Classic Hollywood: Robert Morse's cult film with 'something to offend everyone'
The veteran filmmakers and performers I interview each week for Classic Hollywood are often filled with funny and sometimes naughty stories about their careers. And 79-year-old Robert Morse, who is this week's Classic Hollywood subject, is no exception. Though he's best known these days as the eccentric advertising executive Bertram Cooper on AMC's Emmy Award-winning "Mad Men," Morse is a veteran Tony- and Emmy-winning performer who appeared in such musicals as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and the one-man show "Tru" on writer Truman Capote.
Because of the success of "Succeed" on Broadway in the early 1960s, Hollywood came knocking at his door. And one of the craziest films he made during that stint in Hollywood was the 1965 cult film "The Loved One." Based on the satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh (“Brideshead Revisited”), "The Loved One" was a savagely funny skewering of the funeral industry in Southern California. Tony Richardson, fresh of his Oscar win for 1963’s "Tom Jones," directed and Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay adaptation.
Advertised as "The Motion Picture With Something To Offend Everyone!," the comedy featured Morse as a young Englishman named Dennis Barlow who visits his uncle (John Gielgud) in L.A. As soon as he arrives in the Southland, though, his uncle is fired from the production studio where he’s worked for years and commits suicide. In order to get his uncle a splendid funeral at the Whispering Glades cemetery, Dennis starts to work for a local pet cemetery. Anjanette Comer plays Aimee, the mortuary’s cosmetician. Dennis, of course, falls for her, and an outrageous Rod Steiger plays the vile embalmer Mr. Joyboy who also wants to marry her.
I asked Morse about his memories of the film, which was generally trounced by critics way back when. He said that Richardson had seen him in "How to Succeed," in which he played an ambitious young window washer, and asked to meet him for "The Loved One."
"He said, 'Can you do an English accent?' " Morse recalls. "I talked to him in an English accent a little bit, and he said that’s going to be fine. We started the movie and we finished it 20 weeks later -- over budget. Then [the producers] saw the rough cut and they had a fit because my accent changed day to day. So every scene had to be dubbed, it was so bad.”
So Morse was set off to Claridge’s Hotel in London, where he was introduced to Vanessa Redgrave’s brother, actor Corin Redgrave. “Every day for two weeks he would come over and we had to go over every scene,” says Morse. “Then we would go to Twickenham Studios and I had to loop every line in the movie. I don’t know how I did it."
Working with a method actor like Steiger was also a challenge for Morse. "I have this wonderful Rod Steiger story," he says. "Rod liked to go out in the parking lot and do 10 push-ups, run down the parking lot, run onto the set, hit his mark and say his line. Not really, but he liked to take it to the extreme. This went on day after day. One day he was revving up and he runs onto the set, hits his mark and says, ‘Where are we taking this from?’ And I said out loud, ‘From the credits.’ Everybody laughed. He laughed. It was done with good humor.”
-- Susan King
Photo of Robert Morse by Stefano Paltera / For The Times.
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