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CRITIC AT LARGE

The 'Music Man' --and His Song

March 23, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

By a mournful coincidence, on Sunday morning one of the cable movie channels was showing Blake Edwards' "SOB," and there, larger than life, was Robert Preston in a deep-pile toupee, playing a show-biz doctor, ingesting Bloody Marys and dispensing shots of vitamin-enriched happiness. "Thank God, I'm not a surgeon," the Preston character says, contemplating his quivering hands, which are as hung over as the rest of him.

It is not the role that Preston, who died on Saturday at the age of 68, will be remembered for, of course. He is now and forever Prof. Harold Hill, arriving to eradicate pool and all the other troubles in River City with a bagful of brass instruments and a system of musical instruction based entirely on faith and positive thinking.

Memory does not serve up a combination of actor and role that has been so perfect, so loved, so deeply rooted in the American dream and a particular branch of the American past.

Preston as Prof. Hill was the country slicker, the horse trader, the flimflam man with decent instincts (once you located them). He was the traveling salesman with an anthology of smoking-car stories and an unshakable confidence in himself and his line of gab, the glorious optimist who was sure anything was possible if you said it was. Willy Loman's disillusion was several stops further down the line, and you knew Prof. Hill would never get there.

Over an amiable luncheon a few years ago in Montecito, where he and his wife, Catherine, had just resettled to avoid the Connecticut snows, Preston told me that he'd had seven careers and each had been the result of a happy accident. He may at that have been proof of the truth that luck favors the well-prepared, but the preparation is crucial to keep in mind.

As a teen-ager he parked cars at Santa Anita. A couple of his fellow parkers were working their way through the Pasadena Playhouse and he joined them. A Paramount lawyer who lived in Pasadena saw him in a production of "Idiot's Delight" and got him a screen test. The wrong man at the studio saw the test and hired him. (The right man had rejected him, but was fired before it made any difference.)

Fade out, fade in, as they say. Years later he was trying out a play in Philadelphia when producer Kermit Bloomgarden was having trouble casting a singer to do the lead in "The Music Man." It was occurring to him to go with an actor instead, and right there, accidentally, was Preston.

"They gave me 'Trouble in River City' to do as an audition!" Preston remembered in grateful astonishment at the happy accident of that. It was like having Caruso try a few bars of "O Sole Mio," or asking Nelson Eddy if he would do "Shortnin' Bread."

Preston played the role, he recalled, 886 times. The film, he said, was the 887th performance. He never tired of it because audiences never did. The night a blizzard hit Manhattan, there were 300 people in line, hoping for cancellations. "The Music Man" played to standees at every performance. "It was an experience every actor should have once in a lifetime," Preston said.

But he refused to appear in revivals of "The Music Man," because, he said, "everybody knew Harold Hill was 23 years old, and I wasn't."

During lunch, a woman came to the table and said she and her family had just watched "The Music Man" 10 times on their cable channel. "And how was my son in it?" Preston asked mischievously. "Oh, it was you and you were wonderful," the woman said. Preston pretended to be astonished.

He was wonderful indeed, an actor of uncommon versatility who was uncommonly modest. He liked to say that he played heavies in big pictures during his Paramount years, and leads in the lesser B pictures, always prosperous but always just off the top level of stardom, like his pals Franchot Tone and Bruce Cabot.

Preston invaded Broadway to change his luck, and he did, with room to spare. He left no doubt he could do dimensional roles over the whole range from dark drama to feathery comedy.

He goes into history as Prof. Harold Hill, but Preston has to be remembered for all his gifts as an actor, and chief among them his ability to make individuals of types and to preserve the common humanity of characters who are at first sight burlesques, like the gay entrepreneur in "Victor/Victoria," for which he won an Oscar nomination.

Henceforth, as before, it will be impossible to hear "76 Trombones" without thinking that they're playing his song.

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