The star who can’t stop acting
Versatile, florid and indefatigable, Barry Morse won stage stardom at 22, has played 2,000 roles, haunts the CBC so much lie’s called the “test pattern.” He admits lie’s good
Barry Herbert Morse is a slight elegant man with diffuse theatrical gifts and a faint luminous air of exhaustion. In 1951 he came to Canada from London's West End and, sometimes working as much as twenty hours a day. made himself into one of the country’s busiest and most successful actors. He has. at thirty-eight, already undertaken more than two thousand roles in England, Canada and the U. S.—or three times as many as the late Sir Henry Irving managed in a lifetime.
In the West End he played leads for ten years and. on at least one opening night, got a standing ovation for his performance from the after-theatre supper crowd in the Savoy Grill. In the U. S. last year he starred on Broadway, in a flop, and at Boston, Mass., in two triumphs. In fact, one Boston critic, reviewing Morse’s contribution to Shaw’s Man and Superman, said. “If this sounds like a rave, it is.” In Toronto— Morse’s headquarters—he has appeared on TV so often one columnist nicknamed him “the test pattern.” He also does radio and films, has experimented in stage and TV direction and is now shrugging on the role of impresario: together with Toronto businessman Bill Freedman he has acquired several theatrical properties and hopes, one day
soon, to have his own showcase for them.
But the first time this one-man cultural mission to the colonies ever stepped on stage Dame Sybil Thorndike, who was in the audience, thought him “excruciatingly funny.”
Morse was not trying to be funny. He was trying to be Algernon Moncrieff, a languid. overbred young buck who is a principal in Oscar Wilde’s mannered comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Morse was inhibited in this undertaking by his age: fifteen; by his garb: a stiff navy serge bought off-the-peg for 37/6; by his appearance: that of a sharp-eyed spratling with a head too big for his body; and most of all by an accent that, in spite of agonized aspirations, remained stubbornly Cockney. The speeches, in a lofty drawl, came out somewhat like this;
“To begin wiv. H'l dined there on Monde, h’and once a week is qui' enough to dine wiv one’s h’ovvn relytions,” and, "RealIv. if v'lower h'orders don't set us a good h’example. what on earf is v' use of ’em?”
His handicap, in short, was the handicap of Eliza Doolittle at the start of My Fair Lady.
Morse, like Eliza, was a truant from the Eliza, London slums, out to better himself. He’d escaped for the afternoon, that bygone day in 1935, to audition for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London because he’d read that the scholarship carried a subsidy of three pounds a week, or more than three times his wage as an errand boy in Bethnal Green. He’d never seen a play in his life. He chose to try out in the part of Moncrieff because, on ransacking the drama shelves of the public library, he decided Algernon was a proper toff’s name.
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“Here I can act,” said Morse, “as long as I can stand up and stay awake”
But as Dame Sybil, who was one of the judges, pointed out, Morse was not merely funny: he was also, she said, “strangely moving because of his utter sincerity;” so, out of a field of two hundred and fifty, he won.
Today Morse, who screams at his two children if they slur a syllable, has so thoroughly mastered the pinch pleats of the well-bred British accent that he’s been called on to play Professor Higgins, Shaw’s phonetic perfectionist, at least twice. In fact, Higgins did no more for Eliza than Morse did for himself during two years at RADA and fourteen years on the English stage.
He has digested many niceties of highclass British custom. He can distinguish between U and non-Usage as defined by Miss Nancy Mitford; for instance, he says "table napkin” rather than “serviette” and “looking glass” rather than “mirror.” “I’m a terrible word-snob now,” he admits.
When he is not on theatrical premises he wears discreetly mellowed eighteenguinea shoes and suits of spare Savile Row cut. He customarily hurries around to the curb door of his car to hand out female passengers. The car itself is a three-year-old Jaguar saloon and Morse was dismayed, not long ago, when a compatriot reported that Jaguars were starting to be called “the spivs’ Rolls-Royce” in London. For what it's worth J. Frank Willis. CBC executive, said recently, “We have good actors who can play English ‘character’ parts, but no one to match Morse in his authentic aristocrat.”
But in spite of his successful U-turn, Morse retains the cock-sparrow self-confidence that set him to compete" for the RADA scholarship in the first place. At the time he told himself, “I'm be’er than those la-di-da boys;” today he says, “I’m a good actor,” and adds firmly, "The next ten or fifteen years—the next twenty, I hope—will be my best.”
Morse, in fact, is an odd and disarming mixture of street Arab and gent.
