Jack Morrison in St. Elsewhere

David Morse - St. Elsewhere

David Morse

A shy and sensitive strength

By Linda T. Dennison
COPYRIGHT Linda T. Dennison, All Rights Reserved

Despite lackluster ratings, St. Elsewhere has been one of the brightest feathers in the NBC Peacock’s tail since its critically acclaimed debut in 1982. Characterized by its truthful blend of gritty realism and offbeat humor, the medical drama has continually received awards for excellence, and its cast is recognized as one of the best ensembles in television.

Nobody at St. Elsewhere has emerged as a superstar or overnight sensation. Some of the performers are veterans; some were relative newcomers at the show’s outset. Everybody is excellent at bringing three dimensions to their characters. Standing out in such a group is no easy feat, but David Morse, in his own quiet, sensitive manner, makes his character, Dr. Jack Morrison a consistent treat for the viewer.

Morrison is a competent physician made exceptional by the strength of his compassion and his vulnerability. Much the same can easily be said of his creator. Tall (very), blond, curly-haired David Morse is a shy, quiet man with very direct and very intense blue eyes. When he looks at you, he really sees you. When he listens to you, you know you’ve been heard. He measures his words carefully, speaking only when something needs to be said. You find yourself attempting to do the same … this is not a person whose time you want to waste with small talk, though he’ll listen politely.

Morse would much rather listen to just about anything than talk about himself. Many actors can’t wait to corner you with more details than you’d care to hear about themselves and their careers. Morse is the opposite extreme. He says, “I’m not very comfortable doing publicity, but it’s one of those things I think is necessary.”

He’s not given too much public recognition in Los Angeles, when every other person you see I, was, or will be a star, but when he went to Boston and New York last year, it was a different story. He admits it was “kind of overwhelming because I wasn’t used to it.” Confronted with his own reticence, Morse acknowledges that he is less than extroverted, and adds with a shy grin, “Compared to what I’m normally like, this is a verbal assault on you!”

Why become an actor and have to reveal your emotions to an enormous audience? “In high school, I was not a quiet, introverted person. I was the same insecure person but it came out just the opposite. I was always clowning. Getting up on the stage was an outlet for that and also a way to get attention that I couldn’t get in other ways."

Morse explains his current reserve: “I think that person was inside all the time, and I just let that person come out and he took over. Now it’s starting to back the other way, slowly. The pendulum is swinging back and evening out a little bit.”

Asked to delineate his life story, Morse asks, not-quite-joking, “Do you really want to hear that?”, and looks not at all convinced that you really do.

David Morse has his roots, personal and professional, in the Boston area, the location for the fictitious St. Eligius. His character is from Oregon, (editor’s note: Jack Morrison is really from Seattle, Washington) so no Yankee twang is heard on the show from Jack Morrison. Or anyone else, for that matter, because it was deemed a regional accent that sounded harsh. Morse lost his own accent years ago when he became a founding member of the Boston Repertory Company. “It took a lot of naggin … The artistic director was constantly on top of me about these ugly sounds coming out of my mouth.”

His first practical exposure to theatre came about through high school drama productions, although Morse did not initially think of acting as a viable profession. “There was nobody in our family who had ever done it, so I could see no bridge between doing drama in high school and becoming an actor in Boston, which seemed like a big deal at the time. New York was another world.”

Fortunately for the young actor, a friend recommended that Morse audition for a new repertory company. He was accepted while still in high school and remained with Boston Rep for six years. He remembers the early struggles vividly, “Living on twenty dollars a week…that ran out the first two days…going out and selling newspapers so I could live the rest of the week…”

Morse is proud of the group’s accomplishments during those six years. “By the time we finished, we had built a new regional theatre…We bought a building in Boston’s downtown theatre district and built a beautiful theatre. The theatre itself is still there,” he says with a touch of sadness. “The company disbanded because of finances. The expansion put us in a whole different league, and really changed The family nature of the company.”

The young actor moved to New York to study acting, since he ad never done so. “I’d really gone on instincts and I found myself developing a lot of bad habits. I wanted to get back to the simple part of acting.”

He lights up with enthusiasm as he discusses his approach to his art. “So many things stimulate it. As an actor, I started out being very technical. I loved doing all different kinds of characterizations - you couldn’t even recognize me from one night to the next. But it became very technical, very ‘in my head and not so much from my heart anymore. What I’ve been trying to do the last few years is open up.”

