VERSATILITY IS FINE, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
It's a Sikh! It's a belly dancer! It's an Arab! Wrong! It's Barry Morsi
playing nine (count 'em) nine roles in a TV drama
THE NINE FACES of Barry Morse on the cover of this issue indicate the multi-faceted skills of a man who has long been called Canada’s most versatile actor. In a thirty-year professional career, Morse has played hundreds of roles ranging from Macbeth to Hollywood gangsters. Although he is a Canadian citizen and has made his home in Toronto for the last fifteen years, Morse is best known to Canadians as Lieutenant Gerard, the pursuer in the American TV series, The Fugitive. On May 23, however, viewers of CBC’s Show Of The Week will be treated to a virtuoso, homebred Morse performance as Barry cavorts through nine different roles in a fast-paced adventure comedy titled It's Murder, Chérie. From the opening moments of the show when Barry, disguised as an Indian Sikh, pulls off a sleight-of-hand jewel heist, to the final scene when he walks off with the police-inspector’s girl, he is almost always on camera — in one guise or another. The guises, in addition to the Sikh and the central role of a dapper man-about-Paris named Monsieur Victoire, call for a series of quick costume switches which display Morse as an Arab rug peddler, a Turkish belly dancer, a blind beggar, a scar-faced gangster, a bistro waiter, an English diplomat and a slinky streetwalker. Because of Morse’s many makeup and wardrobe changes, the taping of the show turned into a marathon production session. Shooting began at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning and continued into the early hours of Monday morning. Morse himself spent more time in the makeup chair than he did before the cameras. During one late-night production break, the show’s director and his assistants were reviewing what had already been taped. Morse appeared on the monitor screen in one costume after another. Suddenly, to the blearyeyed surprise of everyone, an apparition resembling a Ku Klux Klansman in full regalia flashed onto a screen. “Wrong costume, wrong costume. It should be the beggar,” shrieked a groggy script girl. Then everyone broke into laughter — they were watching the wrong monitor and seeing a segment of This Hour Has Seven Days. The hooded figure was former Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, being interviewed about the Gerda Munsinger affair. Throughout the entire fifteen-hour shooting ordeal, Morse retained the professionalism and good humor that have made him a favorite of fellow actors and production crews. “Barry is a real pro. And he’s got great versatility. He’s always thought of himself as the man with a thousand faces,” says Chérie producer - director Leo Orenstein. When the CBC broadcasts It’s Murder, Chérie, Canadians will have a chance to examine nine of them. “HEY, ISN’T THAT, you know, the guy who plays that cop? Over there, by the meat counter — the guy on that TV show, 7 he Fugitive. What’s his name? Come on over and meet him. Whadaya mean you couldn’t? He’s an actor, isn’t he?
More on Barry Morse overleaf
It's a slinky femme fatale! Nope! It's a bone-tired television actor
Barry Morse at 47: "The Fugitive" has made him rich—but for fulfillment's sake he still works for peanuts in Canada
“Say, aren’t you — I mean, what are you doing here?”
“I’m buying some meat,” says Barry Morse.
“You chasing that guy Kimble up here now?”
“No, I live here.”
“You mean you live here?”
“I live here in Toronto. I’m a Canadian citizen. I’ve lived here for fifteen years.”
“Well, geez, we never knew that.”
Now Morse, who is spare and erect with a sharp nose, high cheekbones, bright eyes and wide thin mouth, makes a practised little peroration in his wonderful voice, which is like sand pouring on a kettledrum, the perfect voice to say “the multitudinous seas
incarnadine,” or, “Whoever he is, our killer is both clever and
cunning,” or, “Shooting? Only the natives, old boy.”
To the shoppers in the supermarket he says, “For the past dozen years, I have done many many thousands of shows on your national television and radio networks, and you are aware of me and interested in me simply because you happen to see me in some series from the U. S. I genuinely don’t believe that one is a better actor or a more worthwhile subject of attention because one happens to be playing in a show that’s shot in California. I genuinely don’t.”
