1/22/89 Chi. Trib. 3
1989 WL 4557529
Sunday, January 22, 1989
As 'performer,' David Morse shuns limelight
By Bridget Byrne.
If we're talking secret operative, David Morse would appear to be our man.
It's understandable that he might want to keep the plot of the international espionage drama Brotherhood of the Rose (8-10 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC-Ch. 5) under wraps. But though the character he plays, Chris Kilmoonie, moonlighted as a monk when he got weary of being a trained assassin, even he didn't go so far as to take a vow of complete silence. Morse, himself, looks as though that would suit him just fine.
It's not that Morse is being rude; it's simply apparent that the peripheral aspects of his chosen career-particularly anything connected with publicity and promotion-are not the areas with which he is comfortable. He's an actor, not a performer, and, despite the star billing, he's still heart and soul a character actor. And, furthermore, he's tired.
That, too, is quite understandable. He and his wife, actress Susan Wheeler Duff, have just had a baby daughter, so a full night's sleep has been hard to come by during these past weeks around the holidays.
Ordering lunch at Hollywood's Musso and Frank's restaurant, famous for its hearty meals, he settles on scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes. It's almost baby food, and you don't have to move your mouth much to eat it!
When Morse does speak, his voice has a distinct soft rasp, as though a whole whelter of feeling is trapped back there but isn't sure of the way out. Somehow it isn't surprising that eventually the conversation settles on admiration for Jimmy Stewart, whose catch-in-the-throat reached its apotheosis in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Morse almost gets excited at the recollection of such acting, but only almost.
Best known as Dr. Jack Morrison in the now concluded hospital series St. Elsewhere-an example of dramedy before the word was being bandied around haphazardly-Morse says he got most audience response for the episode in which he listened to his wife's heart, which was transplanted into another woman's body.
"Somehow that touched a chord in people, though I'm not really sure why," he says.
His success on that show has "made life easier for me than for some of my friends who started out with me," Morse notes, but he also remembers, "When I heard the show had been picked up again after its second season I said, 'Now is when the real acting begins.' "
Ultimately, like most actors who find fame in long-running series-his lasted six years-he suffered a bit from a sense of being trapped. He also felt that the fate of the character he played ricocheted according to the whims of the writers and producers from exploitation to neglect and back again.
Referring to the rape-in-jail sequence, which also attracted a great deal of viewer response, Morse glumly states, "That seemed like the final indignity. What else bad could they think of to put this character through?"
But it's over now and all that remains of Dr. Jack Morrison, outside of reruns, is the publicity material reference to Morse as "the gentle-voiced actor who . . ." "The gentle-voiced assassin who . . .," he says self-mocking about his role in Brotherhood of the Rose.
With the code name "Remus," Morse stars opposite Peter Strauss, who portrays "Romulus." Both orphans, they were adopted by CIA bigwig John Eliot (Robert Mitchum) and raised as brothers-and cold-blooded killers.
This spy adventure is adapted from the book by John Morrell, who also wrote First Blood and Rambo III, so, "Yes, there's lots of running and jumping and firing of guns and blowing things up," Morse says, allowing himself a smidgeon of a grin. "That's the fun stuff."
But, of course, the actors weren't allowed to do all of their own action, and Morse seemed somewhat indignant that the stunt doubles, cast for a sequence in which Morse and Strauss were hiding out in the mountains, were "small." Morse is far from short-he played a basketball player in the movie Inside Moves.
As acting roles, Morse considered "Romulus" and "Remus" a considerable challenge for Strauss and himself.
"When we talk about actors like Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper managing to make decency exciting and attractive for hours at a time, something of the same problem exists here," he said. "How do you make exciting and interesting, for four hours, characters who have been strictly tutored to hide their emotions?
"Actually, what is happening to the characters (in Brotherhood) is that they are finding that they can't be like that any more; they can't just live for the work they do at the expense of everything else. They want to find out how they really think and feel, so in fact they are growing up before our eyes. It was probably a little easier for my character because he started on the process earlier and so can reveal more of his inner conflicts, but Peter's character has to stay committed to his training longer."
Both Morse and Strauss share a lot of screen time with their surrogate father, Mitchum. Morse allows that he enjoyed the experience, but if he's close-mouthed about himself, he certainly isn't going to tell any tales out of school about his costars.
"He comes with quite a reputation and he deserves it. He was fine; he only showed us a few semi-dirty pictures," Morse said jokingly about the notorious Mitchum.
Morse admits to coming late to appreciation of movie stars, having benefited only recently, at the encouragement of friends and from the availability of video, from watching the magic of actors such as Cooper, Stewart and Spencer Tracy. He has a few youthful memories of Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty, with hair slicked down and face colored up, but says he didn't get into acting because he wanted to be a movie star.
"Actually the whole concept of becoming an actor seemed so remote, so far from anything I knew," he says, reflecting on growing up outside Boston. But if there weren't idols to inspire there were inside forces at work and some helpful encouragement from a teacher who noted his talent.
Morse worked with the Boston Repertory Theater for several years, playing, among other things, the title role in The Little Prince. Morse recently played the role of the aviator in a theater production of the play in Los Angeles. One senses why he might be drawn to the story. His face is still boyish, despite the sleepless-nights pouches under his eyes.
Despite his reticence to express the desire overtly, to do the best acting he can without getting sidetracked by fame would seem to be Morse's goal. He was pleased by his first experience of Hollywood movie-making, 1980's Inside Moves, which dealt with a group of misfits discovering self-esteem. Movies weren't theater, but they seemed okay.
He thought he'd never agree to do television, but St. Elsewhere was, all things considered, a successful venture. He says he's not sure whether he'll do another series. He's more interested in joining with friends in creating a repertory theater in Los Angeles, similar to the Circle Repertory Company he belonged to in New York. He only grits his teeth and deals with being a star when he absolutely can't think of an excuse not to.
But you can bet there's a catch in the throat, even when he says yes to an interview.