Today he is best remembered as “The Music Man” — but Robert Preston (ne Robert Preston Meservey) was a film star long before that 1962 hit.
Discovered at the Pasadena Playhouse in the late Thirties, and signed by Paramount, he was soon starring in B films and graduated to starring opposite Dorothy Lamour.
Cecil B. DeMille used Preston in three of his films before the actor enlisted in the Army Air Corp. after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And Preston starred opposite Veronica Lake in This Gun For Hire (above) although he was overshadowed by a pesky newcomer named Alan Ladd.
When he returned from World War II his career plodded along, so Preston decided to return to the stage. And the decision was a wise one. He won a Tony award for portraying Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson’s musical in 1957.
When mogul Jack Warner bought the film rights to The Music Man he intended to cast Frank Sinatra in the 1962 movie version, but Wilson wisely insisted on Preston. The versatile actor had already segued from Broadway musical back to film drama with Delbert Mann’s Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960).
Like his contemporary Henry Fonda, Preston was a star who could bounce back and forth between films and Broadway and have success in both mediums.
On Broadway he starred in dramas (Lion in Winter) and musicals ( I Do, I Do, for which he won a second Tony), and on screen in films as diverse as Child’s Play and Mame. He even scored big in TV mini-series, The Chisolms.
Preston’s last big success was as the gay entertainer and manager in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria (1982).
At the other end of the character spectrum, Preston is superb as Ace Bonner, a roving over-the-hill rodeo star in Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 western, Junior Bonner. Preston not only goes toe-to-toe with costar Steve McQueen but has several electric scenes with Ida Lupino as the wife he leaves behind but still loves. Both these veterans are a pleasure to watch in this light-fingered and emotionally satisfying fable.
Preston lead a very private life and died relatively young, at 68, of lung cancer. He was married to the same woman for 47 years.