Robert Morse, Impish Tony-Winning Comedy Star, Is Dead at 90

Television proved more hospitable. In addition to guest appearances on various shows in the 1960s and ’70s, he co-starred with the actress EJ Peaker in the 1968 series “That’s Life,” an unusual hybrid of sitcom and variety show that told the story of a young couple’s courtship and marriage through sketches, monologues, singing and dancing. Perhaps too ambitious for its own good — “We’re producing what amounts to a new musical each week,” Mr. Morse told an interviewer — it lasted only one season.

Mr. Morse returned to Broadway in 1972 in “Sugar,” a musical based on the Billy Wilder film “Some Like It Hot” about two Chicago musicians — Tony Roberts in the part originally played by Tony Curtis and Mr. Morse, appropriately, in the Jack Lemmon role — who flee from local mobsters by dressing as women and joining an all-girl band en route to Miami. It brought Mr. Morse another Tony nomination and was a modest hit, running for more than a year.

But his next show, the 1976 musical “So Long, 174th Street,” based on the play “Enter Laughing” — with Mr. Morse, still boyish-looking at just shy of 45, as an aspiring actor roughly half his age — received harsh reviews and closed in a matter of weeks. It was Mr. Morse’s last appearance on Broadway for more than a decade.

He kept busy in the ensuing years, but choice roles were scarce, and he battled depression. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol, although he maintained that those problems did not interfere with his work; looking back in 1989, he told The Times, “It was the other 22 hours I had a problem with.”

He starred in a number of out-of-town revivals, including a production of “How to Succeed” in Los Angeles. He was a familiar face on television in series like “Love, American Style” and “Murder, She Wrote” — and a familiar voice as well, on cartoon shows like “Pound Puppies.” But he longed to escape a casting pigeonhole that he knew he had helped create.

“I’m the short, funny guy,” he said ruefully in a 1972 Times interview. “It’s very difficult to get out of that.” Eight years earlier he had told another interviewer: “I think of myself as an actor. I happen to have a comic flair, but that doesn’t mean I plan to spend my life as a comedian.”

It took him a while to find the perfect dramatic showcase, but he found it in 1989 in “Tru,” Jay Presson Allen’s one-man show about Truman Capote. Almost unrecognizable in heavy makeup and utterly convincing in voice and mannerisms, he was Capote incarnate, alone in his apartment in 1975 and brooding over the friendships he had lost after the publication of excerpts from his gossipy novel in progress, “Answered Prayers.” Mr. Morse’s performance brought him his second Tony Award. A television adaptation of “Tru” for the PBS series “American Playhouse” in 1992 also won him an Emmy.

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