HE SIGHS, A TINY well-bred sound, and picks up his groceries and
exits. It bugs one, does one understand? One means, so many, many roles — Sir Henry Irving played six hundred and eighty-three in his entire life — and nobody seems to notice. But they all notice the gimlet-eyed Lieutenant Gerard in The Fugitive. Does anyone remember the time one played Macbeth in David Greene s splendid CBC production? Does anyone remember the time one played George Bernard Shaw in Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar on Play date? No, practically nobody remembers. So why do they remember the time one played a Martian sociologist on The Outer Limits, and that nut on what — Cain’s Hundred or one of those shows — who kept rolling his pupils around like bowling balls in a bathtub, and all those gangsters on The Untouchables who kept saying corny things like, “This time we’ll have a little surprise in store for our Mr. Ness, heh, heh”? Hmm? All those shows that, well, if one were watching, and the picture started to flop over, one would have to think about it before one got out of one’s chair to adjust the set.
There is something about Morse — his self-image is heroic. Despite Lieutenant Gerard, despite the compromises he has been making for years in New York and Hollywood, he thinks of himself as Robin Hood, snatching a comfortable, even luxurious, living from the materially rich — Uncle Sam — then riding, riding, riding back across the border to give of himself to culturally poor Canadians. It is no delusion. He is one of the best actors we have, certainly the most versatile, almost certainly the best associated with Canadian television. Since February 1959, when he made his first trip to Hollywood, he could have quit Canada for good any time. He could have found his own Bonanza. He could have joined the Hollywood illuminati. He works in Hollywood, but he has never gone to Hollywood. He stays in Canada, body and soul, because he
is a compulsive actor whose compulsion is relieved in the baroque diversity of the CBC. He stays here because, as he never tires of telling Canadians, British and Americans, he is a Canadian citizen.
In Toronto, he lives around the corner from the CBC in a thirdfloor walk-up apartment in an old building that looks as though it should be full of widows with Pomeranians. (He sold his house on Avenue Road when his wife and two children moved to London, where the children won scholarships to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.) Not that Morse has to walk to the studios — the CBC is always picking him up in a chauffeured limousine.
Morse’s feelings about the CBC are fiercely ambivalent; he feels, for instance, that the limousine thing is
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a manifestation of the CBC’s geography snobbery. It started one day when some departmental secretary — it is rever made clear whom such people represent — called to say that a car would pick him up the next mornirg and take him to rehearsal. “Really?” he said. “Oh yes,” she said, “we always provide transportation for guests.’’ It sounded funny to Morse, who ussd to get up at 6 a.m. and walk down to the CBC to find out what he would be playing on the radio schools broadcasts that day (often he made Indian noises) and whether he could get on a kiddies’ show (Cuckoo Clock House) or any damn thing. Now he was a guest, meaning an American guest, meaning the fatted calf, baby. Well, it had taken a long time.
“I raised proper hell”
A long time — even after he started getting fat roles in American network series like Naked City and The Nurses, Morse was taken for granted by the CBC. It wasn’t that the CBC was putting up one of its dim corporate struggles to remain unimpressed. It was jiKt that it took a long time for the word to get past all those script assistants, beadles. Press and Information Officers, hierophants, hairdressers, hand-holders, Regional Programs Clearance Officers, flower arrangers, set designers and so forth — the whole conglomerate CBC thing, still visualized by prairie politicians as a bunch of queer ducks in long underwear schmarfing around with the mitey taxpayer’s dollar — and on to the Assistant to the Programing Regional Supervisor (Drama) (English), or whoever ultimately was responsible for the CBC’s dealings with Morse, Barry, Actor. Once he came all the way back from Hollywood to appear on Parade and accept the Liberty magazine award for best Canadian TV actor (he won that award five times) and the CBC paid him minimum scale: sixty-two dollars. Sixty-two dollars! “I raised proper hell about that with great glee,” Morse told me at the time, in 1962. “I told them that if I were any lousy American actor they’d have a cab waiting at the airport and they’d give me ten times scale.” Which is just about the way they treat him now — like any lousy American actor. Things have changed for him since 1962.
Morse describes himself, in his theatrical way, as “a reasonably happy man, a contented man. not fraught or hagridden by enormous doubts or fears.” But — a certain old hag is riding him. It is this unfortunate business of his never having appeared at Stratford. Lord, one finds it easy enough to understand his point of view. Here is Barry Morse, who once got a standing ovation from the aftertheatre crowd in London’s Savoy Grill. One means, what is there, in Canada, for an actor? Stratford, and the CBC . . .
