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02/27/2003

Three Roles, One Actor

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I'd like to talk about Robert Preston.

I saw Preston in a movie the other day and I started thinking about other roles he's had. The first time I was introduced to Robert Preston in any form was the soundtrack of the movie The Music Man. My parents always played soundtrack recordings - both in the house and in the car. And if you're in a car travelling from St. Louis to Texas and New Mexico with the same handful of tapes playing, you start to memorize the songs. I knew every nuance and inflection of his voice. When I finally saw the movie for the first time, I was rivited because I finally got to see how the songs fit into the story of the play/movie/whatever. I could sing along with every scene. I got to see Preston with little Opie Cunningham and Mrs. Partridge. It was just a good movie all around and he was perfect for the role of Professor Harold Hill.

Years later there was a big stir over the movie S.O.B.. Julie Andrews - America's Sweetheart - was going to show her tits. Maria, the sweet nun from The Sound of Music was going to have her boobies on the big screen. That was 1981 and the year I graduated high school. And I didn't much care about the movie or the tits. I mean, I care about tits, don't get me wrong, I was a senior in high school. I just didn't care about Mary Poppin's tits. A couple of years later, I rented the movie for some reason. And lo and behold, there was Professor Harold Hill in the movie. Cursing, doing drugs and abusing alcohol. And being incredibly funny. As Dr. Irving Finegarten, he got all the good one-liners and he played them perfectly.

The movie I caught the other day was The Last Starfighter. One of those throwaway movies that are a guilty pleasure to watch. Kind of embarassing to admit but you end up watching the whole thing. One of the reasons that I liked the movie was that it had good old Robert Preston in it. He plays an alien recuiter using video games on Earth to test the reflexes of unwary games as they use the controls to blow up the aliens on the screen. When someone beats the preset high score on the machine a signal goes out and Robert Preston as Centauri comes to take that prospective gunner back to Rylon as the last defense against a pending attack. Kind of like a shallow Ender's Game. Preston isn't in make up though - he's actually playing the part of an alien diguised as an Earthling. Which is a nice deal when having to play an alien in a movie. At that point he was 66 years old and had been making movies for 46 years. It wasn't a particularly great role, but when I first saw the movie all I could think of was Hey, that's Robert Preston! I gotta watch this. It wasn't such a great role, but I liked that he was willing to give his all in what was basically a teen movie.

Preston has 63 movie credits according to IMDb.com. He was in such other big time movies as How the West Was Won, Semi-Tough, and Victor/Victoria. But for me, Preston's career are best remembered by just 3 roles. They couldn't be more different. But then, that's what makes a good actor.