Robert Morse, whose impish, gaptoothed grin and expert comic timing made him a Tony-winning Broadway star as a charming corporate schemer in the 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” who later won another Tony for his eerily lifelike portrait of the writer Truman Capote in “Tru,” and who capped his long career with a triumphant return to the corporate world on the acclaimed television series “Mad Men,” died on Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his agent, David Shaul.
Small in stature but larger than life as a performer, Mr. Morse was still a relative newcomer to the stage when he took Broadway by storm in “How to Succeed.” Directed (and partly written) by Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, and based on a book by Shepherd Mead, the show, a broad satire of the business world, was set in the headquarters of the World Wide Wicket Company, ruled by its peevish president, J.B. Biggley (Rudy Vallee). The plot revolved around the determined efforts of an ambitious young window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch, played with sly humor by Mr. Morse, to climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Among the show’s many high points was the washroom scene in which Mr. Morse delivered a heartfelt rendition of the song “I Believe in You” while gazing rapturously into a mirror.
“How to Succeed” ran for more than 1,400 performances and won seven Tony Awards, including one for Mr. Morse as best actor in a musical, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The 1967 film adaptation, with Mr. Morse and Mr. Vallee repeating their roles, was a hit as well, and the show has been revived on Broadway twice.
Mr. Morse always seemed more at home on the stage than on the screen. Five years before “How to Succeed” opened, he made an uncredited and virtually unseen Hollywood debut (his face was swathed in bandages) in the World War II drama “The Proud and Profane.” With no other screen roles in the offing, he returned to New York, where he had earlier studied acting with Lee Strasberg, and where he auditioned for the director Tyrone Guthrie and was given his first Broadway role in “The Matchmaker,” Thornton Wilder’s comedy about a widowed merchant’s search for a new wife. Ruth Gordon played the title role, and Mr. Morse and Arthur Hill played clerks in the merchant’s shop. Mr. Morse would reprise his role in the 1958 film adaptation.
Mr. Morse’s Broadway career continued with the comedy “Say, Darling” (1958), in which he played an eager young producer, and “Take Me Along” (1959), a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s play “Ah, Wilderness!,” in which Mr. Morse was a doubt-ridden adolescent, Walter Pidgeon his sympathetic father and Jackie Gleason his hard-drinking uncle. Then came his star-making turn in “How to Succeed.”
His success in that show led to movie offers, but not to movie stardom; he rarely had a screen vehicle that fit him comfortably. “The parts I could play,” he observed to The Sunday News of New York in 1965, “they give to Jack Lemmon.”
When he co-starred with Robert Goulet in the 1964 sex farce “Honeymoon Hotel,” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “It is hard to imagine good actors being given worse material with which to work.” He fared better, but only slightly, in “The Loved One” (1965), a freewheeling adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s scathing novel about America’s moneymaking funeral industry in which he was improbably cast as a British poet who finds work at an animal cemetery, and “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967), in which Mr. Morse gives a fellow husband (Walter Matthau) advice on how to cheat on his wife.
Television proved more hospitable. In addition to guest appearances on various shows in the 1960s and ’70s, he co-starred with the actress E.J. Peaker in the 1968 series “That’s Life,” an unusual hybrid of sitcom and variety show that told the story of a young couple’s courtship and marriage through sketches, monologues, singing and dancing. Perhaps too ambitious for its own good — “We’re producing what amounts to a new musical each week,” Mr. Morse told an interviewer — it lasted only one season.
Mr. Morse returned to Broadway in 1972 in “Sugar,” a musical based on the Billy Wilder film “Some Like It Hot” about two Chicago musicians — Tony Roberts in the part originally played by Tony Curtis and Mr. Morse, appropriately, in the Jack Lemmon role — who flee from local mobsters by dressing as women and joining an all-girl band en route to Miami. It brought Mr. Morse another Tony nomination and was a modest hit, running for more than a year.
