BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
I wanted to talk to Barry Morse about Lieutenant Gerard, the dogged detective he had played for four seasons in The Fugitive, one of the biggest TV hits of the 1960s. But Morse wanted to talk about theatre critics; ill-informed theatre critics. He’d suffered at the hands of a few.
He told me a long story about an interview he had done recently with a Toronto critic on a day when Morse was still stinging from a negative review. He didn’t feel like talking about himself.
“Let’s talk about you,” Morse said.
“Me?” gulped the surprised critic.
“Yes, you,” said Morse. “I want to know what your qualifications are for passing judgment on my work. You know what my qualifications are. I want to know about yours.”
Before the hapless critic had time to gather his thoughts, Morse began his interrogation.
“What was Molière’s real name?” he asked.
The interviewer-turned-interviewee shifted uncomfortably and said he couldn’t remember off-hand.
(The correct answer was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. I wouldn’t have remembered, either.)
“Then let me ask you another,” persisted Morse. “Who was Joseph Jefferson?”
“Wasn’t he a president of the United States or something?” ventured the white-faced critic.
“Wrong!” said Morse. “That was Thomas Jefferson.”
(Joseph Jefferson was a Philadelphia-born actor-comedian who became one of the most popular 19th-century personalities of the American stage. I had to look that up, too.)
“Let’s try one more,” said Morse. “There was a seminal production staged in England during the 1860s that marks a turning point in the history of the theatre. The play was called Caste. Tell me what you know about it.”
Again, the critic had to admit he was unable to answer.
(I wouldn’t have known that answer either. Caste, by the Anglo-Irish dramatist Thomas William Robertson, had been one of the earliest attempts to put contemporary “cup-and-saucer” realism on the English stage.)
“Then, bugger off out of here!” shouted Morse. “Your bottomless ignorance has reinforced my opinion that the majority of theatre critics in this country are incompetent. How can you presume to pass judgment on my work when you don’t even know the ABC of theatre? What would your newspaper have to say to someone who wanted to be a sportswriter if he had never heard of Gordie Howe? Or to a business writer who didn’t know anything about preferred shares? Yet you presume to write about the theatre as somebody who is supposed to be informed? Get out of here!”
The humbled writer stayed around just long enough to get one more comment from Morse about incompetent theatre critics (“mostly refugees from writing about dogs’ funerals”) before going back to his paper to write the story. “It got me a certain amount of notoriety,” Morse noted gleefully. The critic’s story suggested that Morse was “slightly crazy” but the actor smiled at this. “I wasn’t crazy,” he told me, “just angry.” He added that the story singularly failed to include any reference to the three questions the interviewer was unable to answer. He also added that he had once played a theatre critic in an episode of The Twilight Zone, and that the experience made him think of critics as “little more than hucksters of casting gossip.”
After Morse told me this long story, I asked him whether he preferred stage work to television. He had trained as a teenager at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I thought he might be like other English actors I had spoken to, who preferred stage work – though it paid less – because of the instantaneous reaction from the live audience. Not Morse. He said the presence of the audience merely made for the “type of artificial stimulant that you can get just as easily from a bottle of good whiskey.” He conceded that “all of us, in a frail way, are susceptible to adoration. But the satisfaction is transient. We mustn’t be enslaved by our audience.”
I finally got to ask him about Lieut. Gerard, the tenacious detective who pursued the wrongly-convicted Richard Kimble, played by David Janssen, for four seasons in The Fugitive. (At the end of the fourth season, Morse finally got his man.) Because of the huge success of the show, I wondered if that had restricted the range of roles available to Morse after the series ended in 1967. Not so, said the actor. He had always been able to fill his time with stage and screen work in between episodes of The Fugitive, and the work continued to pour in after series went off the air. “There’s always a role out there for this old circus horse,” he said. He had appeared in a variety of British television series, including Whoops Apocalypse and Waking the Dead, and also directed on Broadway and toured a one-man stage play, Merely Players, throughout North America. He said jokingly, however, that the Lieut. Gerard role had made him “the most hated man in America. I got more hate mail than anyone since Adolf Hitler.”
Working in television, particularly in soap operas, was a particular challenge for Morse because the scripts were never very good. “It’s more difficult to do them than it is to play King Lear,” he said. “Doing soap operas is the same as attempting to construct the Taj Mahal out of chicken droppings. When you do Lear, at least you’ve got Shakespeare on your side.”
The ghost of Lieut. Gerard continue to haunt Morse for the rest of his acting career. He was still getting mail about the TV show 33 years later. “It never really went away,” he told the Calgary Herald in 2000. “It’s quite extraordinary. I get mail from countries I didn’t even know had television.”
Perhaps predictably, all the obituary headlines referred to Morse’s best-known TV role when he died in 2008 at age 89. “He found television stardom as the nemesis of The Fugitive,” said The Globe and Mail. “Actor loved being ‘the most hated man in America,’” said The Gazette of Montreal. The Ottawa Citizen, giving an additional nod to Morse’s successful one-season stint in 1966 as artistic director of the Shaw Festival, headlined its obituary, “Fugitive actor revived Shaw Festival.” By working for next to nothing – which he would well afford because he was still being paid by the producers of The Fugitive – Morse had been able in five weeks to pay off the Shaw’s accumulated deficit, which had nearly put paid to the festival.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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