David Morse: From ‘St. Elsewhere’ to George Washington

[27 February 2008]

By Joseph V. Amodio

Newsday (MCT)

(Ari Mintz/Newsday/MCT)

(Ari Mintz/Newsday/MCT)

Before there was a Dr. Kovac or Dr. Greene on “ER,” before McDreamy on “Grey’s Anatomy,” there was Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison, a likable young physician played by David Morse on NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.” The show, which also featured a young Denzel Washington, ran for six years in the 1980s and gave Morse his big break. And headache. He wound up typecast as a softie. Morse has spent the last two decades proving them wrong.

The actor—soft-spoken, reserved—is known for solid, tough-guy performances in films like “The Green Mile,” “16 Blocks” and “Disturbia.” He’s starred in the TV series “Hack,” and earned an Emmy nomination for a guest stint on “House.” Next month, he plays George Washington in HBO’s star-studded miniseries, “John Adams.”

But for now, audiences can see him starring on Broadway with an all-Irish (except him) cast in Conor McPherson’s mystical, mysterious drama, “The Seafarer.” Morse gives a riveting, soulful performance as Sharky, a flawed fella who’s tending his blind, alcoholic brother when a mysterious stranger comes to call. Imagine “It’s A Wonderful Life” with wacky characters, and lots and lots of whiskey.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which destroyed his California home, he and his wife, actress Susan Wheeler Duff, moved to Philadelphia. They have three children—a daughter in college, and 16-year-old twin sons. Morse sat down recently with Joseph V. Amodio at the Booth Theatre.

So what’s the secret to a credible Irish accent?
Repetition, repetition, repetition. There’s no way around it. And there was always somebody whispering in my ear when I’d gone astray. They’re very nice about it—and they’re all the real deal.

I guess it would be easy to feel intimidated.
If anything, what’s special about being with these guys is that they all have a lot of experience on stage. A lot of ... confidence in what they can do. Which makes the experience ... really amazing. They’re willing to go wherever the moment goes. It’s all alive with these guys.

Do you approach a fictional role, like Sharky, differently from the way you prep for a role like George Washington?
Oh, sure. Nobody has a clue who Sharky is, but everybody thinks they know who Washington was. So there’s a lot to ... respect and try to live up to. From the moment I knew I was doing the role, which was only three weeks before we started shooting, I just read and read and read. Till the day we wrapped.

Did you learn something about Washington you hadn’t known before?
What I didn’t expect was that Washington was soft-spoken, and very uncomfortable talking to people in public. He was very thoughtful about the words he chose. He didn’t want to ... appear foolish. And just that kind of rhythm, I can relate to, `cause I’ve been that way a lot of my life, and I understand that, that kind of self-consciousness.

You were self-conscious?
Yeah, I was 17, and went right from high school (outside Boston into a repertory company with actors who) all had these masters degrees, and I felt totally inarticulate. I didn’t know what a “motivation” was. I hadn’t a clue.

“St. Elsewhere” typecast you as the goodie-goodie, and I heard it was hard for you to get roles after that. Now, of course, you’re often the bad guy.
I just needed to shake things up for myself, and the way people perceived me.

Meanwhile, you’re this family man. Do you go home after the weekend performances?
Yeah. I come back Tuesdays. When I did “How I Learned to Drive” 10 years ago (for which he won Obie and Drama Desk awards), that was ... that was very difficult on them. I did that for six months here. The boys were 6 and it was really tough and emotional every single week (when I’d have to go). We just couldn’t do that to them again. That’s why it’s taken me so long to agree to do another play.

So your wife’s a good sport.
My wife has spent a lot of her life, essentially as a single mother, carrying a lot of the responsibility. She’s been great but, basically, doing this play means (being here) the entire school year.

Still, there’s probably some cachet for your kids, having a dad who’s an actor.
“Hack” kind of changed things. Or “The Green Mile.” “St. Elsewhere.” Projects that got me more in people’s consciousness. But when you’re not in people’s living rooms every week, it really fades, amazingly quickly.

The alternative, I guess, is to be Brad Pitt and never have a moment to yourself.
For crying out loud, Clay Aiken’s over here (around the corner) in “Spamalot,” and when he (leaves the theater), that alley is filled with screaming people. Y’know, we’ve got plenty of people outside our stage door each night who are excited and want autographs, but that kind of mob mentality ... there are people who live with that every single day, that kind of crush wherever you go. That’s not a way I want to live a life.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/david-morse-from-st-elsewhere-to-george-washington/