L.A. earthquake sent actor David Morse & family packing to Philadelphia
Author: Joe Logan
Full Text: COPYRIGHT Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service 1996
PHILADELPHIA He has two major motion pictures in theaters: 12 Monkeys, the post-apocalypic epic, and The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn's latest directorial effort, co-starring Jack Nicholson.
But at the moment, actor David Morse is sipping steamed milk in a local coffee shop and talking about something more emotional: the harrowing earthquake that caused him to uproot his family and move to Philadelphia, his wife's hometown, almost two years ago.
"We thought we'd had so many warnings, with the riots, the fires, the other earthquakes. All these messages to get the hell out, and now we'd gone and killed our children,'' says the 42-year-old actor, best known as Dr. "Boomer'' Morrison on the '80s TV series St. Elsewhere.
The Morses' hillside home, built in Sherman Oaks in the 1930s, had weathered so many earthquakes that they had canceled their earthquake insurance six months earlier. Then, as they lay sleeping at 4 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1994, their home, with thousands of others, was reduced to ruin.
"People say it sounds like a train, and it is a truly amazing noise,'' says Morse.
As gas leaked into their partially collapsed home, David and Susan Morse ran frantically to their children's rooms. Although all were unharmed, their toddler twins were covered with plaster. Their older daughter was buried beneath a bureau. "We thought she was dead,'' says Morse, shuddering.
Outside, "it was completely dark and cold. We could look out across the valley at the fires and the explosions. It felt like the end of the world.''
"I know you,'' says the waitress, more asking a question than making a statement. "Aren't you on one of those medical shows?''
Morse smiles. "St. Elsewhere."
"Oh, yeah,'' she says, nodding. "Well, welcome.''
Morse says it's typical of his encounters in Philadelphia. Nothing too intrusive, just a friendly soul trying to be neighborly.
"It ranges from, 'Don't I know you from someplace? Work, or high school?' to, 'Oh, my God, you're ...' he says. "Most people are very nice.''
No question: To an actor who's chased the Hollywood dream for more than a decade, Philadelphia is in another orbit. But so far, for Morse, that's been a good thing.
"We never liked L.A.,'' says the Boston native, who loves acting but admits he has little stomach for the business side of the industry. "I find it very embarrassing to have to go in and hustle work, and everything in L.A. is so geared toward career. Every relationship revolves around that. You suspect it's the motivation for every friendship.
"As soon as I came here,'' he says, "I felt all that was lifted.''
Living in a large stone house, in a section of the city he'd rather not name, Morse says he and his family "do what most people do. We go to the movies, the zoo, go hiking.'' He drives an ordinary Toyota station wagon. And, on this morning, he's wearing ordinary sweats and has plans to work out in a gym later in the day.
The Morses decided to leave L.A. within a week of the earthquake. The city was being rocked by hundreds of aftershocks, and one of the children had developed pneumonia. With their house destroyed, the family had found temporary shelter in the home of Morse's agent.
To complicate matters, the day before the earthquake, Morse had begun filming his choicest role in years, playing a guilt-wracked ex-con in "The Crossing Guard. The day after the quake, as Morse worried about his family, Penn was ready to go back to work.
"We were the first film to resume shooting after the earthquake,'' says Morse, who grew up in Hamilton, Mass., and went directly from high school to the Boston Repertory Theater.
He has enjoyed other successes, but to many, Morse will always be known as St. Elsewhere's gentle Boomer, whose personality was not terribly different from his own.
"It was great writing I thought too good to last on television,'' says Morse, who lived in New York when the pilot was shot. "I thought I would have a nice job for 15 weeks and I'd come home with a little bit of money.''
After staying with the series for its full six seasons, however, Morse had become so identified with the role that he felt compelled to distance himself from the character. That led to a series of roles on TV and in film The Crossing Guard and 12 Monkeys included that have taken him away from his simple good-guy persona.
"I do like playing bad guys,'' says the soft-spoken Morse, who is struggling to keep some of the 25 pounds of muscle he added to his 6-foot-4 frame for The Crossing Guard. "I've always been more comfortable with roles that take me away from myself. It's much more interesting.''
After St. Elsewhere, the Morses toyed with leaving L.A. They'd considered Santa Fe, Seattle, Denver, Connecticut, but ultimately decided on
Philadelphia because they had friends and family here and because of the city's proximity to New York. Susan Morse, an actress with whom David appeared in the 1987 film Personal Foul, is the daughter of noted attorney and civic leader Michael von Moschzisker, who died Dec. 29.
The Morses met in 1981 in New York, while David was acting in a play and Susan was bartending part-time in a restaurant across the street from the theater. The first night he spotted her, he was interested. But he was shy and, worse, he says, "Everybody in the place was trying to hit on her.There was no way I could talk to her.''
One day, as David sat at the bar, his next-door neighbor walked in and took the stool next to him. His moment had arrived: The buddy turned out to be Susan's ex-boyfriend. "That made it OK to talk to her,'' says David.
Are the Morses here to stay?
"Our lives changed so much in the course of one morning, I think Susan and
I have both given up on thinking anything is permament. But it's home right now, and we sure like it.''
Susan has put her career on hold for a while. But despite living on the other side of the continent from most film and TV work, David is seldom idle. In addition to The Crossing Guard, in which he plays a man convicted of vehicular homicide for killing Nicholson's daughter, and his small but crucial role in 12 Monkeys, he did the ABC miniseries The Langoliers last year.
He also returned to Southern California for several weeks to do a play, and left a couple of weeks ago for San Francisco to film the action-thriller The Rock, set on Alcatraz, with Sean Connery and Nick Cage. He also hopes to work on Broadway.
But he concedes that living in Philadelphia has cost him work. "Sure it has,'' he says. "I know of cable movies, not bad projects, that would at least have been income and decent stuff to work on. But they shoot pretty inexpensively and they don't want to put you up (in a hotel).'' And, of course, doing a TV series is probably out.
"I'm not so sure it feels like a sacrifice because there are other things,'' says Morse of life in Philadelphia. "I've been writing plays. I just sent one off to a festival. It's also important to me that my family is in a good place.''
Joe Logan writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
(c) 1996, Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.