By the time handsome, brawny baritone Harve Presnell arrived on the film scene, the “Golden Age” of musicals had long dissipated. Born in Modesto, California in 1933 and spending part of his youth on a family ranch near Yosemite Valley where he labored in the fields, it was discovered he had quite a voice at such a young age (7) and he became a soloist at his local church.
He graduated from Modesto High School and received a USC sports scholarship, but moved quickly to singing at Lotte Lehmann’s Academy of the West. At the age of 21, he coveted the lead in the American premiere of Darius Milhaud’s “David”. Initially trained for an operatic career, he spent three seasons singing throughout Europe with roles in “La Forza del Destino”, “Un ballo in Maschera”, “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Tosca”. He also shared the musical stage with Dorothy Kirsten and Leontyne Price.
Harve was performing nationally, including New York’s Carnegie Hall in “Carmina Burana”, when the opportunity for Broadway first came his way. Legendary composer Meredith Willson happened to catch an earful of the gifted singer in a “Gershwin Night” concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and, in the virile mold of Alfred Drake and Howard Keel, wrote the role of Johnny “Leadville” Brown in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” specifically for him. The Broadway musical, with Tammy Grimes as the spunky title heroine, was a resounding hit as Harve wrapped his glorious tonsils around such sturdy songs as “Colorado, My Home” and “I’ll Never Say No”. Unlike Grimes, Presnell was granted the opportunity to recreate his rags-to-riches part, when the celluloid version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) came out with a bankable film star, the indomitable Debbie Reynolds, inhabiting the backwoods role. The film version was also hugely popular with audiences and Harve, with his terrific presence, seemed well on his way to stardom.
There were precious few movie musicals, however, for Presnell to sink his teeth into and he quickly faded from view. He tried adjusting to straight dramatics with the rugged western The Glory Guys (1965) and sang again in the highly unworthy teen frolic When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965) with Connie Francis, but little else came in his direction. The disastrous film version of Paint Your Wagon (1969), hurt by the miscasting of leads Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg, was redeemed only by the presence of Presnell and his superb, moving rendition of “They Call the Wind Mariah”.
By the 70s, Harve was finished in films but gamely kept his momentum with Keel-like stock and touring leads in such productions as “Camelot”, “The Sound of Music”, “Annie Get Your Gun” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”, among others. He even played Rhett Butler in a 1972 musical version of “Gone With the Wind” at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, but the production did not generate much of a stir. In 1979, Presnell served as a replacement in the Broadway musical “Annie” as Daddy Warbucks and wound up staying employed as the blustery but bighearted moneybags for nearly 4 years on tour, also reprising the role in the failed 90s sequel, “Annie II: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge” (1989), which was later reworked and retitled “Annie Warbucks” (1992). All tolled, it is estimated that Harve played the tycoon role over 2,000 times.
More than 25 years had passed by the time Presnell returned to the movies as a brash and balding character actor. He struck pure gold as the implacable, ill-fated father-in-law of William H. Macy in the Coen Brothers’ cult film hit, Fargo (1996). This success, in turn, led to meaty roles in Larger Than Life (1996), The Whole Wide World (1996), The Chamber (1996), Face/Off (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), to name a few. Over the course of his career, he displayed a strong presence on TV as well with recurring roles on prime-time (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993)) and daytime (Ryan’s Hope (1975). Presnell may have been born 10-20 years too late to have become a singing film star, but he suddenly had come back in spades to launch a whole new career as a noted character performer. At age 70+, he was unsinkable, vigorously steamrolling on TV (The Pretender (1996), Monk (2002) and ER (1994)) and in the films Mr. Deeds (2002), Old School (2003), Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Evan Almighty (2007). His last series role was in the short-lived Andy Barker, P.I. (2007).
Pancreatic cancer got the best of the actor in his final years. The twice-married Presnell with six children (Stephanie, Taylor, Etoile, Tulley, Shannon and Raine) succumbed to his illness at the St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California on June 30, 2009, at age 75.
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