights up one of the Philip Morrises that help keep his voice pleasantly gravelly. He could go back to Broadway in a flash if he wanted to. But he's not champing at the bit, even though Blake Edwards asked him to repeat his role as Toddy in the 1982 hit movie comedy "Victor/Victoria," which Edwards is turning into a Broadway musical for the upcoming season. Preston won rapturous notices in the role, the gay master of ceremonies in a sleazy homosexual Paris boite, who hatches the idea of dressing up Victoria (Julie Andrews) in men's clothes and passing her off as the foremost, undiscovered female impersonator of the day. At the end of the film, Preston himself even cavorted extravagantly in drag.
"After that film, my fan mail increased in a way it hadn't since I'd appeared with Dorothy Lamour in a sarong," he says. "Interesting mail, too -- most of it from women, who seemed to want that kind of a relationship Victoria had with Toddy, the kind that places no demands on them." But he says he got "no flak" for playing a character who frankly described himself as "an aging queen."
"All that role really did," he says, "is call attention to a thing I wouldn't be caught dead pointing at myself -- which is a certain versatility. All of a sudden, people say, look how he's branched out there. Then they do their own retrospective, and they realize it's been going on for 48 years. I'd close one Broadway season in 'The Lion in Winter' with Rosemary Harris, and open the next in 'I Do, I Do,' with Mary Martin. A lot of actors can't do that."
Now, however, he says "it's going to take something pretty senstional to drag me back to Broadway." And it looks as though "Victor/Victoria" isn't it. "I think they're so ill-advised," he says, shaking his head. "Blake and Julie assumed, because we were such a family when we made that film, that I'd do the Broadway show. They were astounded and almost heartbroken, when I said I didn't want to. We're almost enemies now. Well, no. Julie's envious of me. I don't think she wants to do it all that badly. But she's married to the man.
"It will cost -- I got the figures from the Nederlanders producers at the Tonys -- $5.5 million. There is no picture sale. It's already been done. How they ever expect to recoup those costs, I don't know. I told Blake, when he first approached me, that I wanted to see a book. He said, 'We can't have a book ready before you sign.' I said to him, 'All you have to do is tell me you're going to do a movie and I'll do it. But I know the Broadway theater and I want to see a book. We can't end the musical the way we ended the movie.' Hell, the movie didn't end, I did this phony drag scene and they just rolled the credits over me. But Blake couldn't tell me what would replace it. It's just this big ego trip for him. I hope to hell they don't go through with it."
The operative word for Preston these days is "fun." "I have arrived at this part of man's estate where the choice roles for a man in my age category are all sent to me," he says. "I'm no longer fighting the producers I was fighting as a kid, saying, 'Give me something better than this,' which was my great motivation for going back to Broadway. I've outlived all the executives I had problems with in my early days at Paramount and I've proved to myself what I wanted to prove. DeMille lived long enough to know that I played Harold Hill, and let me tell you that was a great satisfaction."
A year and a half ago, Preston sold his Connecticut home and moved permanently back to California. He bought an oceanside home in Montecito, with extensive English gardens that occupy his leisure hours and those of his wife, Catherine. "I think my wife had had it," he says. "All those years we lived in the east, I had the theater. She would come into New York on the occasional night when something was going on. But for the most part, she was a suburban housewife and that's not what she is. She's happier in Montecito than anyone you've ever seen. She's gardening 12 months a year. She says it's even fun to go to the market again. This move has revitalized our whole marriage."
There is a rap at the door of the trailer. Preston is needed on the set. He quickly slips out of his clothes and dons Mike Finnegan's rumpled blue shirt and khaki jacket, and ambles over the weedy lawn toward the house. The air is thick with humidity, and little beads of perspiration pearl on Preston's forehead.
"I remember talking to Paul Scofield at at party once, after he'd finished 'A Man for All Seasons,' " Preston says. " 'What's next?' I asked him. And he said, 'I gotta do my Lear before I'm too old.' Well, people keep telling me I've got to do my Falstaff. But, you know something? I don't have to do Falstaff. If a company came along, a wonderful company, and Jason Robards was young enough to play Prince Hal again, that kind of thing, sure I'd want to play the old bastard. And I'd have a ball with it. He'd be unlike any Falstaff you ever saw."
He pauses on the steps. "But you know I don't feel impelled. I'm not going to be unhappy if I never do it. I'm not working for posterity. I'm just having a good time while I'm here."