Navarre at the Pasadena Playhouse, undated
Robert Preston Meservey was born in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts on June 8, 1918 to parents Frank and Ruth Rea Meservey. His family moved to California when he was two years old for the benefit of his grandfather's health, who was believed to have had tuberculosis. Preston participated in drama while attending Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, and at age 16, he joined The Elizabethan Stock Company, a repertory theater company run by Patia Power. This group eventually failed, but Preston soon found work at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he remained for two years, appearing in 42 productions.
While playing Harry Van in Robert Sherwood's play Idiot's Delight, Preston was spotted by a scout from Paramount and subsequently signed to his first motion-picture contract at the age of 19. His first important role at Paramount was playing Barbara Stanwyck's husband in Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific. He continued to receive roles in a number of smaller pictures, including Beau Geste, Northwest Mounted Police, Moon Over Burma, Blood on the Moon, Tulsa, and The Sundowners.
In 1940, Preston married Catherine Craig (born Kay Feltus), an Indiana University graduate and fellow actress at Paramount. The couple originally met at the Pasadena Playhouse, where they acted in five plays together, although they never once appeared in the same scene. Catherine was a talented actress in her own right. She signed with Paramount Pictures in 1940 and acted in a number of films, including Here Comes the Waves, The Pretender, Albuquerque, and The Appointment with Murder. She gave up her acting career in 1950 to devote herself to her supporting her husband.
After filming Wings Up in 1943, Preston departed for Europe to serve as an intelligence officer in World War II. He returned to Hollywood after being discharged in 1947 and continued to make films. In 1948, Preston became frustrated by the pictures Paramount was putting him in, and, after facing initial resistance, succeeded in getting out of his contract. Preston then acted in a handful of films for MGM, but continued to feel professionally frustrated. Tired of the Hollywood scene altogether, Preston moved to New York in 1951 and took the lead in Jose Ferrer's Broadway production of Twentieth Century. He remained in New York for the next several years, starring in comedies including The Male Animal, His and Hers, The Tender Trap, and Janus.
Preston regularly received positive reviews for his work on the stage, but it was not until 1957 when he established himself as a true star playing con man Harold Hill in The Music Man. This was Preston's first appearance in a musical, and he did not disappoint. The production received five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. After a two-and-a-half year run on Broadway, Preston returned to Hollywood to repeat the role in the 1962 film-version of The Music Man.
Preston acted in a number of musicals over the following years, including Ben Franklin in Paris, Mack & Mabel, We Take the Town, and I Do! I Do!, the latter of which won him his second Tony Award. He also performed in plays such as Too True to Be Good, Nobody Loves an Albatross, The Lion in the Winter, and Sly Fox. In the late 1970s, Preston began working with director/screenwriter/producer Blake Edwards, who presented him with new and challenging film roles: Dr. Irving Finegarten, the corrupt doctor in S.O.B. and Toddy, the gay nightclub entertainer in Victor/Victoria. His portrayal of Toddy, in particular, garnered significant attention from both straight and gay audiences, and he received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
Towards the end of his career, Preston appeared in several TV movies, including September Gun, Finnegan Begin Again, and Outrage. He spent the last years of his life living in Montecito, California, and died from lung cancer in Santa Barbara on March 21, 1987 at age 68.