An English novelist once described the true Cockney as “all sharpness, materialism, realism and repartee.” Morse is materialist enough to buy his fine clothes at January sales and to furnish his sixroom $140-a-month flat in midtown Toronto at auction rooms; he’s realist enough to forestall critics by publicly calling himself “a pinch-penny.”
His candor extends to other weaknesses; he has described himself, on occasion, as “conceited,” and "a coward.” His repartee is so colorful that even his rages make a good show; his daughter Melanie, who is twelve, has been heard to say. “Goody, we’re going to have a scene.” Morse once threw a tin cup at a TV camera, in dress rehearsal, because the cup was a makeshift for the pewter tankard the script called for. And in the matter of sharpness Morse is a true product of the London slums.
Four roles for less
The CBC being the biggest steady market for his talents, an actor in Canada doesn't usually cock his snook at the corporation. Morse, however, has beset the CBC. one way and another, ever since he's been in Toronto.
For instance, early in 1954, a network drama show defaulted and the CBC decided to fill in with a repeat performance of Ebb Tide in which Morse had earlier starred. There was no time to groom a new lead so Morse, who describes himself as “cunning-minded,” demanded, and got, four hundred dollars. He had played it the first time for $280. A year later he went on strike for still more money. It was right after a TV production wherein Morse had played four different men proposing to four different girls played by four different girls. Morse did some figuring and found he’d have earned twice as much for the same work if he had been four different men. So he drew up a personal wage scale and began refusing TV offers that failed to meet it. He turned down four successive shows before the CBC threw in the towel. He has not since been offered a one-hour lead for less than five hundred dollars.
Besides his wage packet. Morse is prepared to skirmish over policy. When he was offered the lead in Macbeth two years ago the CBC said his fee. a thousand dollars, represented their new top
price for this kind of production. Morse objected to the whole principle of pegging maximum prices and demanded a thousand and one dollars. With CBC officials exasperatedly offering him dollar bills from their trouser pockets, Morse stood firm; he wanted the inconclusive fee on record. The CBC finally capitulated but. observing some dim corporate point of honor, made out the cheque for a thousand and fifty dollars.
Morse, who has also served tellingly on the local executive of the actors’ union, can get away with such gambits because he is a very useful and versatile actor. “My dearest enemies,” he confesses wryly, “will say I'm a sort of circus horse: that it's all done by numbers. But . . .” He pauses. “I'm struggling with an epigram," he grins. Then: “A trick is the name given to technique by people who haven't got any.”
Morse has now moved on to bargaining about ballyhoo. He points out that a billing clause is always part of a stage or screen actor’s contract. "It’s as important to a star as the money.” he says. One billing wrangle between two Hollywood stars was so bitter that their names had finally to be crisscrossed, like a railway intersection sign, so neither name could be said to top the other.
CBC contracts do not contain billing clauses and when Morse first demanded one he was told it might take two years to arrange. Morse started his campaign by offering to lower his price fifty dollars in exchange for a billing clause. Next he threatened to raise his price two hundred dollars and actually raised it a hundred and fifty. Lately he has been accepting leads on the private undertaking of the drama department that all publicity will list him as star. A few months ago, when he decided one such gentleman’s agreement had been violated, he telephoned the supervising producer of drama half an hour before camera time and announced he was withdrawing from the lead. He was persuaded to continue, but the single threat seems to have kept the drama department from dishonoring its unwritten word since then.
So highly developed a survival instinct is a clue to Morse’s Cockney birth. He comes from London’s East End, the tough, tawdry, down-at-heel slum district where Jack the Ripper once prowled and spivs and Teddy boys now roam.
Morse's parents, however, were the respectable poor: they had a small shop in a grey little row where they sold tobacco and beer for home consumption. Their living quarters, above the shop, were steeped in the rancid smell of fish and chips from a neighboring purveyor’s. Morse still cannot eat fish and chips, nor will he touch beer.
Under the Compulsory Education Act, Morse stayed at school till he was fourteen, mostly spending his energies on making sure no one mistook him for a little swot. Then he got a job as delivery boy for a glass-bottle manufacturer; he was still at it a year later when he read about the RADA scholarship in a newspaper and decided, never having acted before, that he was a cinch to win.
He was the youngest student at RADA and most of his classmates were young bloods just down from Oxford or Cambridge, or debutantes who regarded the academy as a sort of chic finishing school. All of them “spoke well,” but Morse found that on stage he was a match for any of them. Even now he says, “For me it’s like Christmas Eve. Get nervous? 1 can't pretend I do.”
At seventeen Morse graduated from RADA into repertory and, during four strenuous years in fourteen assorted companies, achieved considerable poise, a wife, and consumption.
