STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
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David Morse’s career as an actor began after he graduated from high school — but it wasn’t a year after he graduated, or a couple months. It wasn’t even a week. Less than 24 hours after donning his cap and gown, a 17-year-old Morse had his thumb out on the highway, hitching a ride for Cape Cod, Mass, making his way to the Boston Repertory Theatre. He didn’t even pack a bag.
“One of the people from the [theatre] company had come up and got my clothes and brought them down [to Boston] before I graduated, so that stuff was already down there,” Morse says. “So, the day I graduated, I went home, changed my clothes and hitchhiked down to the Cape.” That’s how his acting career began, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now 62 years old, Morse will be visiting the Philadelphia Theatre Company this month to discuss a career that’s spanned more than 40 years — including several blockbuster films and two Primetime Emmy nominations — and how his years in theatre shaped him.
Over the phone recently, Morse, who first hit the public eye as Dr. Jack Morrison on the long-running ’80s hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” described for me the beginnings of the Boston Rep, the ragtag, upstart theatre company he escaped to on the day of his high school graduation — a company that has since risen to prominence in the Boston theatre district.
“We literally built the first new theatre in the theatre district in I-don’t-even-know how many years,” he said, describing the experience as a sort-of crash course in theatrical production and all its moving parts. He wasn’t just acting; he was building sets, applying makeup, marketing each show.
“The way we were able to survive was we all had different jobs in the theatre. I did all the graphics and advertising, the newspaper advertising, the posters, all that stuff,” recalls Morse, who says he was earning roughly $40 a week during those days. “By the time I got to doing movies, where everything is unionized, it was strange not to be picking up the light and putting it away, doing my own makeup or whatever.”
Such a holistic approach to his early work instilled in Morse a lasting appreciation for the many facets of a fully-realized production.
“For anybody working, whether they’re a writer, producer, whatever you do, the more you know about that world, the better off you are and the more respect you have for the people you work with,” he said.
For as challenging as those early years were, helping to establish the Boston Rep would not be Morse’s most difficult undertaking; the biggest challenge would be breaking into Hollywood, and remaining there.
After scoring his first major film role, playing Jerry Maxwell in 1980’s promising “Inside Moves,” Morse learned how quickly good fortune can fade in Hollywood.
“The film distribution company [for ‘Inside Moves’] went bankrupt as soon as the film came out. The film disappeared,” Morse says. “And suddenly I’m competing with the biggest stars in the business for roles. Nobody knew who I was. It was one of the hardest times I’ve had, for the next couple of years, before I did ‘St. Elsewhere.’ To be so close to work, amazing work, and not be able to get any of it — it was really a stressful time.”
Being cast in a leading role on “St. Elsewhere” was a timely blessing for Morse, but, after time, even that came to feel like a curse. Simply taking the role was a compromise the actor never wanted to make: “I said I’d never do television, but I did 10 years of television.” And it became increasingly apparent that the longer he stayed on “St. Elsewhere,” the more his career would sour.
It was around the sixth season of the show when Morse began facing the perils of being typecast. The movie offers completely dried up, he said; no new work was coming in. As his career grew ever bleaker, the actor grew loathsome of the character he played on television, because, to everyone, “I was just that guy. I was that character in everybody’s head.” Unable to escape the shadow of “St. Elsewhere,” he eventually “wound up facing bankruptcy. We were going to lose our house. It was a rough time.”
But then, just as Morse seemed destined for TV-movie purgatory, an unlikely peer came to his aid: “Sean Penn was the one who really changed things,” he says.
In 1991, Penn wrote and directed the film “Indian Runner,” and he wanted Morse to take one of the lead roles, alongside Viggo Mortensen. As it turns out, the ill-fated film Morse made in 1980, “Inside Moves,” had an impact on Penn, who never forgot Morse’s performance in it.
“[Penn] fought like crazy” to get Morse into “Indian Runner,” the actor recalls. “There were movie stars the producers wanted to do the movie, but Sean just thought I should be in the role. He really made it happen. He really fought for it. It really changed things.”
From that point on, yes, things did change.
David Morse soon became one of the most ubiquitous supporting actors of the ’90s and early 2000s, appearing in one monster film after another — “The Good Son,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “The Rock,” The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Contact,” “The Green Mile” — the list runs long. To this day, for millennials of a certain age, the face of David Morse is as familiar as an old friend.
“There are a bunch of people from that period of time — those films are a big part of their lives,” says Morse, who gets recognized all the time. “Disturbia,” the 2007 re-imagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” “is the big one.”
In recent years, with television now in the throes of its Golden Age, Morse has come full circle, again taking time to appear on the small screen. He starred in HBO’s critical darling “Treme” for four seasons, playing Lt. Terry Colson, an embattled Serpico-like figure in a corrupt post-Katrina New Orleans police department. He also earned an Emmy nod for his turn as George Washington in HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries.
With the struggle long over, Morse, who lives in the Greater Philadelphia area and currently stars as Big Foster on WGN’s “Outsiders,” has a more enlightened view of the acting life. He’s no longer concerned about returning to the worrisome days of “St. Elsewhere.” When it comes to his career, he’s comfortable, almost Zen-like.
“One of the things I felt after doing ‘St. Elsewhere,’ where I really got kind of typecast in the role, was that I just didn’t ever want to do that again,” he says. Now, he adds, “I realize that there’s a lot of good in television. There’s a lot of good in movies. There’s a lot of good in theatre. I’m not going to be typecast as one kind of actor.
“I’m going to do all of it as long as I can.”