His Boyishness a Casualty of Age and Experience, Robert Morse Is Reborn as Truman Capote
01/15/1990 at 01:00 AM EST
Latex jowls and a fake double chin give him that pasty, fleshy look. Add the trademark panama hat, the scarf and round glasses, and he's the author's living image. But it's when he speaks, in that unmistakable, world-weary lisp, that actor Robert Morse really becomes Truman Capote. "All this brouhaha over that one little chapter..." Morse whines from center stage. "My God, you'd think I'd killed the Lindbergh baby."
Morse, 58, has been performing the one-man show Tru to standing ovations since it opened on the road last August. The play, which recently reached Broadway, is set in 1975, shortly after "that one little chapter"—a scathingly funny portrait of Capote's society friends from his novel Answered Prayers—appears in Esquire and lands Capote in a social exile from which he never emerges. Facing ostracism and musing on his extraordinary life, Capote is by turns wistful, defiant and close to despair. Morse captures every mood, eerily simulating, in the words of New York Times critic Prank Rich, "the public Capote of the pathetic waning years." So true is he to Tru that a number of Capote's acquaintances have expressed astonishment at the likeness. "That was Truman up there," says longtime friend Joanne Carson, second wife of Johnny. "His voice, manner, looks—everything."
No one is more astonished than Morse himself. Once Broadway's darling, the winner of a 1962 Tony Award for his lead role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, he spent the better part of the last two decades in dinner-theater limbo. When director-playwright Jay Presson Allen called and asked him to audition for Tru. Morse says, "I thought they probably just wanted to see if I'd wasted away or if I could still memorize lines. I mean, I'm used to collecting unemployment and working on my golf game."
He got the role—and promptly went into a panic. "This is such a big part, and I just wasn't sure I'd know it in time," says Morse, who seems to dine on self-doubt. "The first night I lay huddled on my bedroom floor at 3 A.M., crying and having an anxiety attack." He pulled himself together, memorized the 69-page script and watched one brief tape of Capote on a Dick Cavett talk show. Though Morse hadn't then read any of Capote's works (he has since started reading Capote biographies), he found that a sense of the author as a brilliant and funny but troubled and lonely man "just came to me." Director Allen was impressed. "The burden of a show like this is incomprehensible," she says. "It's a terrifying experience for Bobby, but you wouldn't know it because he's such a skillful performer."
Morse's tendency toward terror may account for his skill at portraying the notoriously anxious Capote—who once said he felt "as if I've never spent a tranquil moment in my life." Like Capote, Morse was a skittish, insecure child. He grew up in Newton, Mass., the younger son of a local movie-theater owner. "I was off-the-wall and not quite gathered," he says. "I always wanted to be somewhere else. I'd always rather be there than here." Happiest on the stage, he was a hit in high school productions like The Mikado. Skipping college, he spent four years in the Navy as a sonar technician, then moved to Manhattan and worked as a Fuller Brush salesman while studying acting. His gap-tooth grin, tousle-haired cuteness and boyish voice made him a natural for musical comedy, and in 1955 he was cast as the male juvenile in The Matchmaker on Broadway. For the next six years he was a fixture on the New York stage, starring in musical successes such as Say, Darling and Take Me Along with Jackie Gleason—"the only actor I've known who could come onstage plotzed and still know his lines," says Morse. In 1961 he married jazz dancer Carole D'Andrea, who would become the mother of his three daughters, Andrea, now 28, Robin, 26, and Hilary, 23. That same year he had his biggest hit, playing a greedy but lovable Madison Avenue climber in How to Succeed.
But Morse was soon to learn about failure as well. The 1967 movie version of How to Succeed was a critical success, but his 1968 TV series, That's Life, lasted only a season, and films like The Boatniks (1970) bombed. The golden age of musical comedy was over, and Morse believes his aging-cherub looks prevented him from being considered for serious dramatic roles. By the late '60s he was battling another demon he shared with Capote: alcoholism. "I drank because I didn't like myself," says Morse, who says he was an "after theater" drinker and never worked drunk. "It helped me get outside myself and feel wonderful for two minutes. The trouble was I kept going, and I'd wake up not knowing where I was or how I would get home." His marriage suffered, and the usually genial Morse found himself insulting friends and suffering blackouts. "I really don't remember much of the '60s," he says. He still doesn't know what happened to his Tony Award, which was stolen—or lost—somewhere in the debris of the decade. In 1975 he sought help for his problem, and he has been sober ever since.
For the last 10 years Morse has supported himself by doing advertising voice-overs, dinner theater and TV guest spots. His first marriage ended in 1981, and until recently he was sharing a rented two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment with his youngest daughter, Hilary, an actress. In 1983 he began dating Elizabeth Roberts, now 26, an ad agency executive he met at an L.A. comedy club. It was she who helped him muster his courage for Tru. "I was kind of hard on him when I saw him go into that self-destruct mode and waver about whether he could do it or not," Roberts says. "I just told him to buck up, and I didn't see him for a month." Despite mutual concerns about the difference in their ages, the couple got engaged before Morse left for his New York opening and married in Manhattan on Dec. 19. Morse is ecstatic. "This lady loves me very much, wants to spend her life with me, and wants to have my baby," he says. "I want to share those things too. Life is about jumping into things sometimes."