Robert Preston's long career in film and on stage began when he joined a traveling theater company when he was only 16. In 1938 he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and caught the public's attention in the railroad drama Union Pacific with Barbara Stanwyck. His great success came with his portrayal of the charismatic huckster in The Music Man. He won two Tony Awards during his career.
Actor Robert Preston Meservey was born on June 8, 1918, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. An actor with a long career in film and on stage, Preston is best known for his portrayal of the charismatic huckster in The Music Man—a role he played on Broadway and in the film adaptation. He grew up in Los Angeles and started his acting career as a teenager. At only 16 years old, he left school to join a traveling theater company.
In 1938, Preston signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. He first caught the public's attention with his turn in the railroad drama Union Pacific (1939) with Barbara Stanwyck. Also around this time, Preston had a supporting role in Beau Geste (1939) with Gary Cooper and Ray Milland.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Preston began to focus more on stage work. He appeared in several comedies, including His and Hers (1954) and The Tender Trap (1954). His great success, however, came as the charming charlatan "Professor" Harold Hill in The Music Man. The plot focuses on Hill's arrival in River City and his attempt to scam the townspeople by convincing them to donate money for instruments for a children's band and then planning to run off with their funds. His plan hits a snag when he falls for Marian, the local librarian. The show ran for 1,375 performances and earned Preston a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1958. He reprised his role as the con man for the 1962 film version. Shirley Jones played his love interest, Marian.
Continuing to work on stage and in films, Preston won his second Tony Award for I Do! I Do! starring opposite Mary Martin from 1966 to 1967. The musical explores one couple's 50 years of married life. A few years later, Preston was nominated for a Tony Award for his work on Mack & Mabel (1974). On the big screen, he had notable roles in the adaptation of the musical Mame (1973) opposite Lucille Ball and Semi-Tough (1977). In the 1980s, he started working with director Blake Edwards. His work in 1981's S.O.B. was warmly received and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as "Toddy," a gay nightclub entertainer, in Victor/Victoria (1982).
In his later years, Preston appeared in a few television movies, including Finnegan Begin Again (1985) with Mary Tyler Moore. He died from lung cancer on March 21, 1987, in Santa Barbara, California.
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