The CBC is always after Morse. Recently he had come home from Hollywood to play a seventy-threeyear-old Polish homosexual on Festival. The play was filmed in High Park, on the edge of the duck pond, and it
was one of those days when Toronto should be evacuated. Freezing rain. The ducks were quacking abrasively. Morse was sitting on this freezing bench while various scenes were shot and reshot, and he said he had the flu, and he took to singing Nearer My God To Thee between takes, hut he didn’t even look cold. Inside the mobile studio, director Mcrv Rosenzveig looked at Morse through the monitor and said. “Isn’t there something we can do about that hat? I mean, he’s supposed to be an old bum. The coat looks good, too. Can’t he take them off and stomp on them or something?” And it was true that Morse looked as if he had just stepped out of Winston’s. But the hat and overcoat, when they came out of Costumes that morning, had looked like caricatures of a very scruffy hat and overcoat. It was just Morse. It is easier for him to play a Martian sociologist than a hum. Rosenzveig said Morse is an actor’s actor: “The CBC dearly loves to get him hack. They think of him as Canadian content and a star to boot. Is he Canadian really? I don’t know.”
A lot of people have been confused about that, including J. Frank Willis, old Mr. CBC himself, who said hack in the fifties that the Corporation had “no one to match Morse in his authentic aristocrat.” More recently there was the hunch of taxi drivers at London airport who spotted him by the customs shed and started muttering. "Cor, it’s ’at copper on The Fugitive . . . The Fugitive . . . The Fugitive” — they watch it on the commercial channel — and one of them said. “Eee h’ain’t ’ere. guvnor,” and Morse turned around and said, “HT 'card that. HT h’ain’t got a cloth car. y’now.” Jaws dropped — they had figured Morse to he an American. It is not easy to fool a Cockney with a Cockney accent and Cockney argot. It would be interesting to know whether the taxi drivers concluded that Morse was Cockney, or another Peter Sellers, or what. He is, in fact, neither an authentic aristocrat (though he has been playing one for thirty years) nor an authentic Cockney (though he has been saying so to Canadian journalists ever since he came here in I95l). Morse is a lower-class Londoner, all right, who pulled himself up by the bootstraps. But what he really is. more than anything else, is a consummate actor who can he anybody he wants.
In the preface to his first novel. Immaturity, George Bernard Shaw described himself as “a downstart and the son of a downstart.” Morse, who reveres Shaw, who knew' Shaw' at the Royal Academy, w ho has played many Shaw characters including Henry Higgins. who has portrayed old Shaw himself on stage and television, likes to apply the word Shaw coined—“downstart”—to himself. Morse likes to think of himself as a sort of male Eliza Doolittle. But he had an easier time of it than the flower girl.
At the corner of Liverpool Street and Bishopsgate in the East End of London there is a pub. the /99, and here on a sopping-wet afternoon sits a London bobby, number 6ISH. working away at a pint of half-and-half and putting his brother. Barry Morse, into some kind of new perspective. At fifty. Len Morse is three years older than Barry and the oldest constable at the Commercial Street Station, serving the tough area — Whitechapel. Cable Street, Bethnal Green — where Jack the Ripper crawled out from undei his rock. Len Morse is a shorter, stockier, balder version of Barry. He was a good amateur boxer, a welterweight. He is amiable and articulate. He is no Cockney. To a Canadian his accent is simply London.
“1 still want to be the best actor I have it in me to be”
Len says he and Barry were born and raised in Hammersmith, near the Thames. He remembers wandering with Barry through Notting Hill and Chelsea and places like that. Their father was an off-license (beer shop) proprietor, their mother a bright emotional. woman who “could have been an actress." according to Len. Len says Barry was always interested in "words, words and books. 1 never had that anbition of his.” Len joined police training school on the same day in 1935 that Barry started at the Royal Academy on a scholarship.
(As the story goes, Barry had won out over two hundred other applicants when Dame Sybil Thorndike, one of the judges, found his impersonation of Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest too droll — that occent! — but really quite moving, you know, because of its sincerity.)
Len says Barry now talks like "an American, or a Canadian, whichever 'tis. but when we’re talking over old times he forgets and then you'd never know he’d been away." Whenever Barry is in London they get together. Sometimes the actor and the constable go to Shoreditch Town Hall to watch the amateur boxing. Len Morse never misses The Fugitive — “though I have a tough time of it when there’s sports on the BBC." He says his brother plays a good cop. “He's very suspicious. you see. A good copper."