The wife was a dark-haired, darkeyed vivacious actress named Sydney Sturgess. She had been born in Malaya of English and Canadian parents, had been reared to speak so well that she fetched up teaching English in South America for a time, had returned to England to go on the stage and had wound up in the same repertory company as Morse. Sydney still undertakes an occasional stage or television role and intermittently conducts a radio program called Poet’s Corner.
The TB turned up shortly after their marriage, in 1939, when Morse tried to enlist in the Royal Navy. He spent nine months in a sanatorium and used the time to start the self-education he’s been at ever since. He can now talk charmingly and confidently on subjects ranging from theatrical history through etiquette to plumbing.
In 1941 Morse advanced on the West End and by the end of a decade had a three-inch listing in the theatrical Who’s Who; two children, Melanie and Hayward, both of whom have since turned into accomplished child actors; an English nannie to look after them; an adopted ancestor in the form of a huge sombre portrait, bought at auction, of a Restoration lady named the Countess de Grammont; and a hard-working agent.
But in 1951 when the Morses decided to visit Sydney’s mother in Montreal for the summer, Morse privately inspected the idea of immigration.
He was beginning to feel cramped by his own status: his agent resolutely accepted for him only those offers that would safeguard the Morse position or the Morse purse. Morse, who feels that “the only thing for an actor to be doing is acting,” wanted constant theatrical workouts even if they undermined his prestige. He made his first tentative revolt against the West End caste system when Noel Coward asked him to take a lead in his new musical comedy, Ace of Spades.
Morse thought the script rubbish. He could not. however, bring himself to be blunt about it to Coward. He manufactured a series of polite excuses. Coward countered each in turn with sweet reason. Morse made more excuses. Coward found more solutions. In desperation Morse decided to take a cab round by Coward’s flat one night, shove the script through the door with a note attached and scud off without looking back.
Unfortunately, Morse had no sooner climbed in the cab than Coward telephoned; Mrs. Morse said her husband was on his way over. Morse was furtively stuffing the script in Coward’s letter box when Coward opened the door to welcome him. Some hours later Morse escaped, still without unloading the script or saying a categorical no. He finally settled the matter by faking a prior commitment. But he began to wonder if he couldn’t manage his affairs better in North America.
“I’m a coward,” he explains. “I try to solve problems geographically.”
During their holiday in Montreal the Morses did a play at the Mountain Playhouse and picked up some work at the CBC. In the fall a part for Morse was written into Laura Limited, a soap opera; television was about to be inaugurated. Morse told himself with some satisfaction, “Here I can keep acting as long as 1 can stand up and stay awake.” He cashed in the return boat tickets and decided to stay.
In 195.3, after the launching of television, Morse got himself written out of Laura Limited (the author obligingly drove him mad) and moved his family to Toronto. By the end of 1954, working twenty hours a day, he'd pushed his annual earnings to $14,500 and one columnist had remarked that Morse was playing everything for CBLT but hockey. Today Morse figures his annual earnings at eighteen thousand dollars — “with," he says, “infinitely less harum-scarum.” Largely because of his big-stick labor tactics, Morse’s gainful work day now averages only twelve hours.
Actor as director
Typically, what Morse has done with his new leisure is invest it in more showbusiness activity. He has, for instance, been acting as an adviser to actor John Drainie in his plans for a platform presentation of an all-Leacock program.
Then there are his plans for a new Toronto theatre. He and Bill Freedman, a Toronto entrepreneur, have acquired options on two Broadway comedy successes, Visit to a Small Planet and The Matchmaker.
They have also been superintending the preparation of Jo, a musical-comedy version of Little Women. Morse and Freedman spent most of last autumn in an unsuccessful search for a moviehouse to buy and convert to a legitimate theatre. Now they are borrowing the Crest, a Toronto theatre already in operation, to open Small Planet next month with Morse as director and star. But they still hope to have their own premises by next fall and be in business for themselves.
In fact, wherever there’s theatrical activity these days Morse is likely to be on hand—taking part, cheering on or simply lending his bravura to the general hurlyburly. When he does, he’s less apt, now, to be trying to look like a stockbroker.
In England, just after he graduated from RADA, Morse’s secret wish was to be mistaken on the street for a businessman. To that end he used to add six years to his age, to affect a portentous air, to carry a walking stick. But in Canada, on his way to being an authentic businessman — and publicly described as an authentic aristocrat—Morse now allows himself to appear sockless, in leather sandals and putty-colored levis that taper sharply to his thin shanks. In them, with his keen, faintly wolfish face and his nimbus of ash-brown hair, he looks what he is above all: an actor.
“Cockneys,” he points out, in his warm, well-bred voice, “are endlessly adjustable.” it