Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell in "The Unsinkable Moly Brown"
Obituray written by William Grimes
Harve Presnell, whose rich operatic baritone thrilled audiences in the stage and film versions of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and who made an unexpected return to the screen as William H. Macy’s overbearing father-in-law in "Fargo," died Tuesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 75 and lived in Livingston, Montana. The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, said his agent, Gregg Klein. Presnell, who trained as an opera singer, brought an imposing physical presence -- he stood 6 feet 4 inches -- and a resplendent voice to the Broadway stage, delivering a star-making performance as Leadville Johnny Brown in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." "He anchored that show, with a down-to-earth quality that played perfectly against Tammy Grimes’ wonderfully eccentric style," said Miles Kreuger, the president of the Institute of the American Musical. "It’s a pity they didn’t give him more larger-than-life roles because he had the physical presence and the voice for it."
It was Presnell’s misfortune to arrive on the scene as the golden age of the musical was in its twilight, and roles worthy of his voice were few and far between. His triumphant debut led to unsatisfactory film roles and a somewhat stunted career appearing in national tours of Broadway musicals, most notably as Daddy Warbucks in "Annie," a role he also played on Broadway and reprised in the ill-fated "Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge." The Coen brothers gave him a second Hollywood career as a character actor when they cast him in "Fargo" in 1996. That role led to a series of meaty film parts, including Gen. George C. Marshall in "Saving Private Ryan."
George Harvey Presnell was born in Modesto, Calif. After graduating from Modesto High School, he studied voice at the University of Southern California and embarked on a concert career. In the 1950s he sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale and performed on their recordings for Capitol, including the Christmas album "Joy to the World," "Folk Songs of the New World" and "Folk Songs of the Frontier." Presnell also sang the baritone part in the 1960 recording of Carl Orff’s "Carmina Burana," with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
After hearing Presnell sing, Meredith Willson created the part of Johnny Brown as a star-making vehicle for him. When "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" opened in 1960, with Tammy Grimes in the starring role, Presnell planted his feet and let audiences have it with both barrels as he boomed the songs "Colorado, My Home" and "I’ll Never Say No." He repeated the role in the highly successful film version, released in 1964, with Debbie Reynolds as Molly. It was a once-in-a-lifetime role. In 1965 he tried his hand at a straight western, "The Glory Guys," but he was desperate to sing, which helps explain his appearance in the Connie Francis film "When the Boys Meet the Girls." The film of "Paint Your Wagon" (1969), with bizarre casting that mingled Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg, delivered the golden opportunity to sing the unforgettable ballad "They Call the Wind Mariah," but by the 1970s his Hollywood adventure had seemingly come to an end.
For the next decade Presnell toiled in the minor leagues of musical theater. He toured with "Annie Get Your Gun" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." He played Rhett Butler in a short-lived musical version of "Gone With the Wind" in London. His second crack at Broadway came when John Schuck left "Annie" in 1980, allowing him to step in as Daddy Warbucks, a role he had played in touring companies. The breakthrough role of Wade Gustafson in "Fargo" rejuvenated a film career that had barely had time to get started in the 1960s. Presnell, whose face and voice had weathered with the years, suddenly found his services as a character actor in demand in film and on television for roles requiring a powerful presence and a whiff of menace. He had recurring roles in the television series "The Pretender" and "Andy Barker, P.I." and appeared in the films "Larger Than Life," "Face/Off" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance." His most recent film role was as a senator in "Evan Almighty."