After two years of study, the next stop was off-off-Broadway, in quantity. It was Morse’s solution to the usual endless actor’s “rounds” – going from agent to agent, sliding picture and resume under the door, and hoping one will like your looks enough to take you on. “That was a very humiliating way to have to live – we shouldn’t have to do that. I decided the way that I would do it was to work as much as I could, and if any agents were doing their job, they’d be out there going to those plays, looking for good people. That’s how I met Yvette (Bikoff); I’ve been with her since.”

The first “big break” came for Morse in 1979, when he auditioned for Dogs of War and landed the lead in Inside Moves instead. The film was not released until 1981, and in preparation for all the offers and the stardom he was told would be his, Morse returned to the New York stage as a member of the Circle Repertory and performed in several productions. The stardom, and the film roles he wanted, didn’t happen. Although he swore he’d never do television, it became an option worth serious consideration, since it seemed more and more that television exposure was the best conduit to juicy film and theatre roles. NBC was interested and immediately signed Morse to a development deal.

St. Elsewhere followed soon after, and its quality made Morse think twice about condemning all television. “It was better than most of the film scripts I had been up for. I thought I should go for it. The opportunity to work regularly with this kind of material is real lucky.”

Morse is confident that their third season will be the best yet for St. Elsewhere, both in the ratings and in the show’s stories. To prepare initially for Jack Morrison, the performer visited hospital emergency rooms and spent time observing the behavior of people under that kind of pressure. Morrison comes across as equal parts strength and vulnerability, and that delicate duality is what attracted the actor to the character. He strives constantly to maintain that balance. “I believe that people with ideals and compassion have a dark side or weaker side, that they do battle with all the time. I keep asking the writers, and trying to find little moments myself that show the other side of Jack.”

He is able to analyze his alter-ego more easily than he can himself. Of the best and worst of Morrison, he says,”He keeps trying to do the best he can. That blinds him a little bit.” Of himself, he squirms a bit, and says, “At the moment, I don’t feel like I have any good traits, I’ve got to have best traits.” Pause for thought. “I try to listen, and I try to judge other people too much…But I do judge people.” Another pause for reconsideration. “No, I don’t think I really do. It’s probably just impatience.

On the personal side, Morse has been married to actress Susan Wheeler Duff for two years. They met in New York – she was a bartender and he was a hungry patron in search of sustenance after late evening rehearsals. He recalls, “We made fun of the comic onstage…it was a little bit of ‘lust at first sight’…most of those first moments when people are attracted usually are. I liked her attitude; the way she handled the people, including me, who were coming on to here. She kept them in their place. It was a real independence.”

He knew almost immediately that he wanted to marry Susan, but waited a year to propose. Living together was an option considered and discarded. “I had done that, and I knew I could keep doing that for a long time. There’s a real love missing in a lot of work in this business. I needed a deeper love that I feel can only come from that kind of commitment.”

He is not quite sure what makes a marriage work, but adds, “If there’s one thing so far we’ve learned, it’s to keep talking, and to deal with things as they happen. It just seems to make things worse, the longer you put them off.”

Morse enjoys domestic life. He bought his first house this year, and is spending a lot of time in the garden, to his surprise. As a part time artist, he discovered that gardening “turned out to fill a lot of the same kind of needs that the painting does, working with the plants, which I never expected. I never imagined myself working outside like that in the garden. Plants are teaching me about themselves and what they need, and I’m enjoying that.”

When he’s not before the cameras, Morse tries to keep his celebrity from removing him from the rest of the world. He is currently active in a program at a nearby prison on weekends. The prison priest includes young offenders in the readings of religious services, and Morse works with the youths, helping them learn to be more expressive in reading aloud, and to be comfortable in front of an audience.

The work has been a catharsis of sorts for Morse. “These are the kinds of guys that I had been afraid of when I was growing up. I was the skinny guy, and not much of a fighter. I had to get out of things by making jokes. Going in and dealing with these people a very human way on a one-to-one basis, I had to face those old childhood fears that were still in there.”

Old ghosts exorcised, Morse says, “I bring as much of myself as truthfully as I can to what I’m doing, and that’s all I ask of them when we do the work – that they bring as much of themselves as they can, truthfully, to what they’re reading. Hopefully, we can do all that in whatever we’re doing.”

For a quiet man, David Morse says things that are very definitely worth listening to.



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Last modified Tuesday, November 4, 2003