But Barry Morse’s attitude toward the show is cavalier. “On the whole, I suppose the old Fugitive has been a good thing." he will say, “even though I sometimes think rather ruefully that I'm doing more running than Richard Kimble.” He appears in about one episode out of three and finds enough time to do a lot of things, more interesting things, in Canada, but the shuttling back and forth between Toronto and Hollywood and Toronto and London is a bit of a bore, you know, especially when one meets people who insist, who really seem to believe, that one is a real cop hounding that nice Dr. Kimble. At such moments Morse puts on his toff’s accent, his stiff upper BBC accent, and drones. "No, no. afraid I've nevah heard of the chap. Actuallah. I'm an anthropologist visiting heah from Oxford." And exits hurriedly. In Hollywood he lives in an apartment once occupied by Wallace Beery. Gloria Swanson lives right across the court.
Morse expresses a fine old lofty disdain for money. A few years ago I demanded to know how much money he was making, on the orders of an editor, and he snapped, “God help us if the most interesting thing about a
man is his money." Anyway he is making plenty, fifty thousand a year or so. “I'm provident," he says. "I have a Cockney knack of seeing what the score is. I could put up my feet in a modest way if I wanted to."
He doesn't want to, of course. "My great luxury is being able to work for little or no return," he says, and so he
does Shaw readings at a Toronto Unitarian church, things like that, and multitudinous CBC radio spots, schools broadcasts, panels, any damn thing, and when he has nothing else to do he goes off to some nutty place like Columbus. Ohio, to make a speech on what he calls "the we-are-all-brothersof-one-another sort of thing, the ask-
not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls-it-tolls-forthee sort of thing.”
He says, “I still have a childlike desire, not to be the best actor in the world, which is what I wanted when I started this whole thing at fifteen, but just to be the best actor I have it in me to be."
Which is why this Stratford business is, not a disappointment, of course — after all. it isn’t as if one were looking for a job, thank God — but still, a pity. Does one understand? Back in
1959, Morse starred in a Boston production of Shaw’s Man And Superman. and drama critic Elliot (The Butcher) Norton, who actually had panned My Fair Lady, was rhapsodic about Barry Morse. And Morse told a Toronto newspaper, “I suppose if I keep on making my reputation in U. S. productions, eventually I'll be asked up to Stratford as a star.” Instead of that there were these lamentable incidents.
The year Chris Plummer played Hamlet, they couldn’t find a ghost, and the part was hawked about and turned down by three pretty indifferent actors. So the artistic director, that’s Michael Langham, bless his sweet soul and ingenuous heart, actually asked Morse, asked him to play the ghost! Then in I960 Langham signed up Morse’s son Hayward to play Prince Arthur in King John and his wife and daughter for other parts and then, sort of at the eleventh hour, called Morse, as bold as you please, and said he might as well come along, to be with his family sort of thing, and offered him a line of parts — nothing, notli-ing. Salisbury, one of them was. Now, Salisbury is a character in King John whom nobody remembers.
Well, Morse didn’t want Langham —whom he had known for donkey's years—to think he was in a sulk, so the next year he wrote him. wrote him a letter, just like . . . just like an actor looking for a job. “Dear Michael, I am at liberty, honest, sober and industrious, and if you want any references I think I can scare some up, and if you have anything, anything that one might find stimulating, do, please, let me know.” Still—nothing.
There are so many good parts at Stratford, not necessarily great big parts, but ones in which one wouldn't feel . . . Well, it’s like sports, isn't it? When one reaches a certain point one doesn't go looking for a job in the minors. If for some reason they don’t want one, one had better go elsewhere . . .
Morse has become artistic director of the Shaw Festival at Niagara-onthe-Lake, and he is going to try to make another Stratford out of it. He has got two months off from the old Fugitive—back next fall in living color—and he will direct two plays this summer and star in one himself (largely to sell seats) and he is using his personal prestige to get a strong cast—Pat Galloway, Tom Kneebone, Norman Welsh, people like that—and to sell all of the seats, twenty thousand. before the festival opens. And he is thinking, just thinking at this point, that one fine day a geodesic dome might be erected to hold the crowd one could get with George Bernard Shaw in one’s corner.
Shaw—this could be big. Shaw could do for Niagara-on-the-Lake what Shakespeare did for Stratford. (The Niagara site is far prettier, really, and more accessible.) One supposes that comparisons will be inevitable—not that one is trying to compete, or anything like that. No no. it is just that one wants to do one's very best by dear old G.B.S. Does one understand? ★