By Robert Heide
Several months back this year I received a call from a writer named Vernon Gravely who lives in Murphysboro, Illinois. He told me he was finishing up a biographical book about an actor named Robert Morris who had been an apprentice in 1956 at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Connecticut. In the authors’ research he had found my name in a list of apprentice/interns who worked at the festival that summer; and asked if he might interview me about Mr. Morris who many at Stratford called ‘Bobby.’ The book is entitled Promise Unfulfilled—The Brief Life and Bizarre Death of Actor Robert Morris. There is a foreword from Michael Lindsay-Hogg, one of the apprentices that summer who is the son of the famous British actress Geraldine Fitzgerald; in later life Lindsay-Hogg excelled as a stage and television director including directing the Beatles documentary Let It Be.
Gravely refers to Robert Morris as a ‘blonde God’ who had many women and men who were attracted to him. Harvey Grossman, a mime teacher at the Shakespeare Festival Academy told the author that “Morris did swing both ways” and there are accounts of many of his bisexual activities. There are pictures in the book showing Morawczynski (his real name) as a champion football hero both in high school and college in Pennsylvania. He was a competitive weightlifter and participated in many events with such people as Mickey Hargitay who was Mr. Universe in 1955 and Harry Johnson, a Mr. America in 1959. Attractive posing photos of Bobby in his speedo were featured on the pages of a popular physique magazine called Tomorrow’s Man which in the 1950s had a print run per issue of 40,000 and was marketed for the gay crowd. Later, after a stint in summer stock Bobby enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York where he was one of two students who received a scholarship to intern at the American Shakespeare Festival. I attended AADA for a short time before dropping out after finding that ‘representational’ acting was not what I was looking for. I had been to Northwestern University studying with the great Alvina Krause, who taught the Stanislavski method. Eventually I enrolled in a two-year course with the actress and teacher Stella Adler, also a proponent of Stanislavski. Both Stella and Alvina actually had been to Moscow and met with the great Russian master teacher and author of the actors’ ‘bible’ An Actor Prepares. Later Stella recommended me to her colleague John Houseman, the producer and director of the Shakespeare Festival in 1956.
Of course I was enthusiastic to be an apprentice at the Festival in Connecticut (then in its second season after being constructed in 1955 along the banks of the Housatonic River), along with Peter Bogdanovitch (later the director of Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show), another of Stella’s students, to work with the master, Houseman, who had been one of the founders of the Mercury Theater and a mentor to Orson Welles—and later went on to produce and/or direct major Hollywood movies, in addition to winning an Oscar as an actor in The Paper Chase (1973) as well as founding the drama division at Juilliard School. At Stratford I was able to act alongside some of the most talented people in New York theater at the time including John Emery, Mildred Dunnock, Fritz Weaver, Nina Foch, Kent Smith, Jacqueline Brooks, Jonathan Frid (who achieved immortality as a vampire named Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows on television) and many others. Both Bobby Morris and I were among the interns cast in King John and Measure for Measure in the summer of 1956. I personally remember Bobby as a very sensitive and intense actor with a personality similar to that of James Dean whom I had previously seen on Broadway at the Royale Theatre in The Immoralist, an adaptation of Andre Gide’s novel by Augustus and Ruth Goetz starring Geraldine Page and Louis Jordan. In this, Dean played the part of a gay hustler.
I remember my part in King John was a ‘walk on the wild side.’ As an apprentice I was high up in the rafters with a very old actor, Whitford Kane, who in the 1920s had played the gravedigger in John Barrymore’s Hamlet. We had to be raised up high on a platform with no backing, seated on chairs, forced to wait to be lowered down at the end of the play. I felt it was a very dangerous situation both for Kane and myself. Kane was born in Ireland in 188l and had had a very lengthy theatrical career on Broadway. He died in December of 1956 and I presume our aerie in the rafters was his last stage appearance. Other memories of King John include John Emery, who played the title role, who was very displeased with the original costumes, they being too hot and heavily padded as well as tacky. At one point during a dress rehearsal of the play he ripped off his wig—a red one—and yelled, “You got me looking like a God damned Joan Crawford here!” Another time Emery escorted several apprentices, including Bobby Morris and myself, to see his ex-wife Tallulah Bankhead perform in her play Welcome Darlings at the Westport Country Playhouse. After the show Emery and we apprentices were making our way to a local restaurant, the Café Le Plaige, when a trio of teenage girls approached us. One of the girls said, “Tallulah, please say dahling.” Tallulah looked at the girls and said, “Fuck you…dahling!”
At Stratford I shared a cottage on Lordship Beach on the Long Island Sound with Stanley Bell whose family lineage purportedly extended back 18 generations to the Globe Theater at the time of Shakespeare. Once we were visited by Gladys Cooper, the great English actress, who stayed at the cottage for a time. One of the apprentices, Ted Otis, heir to the Otis Elevator Company, and his brother, found out that she was there and to draw attention to themselves, drove around and around the house, revving up the motor of Ted’s 1955 green MG sports car. Gladys kept saying, “Who is that boy skulking around our house?” Also, before the summer was over, apprentice Clarence Burbage (aka Peter Burbage) declared himself to be Peter Burbage Bell and a relative of Stanley Bell and moved in forcing me to get a room next door in a larger house where Nina Foch was staying, which was fun anyway since she regaled me endlessly about her Hollywood experiences. In Promise Unfulfilled, the author writes that Stanley Bell, in 1958, was appearing in Much Ado About Nothing with Katherine Hepburn in Washington DC and walked out in the middle of a scene. Three days later he phoned John Houseman, who was the director, and asked to be rehired. Several hours after that he leapt out of an eighth floor window at the Hotel Touraine in Boston, landing on the marquee and dying instantly. After a very slow, underfunded restoration, which began in 2012, the Stratford Shakespeare Theater burned to the ground in 2019 to the dismay of many in the theater community. Two teenagers were charged with arson.
According to the book Bobby Morris obtained representation with the William Morris Agency and appeared in several guest roles on television series including The Texan, Studio One, The Lineup, Law of the Plainsman, Wanted Dead or Alive, Death Valley Days, Deadline, The Defender (a two-part show where he appeared with Steve McQueen, William Shatner, and Ralph Bellamy) and Naked City which featured Morris and George Maharis (an actor who later starred in Albee’s The Zoo Story) in an episode which was a ‘backdoor pilot’ for Route 66. Morris missed out on the co-starring role in that famous series but the William Morris Agency finally landed him a contract with 20th Century Fox with the stipulation that he relocate from New York to California. In 1957 Morris met and married a teenage singer named Janice Caplin at the famous Colony Record store on Broadway, and in 1959 they moved to Santa Monica and soon after gave birth to a son, Paul. In May of 1960, Bobby Morris, aka Bobby Morawczynski, who had epilepsy, choked to death at a health ranch in the California desert after suffering a seizure. He was 25. His short career is a poignant story—that of an actor who almost made it big time.
Promise Unfulfilled—The Brief Life and Bizarre Death of Actor Robert Morris, a biography by Vernon Gravely, an illustrated paperback book (and a ‘Kindlebook’) can be ordered from the publisher Valigor Press (email@example.com) and on Amazon. The book The American Shakespeare Festival—Birth of a Theater, published by Simon & Schuster can be ordered from betterworldbooks.com, at abebooks.com and on Amazon.
Most recently, Michael Smith, former drama critic of the Village Voice, edited Robert Heide 25 Plays published by Fast Books, P. O. Box 1268, Silverton, Oregon 97381—fastbookspress.com and is also available on Amazon.