Harve Presnell, whose booming baritone graced such Broadway musicals as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Annie,” died Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 75.
Although he was best known for his roles in musical theater, Presnell also is remembered as William H. Macy’s father-in-law in the Coen brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo.”
Among his other movies were “When the Boys Meet the Girls” (1965), “The Glory Guys” (1965) and “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) as well as the TV series “The Pretender” (1997-2000).
Yet it was in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1960) that the rugged, 6-foot-4 Presnell was first noticed by Broadway audiences. In the Meredith Willson musical, he played lucky mining prospector “Leadville” Johnny Brown opposite Tammy Grimes’ feisty Molly. Presnell repeated his role in the 1964 film version which starred Debbie Reynolds as the buoyant title character.
Presnell even 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.
For a good part of his career, Presnell portrayed 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 an interview in 1993: “I thought, ‘What’s this? I’m a leading man!’“
But the reality was good for him, Presnell said, adding, “It was a question of saying, ‘I’m no longer Frank Butler or Rhett Butler or “Leadville” Johnny Brown.’ And they were paying good money.”
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.
The actor was born George Harvey Presnell, in Modesto, Calif. 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. And it was in Berlin that Willson, the composer of “Molly Brown,” first heard him sing.