But his next show, the 1976 musical “So Long, 174th Street,” based on the play “Enter Laughing” — with Mr. Morse, still boyish-looking at just shy of 45, as an aspiring actor roughly half his age — received harsh reviews and closed in a matter of weeks. It was Mr. Morse’s last appearance on Broadway for more than a decade.
He kept busy in the ensuing years, but choice roles were scarce, and he battled depression. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol, although he maintained that those problems did not interfere with his work; looking back in 1989, he told The Times, “It was the other 22 hours I had a problem with.”
He starred in a number of out-of-town revivals, including a production of “How to Succeed” in Los Angeles. He was a familiar face on television in series like “Love, American Style” and “Murder, She Wrote” — and a familiar voice as well, on cartoon shows like “Pound Puppies.” But he longed to escape a casting pigeonhole that he knew he had helped create.
“I’m the short, funny guy,” he said ruefully in a 1972 Times interview. “It’s very difficult to get out of that.” Eight years earlier he had told another interviewer: “I think of myself as an actor. I happen to have a comic flair, but that doesn’t mean I plan to spend my life as a comedian.”
It took him a while to find the perfect dramatic showcase, but he found it in 1989 in “Tru,” Jay Presson Allen’s one-man show about Truman Capote. Almost unrecognizable in heavy makeup and utterly convincing in voice and mannerisms, he was Capote incarnate, alone in his apartment in 1975 and brooding over the friendships he had lost after the publication of excerpts from his gossipy novel in progress, “Answered Prayers.” Mr. Morse’s performance brought him his second Tony Award. A television adaptation of “Tru” for the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1992 also won him an Emmy.
Robert Alan Morse was born on May 18, 1931, in Newton, Mass. His father, Charles, managed a chain of movie theaters. His mother, May (Silver) Morse, was a pianist.
In high school, Mr. Morse earned a reputation as the class clown; a sympathetic music teacher helped him transfer his energy from the classroom to the theater. He spent a summer with the Peterborough Players in New Hampshire, came to New York and, after trying and failing to get an acting job, joined the Navy in 1950. After his discharge four years later, he moved back to New York and enrolled at the American Theater Wing.
Mr. Morse’s first marriage, to Carole Ann D’Andrea, a dancer, ended in divorce. They had three daughters, Robin, Andrea Doven and Hilary Allen. He and his second wife, Elizabeth Roberts, an elementary-school teacher, had a daughter, Allyn Morse, and a son, Charles.
He is survived by his wife; his children; a brother, Richard; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Morse’s success in “Tru” guaranteed that he would no longer be thought of as, in his words, “an aging leprechaun.” A wider variety of roles followed, including, in 2016, a return to Broadway in a star-studded revival of “The Front Page.”
“In the small but crucial role of a messenger from the governor’s office,” Ben Brantley wrote in The Times, “Mr. Morse, who made his Broadway debut more than 60 years ago, proves he can still steal a scene without breaking a sweat.”
But for the last three decades of his life, he was mostly seen on television. He appeared in more than a dozen episodes of the 2000 CBS series “City of Angels” as the unpredictable chairman of an urban hospital. He continued to make occasional TV appearances, and to do cartoon voice-over work, until last year.
In 2007 he came full circle when he was cast as the eccentric head of an advertising agency in the acclaimed AMC series “Mad Men,” set in the same era as “How to Succeed.” The role brought him five Emmy nominations.
“I was quite elated when Matt called me and said, ‘We’d love you to do this show,’” Mr. Morse told The Times in 2014, referring to the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. “I said I’d be happy to be Bertram Cooper, chairman of the board, and sit behind a desk. It looked like the road company of ‘How to Succeed.’”
Although Bertram Cooper was a straight dramatic role, Mr. Morse got to return to his musical-comedy roots in his last episode, aired in the spring of 2014, when the character died — and then reappeared, in a fantasy song-and-dance sequence, to croon the old standard “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
“What a send-off!” Mr. Morse said. “The opportunity to shine in the spotlight that Matt Weiner gave me — it was an absolute love letter. Christmas and New Year’s, all rolled into one.”
Peter Keepnews and Alex Traub contributed reporting.