Harve Presnell dies at 75; commanding baritone in Broadway musicals

Times Staff And Wire Reports

Harve Presnell, the commanding baritone who starred in such Broadway musicals as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Annie," died of pancreatic cancer Tuesday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, according to his agent, Gregg Klein. The actor was 75.

Although best known for his roles in musical theater, Presnell also appeared on television, including a three-year run in the NBC series "The Pretender," and in such movies as "When the Boys Meet the Girls" (1965), "The Glory Guys" (1965) and "Paint Your Wagon" (1969). In the latter movie, his rendition of "They Call the Wind Mariah" was singled out by critics as the lone highlight in an otherwise disastrous film.

In later years, Presnell's most memorable film role was the cantankerous, ill-fated father-in-law of the William H. Macy character in the Coen brothers' 1996 black comedy "Fargo." After a two-decade lag in his movie career, Presnell's work in the cult favorite brought him a spate of character roles, including a portrayal of Gen George C. Marshall in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998).

The rugged, 6-foot-4 Presnell first gained prominence as the lucky mining prospector "Leadville" Johnny Brown in the 1960 Broadway production of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," playing opposite Tammy Grimes as the feisty Molly. He reprised the role opposite Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 film version.

He also played the dashing Rhett Butler in a musical version of "Gone With the Wind" (adapted by Horton Foote and with a score by Harold Rome) that was seen in London in 1972.

His longest run was portraying the wealthy, follicle-challenged Daddy Warbucks in various incarnations of "Annie." The actor was first offered the role in a tour of "Annie" and thought the title was a show business abbreviation for "Annie, Get Your Gun," the musical in which he had once played sharpshooter Frank Butler.

Then he attended "Annie" and saw a bald, older man instead of a dashing, romantic lead. It was a big shock, he told the Associated Press in a 1993 interview: "I thought, 'What's this? I'm a leading man!' "

After Presnell did the two-year "Annie" tour (1979-81), he went into "Annie" on Broadway and was still Daddy Warbucks on closing night, Jan. 2, 1983, in New York. In 1990, he played Warbucks in "Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge," the ill-fated sequel to "Annie" that folded during its Washington tryout and never got to New York.

Another version, titled "Annie Warbucks," surfaced off-Broadway in 1993 for a four-month run with Presnell again portraying Annie's wealthy benefactor. Presnell once estimated that he had played Warbucks more than 2,000 times.

The actor was born George Harvey Presnell on Sept. 14, 1933, in Modesto. He went to USC on a sports scholarship. After three weeks, the head of the music school heard him sing and offered him the same scholarship for music. He soon quit school and spent three seasons singing in Europe. It was in Berlin that Meredith Willson, the composer of "Molly Brown," first heard him sing.

An avid pilot since childhood -- he learned to fly a plane at age 9 or 10 -- he maintained a ranch in Livingston, Mont., and flew to Hollywood when TV and movie work beckoned.

Presnell is survived by his wife, Veeva; six children; and several grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.


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