Actor Harve Presnell, a Modesto native, dies of cancer

July 1, 2009 

Modesto native Harve Presnell, a stage and screen actor whose booming baritone graced such Broadway musicals as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Annie," died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75.

Presnell’s agent Gregg Klein said the actor, also well-known for his role as William H. Macy’s father-in-law in the hit movie “Fargo,” died at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.

On Broadway, the Modesto High Class of 1950 graduate played Johnny "Leadville" Brown in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" in the early '60s and Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" in the early '80s. In the 1964 film version of “Molly Brown,” Presnell played opposite Debbie Reynolds, who had the title role.

According to the Internet Movie Database, he was a 1965 Golden Globe winner -- along with George Segal and Topol – for most promising male newcomer.

In 1969, Presnell co-starred with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in the film musical “Paint Your Wagon." As Rotten Luck Willie, Presnell's songs included the beautiful “They Call the Wind Mariah.”

It was in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1960) that the rugged, 6-foot-4 Presnell was first noticed by Broadway audiences. In the Meredith Willson musical, he played lucky mining prospector "Leadville" Johnny Brown opposite Tammy Grimes' feisty Molly. Presnell repeated his role in the 1964 film version which starred Debbie Reynolds as the buoyant title character.

Presnell even played the dashing Rhett Butler in a musical version of "Gone with the Wind" (adapted by Horton Foote and with a score by Harold Rome) that was seen in London in 1972.

For a good part of his career, Presnell portrayed the wealthy, follicle-challenged Daddy Warbucks in various incarnations of "Annie." The actor was first offered the role in a tour of "Annie" and thought the title was a show business abbreviation for "Annie, Get Your Gun," the musical in which he had once played sharpshooter Frank Butler.

Then he attended "Annie" and saw a bald, older man instead of a dashing, romantic lead.

It was a big shock, he told The Associated Press in an interview in 1993: "I thought, `What's this? I'm a leading man!'"

But the reality was good for him, Presnell said, adding: "It was a question of saying, `I'm no longer Frank Butler or Rhett Butler or 'Leadville' Johnny Brown. And they were paying good money."

After Presnell did the two-year "Annie" tour (1979-81) he went into "Annie" on Broadway and was still Daddy Warbucks on closing night, Jan. 2, 1983, in New York. In 1990, he played Warbucks in "Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge," the ill-fated sequel to "Annie" that folded during its Washington tryout and never got to New York.

Another version, titled "Annie Warbucks," surfaced off-Broadway in 1993 for a four-month run with Presnell again portraying Annie's wealthy benefactor.

The actor was born George Harvey Presnell on Sept. 14, 1933, in Modesto. He went to the University of Southern California on a sports scholarship. After three weeks, the head of the music school heard him sing and offered him the same scholarship for music. He soon quit school and spent three seasons singing in Europe. And it was in Berlin that Willson, the composer of "Molly Brown," first heard him sing.

Trailer for "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"

Trailer for "Fargo"

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