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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Deeper Dish with Robert Michael Morris

I was disappointed when Lisa Kudrow's hilarious 2005 sitcom, The Comeback, was canceled by HBO after only one season. However, the show did introduce me to actor Robert Michael Morris, who was an absolute hoot as Mickey Deane, the hairdresser and friend of Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish. He was perfect in this amusing role, which then led to additional TV appearances on Arrested Development, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother and Brothers & Sisters. Morris has also written over 70 plays, two sitcom pilots and, more recently, a book called An American Scrapbook. I am delighted to have this talented and funny man here on the Dish to discuss his career and answer a few pop culture questions.

Let's begin with The Comeback. How did you get cast in the role of Mickey Deane?
I had just been let go from a high school teaching job due to budget problems, and I was working for my brother's durable medical equipment business cleaning oxygen concentrators when I got an email from Michael Patrick King (a former executive producer of Sex and the City) who said he was working on a project with Lisa Kudrow and there might be a part in it for me; no guarantees and "it might damage our friendship" (I had known Michael since he was a student at Mercyhurst College and I was directing theatre at Gannon College and later we ended up living on the same block in New York City for ten years...long friendship). So I said "Sure." I went and auditioned for Lisa and Michael. I had a great time and figured that was it and then got a call back to audition for the brass at HBO so I went and did that and figured, hey, another great story and wasn't that fun. No thought at all about getting it and went back to cleaning oxygen concentrators. Eventually I got a call from my agent (arranged for me by Casting before the HBO audition...I didn’t have an agent) telling me "Your life is about to change; you got it!" Huh? It was my first LA audition, didn't have an agent and had no thoughts of doing any acting in CA – I came out here to be a teacher. Life! Ain’t it a gas?

What was your favorite scene and/or episode of The Comeback?
I really liked the "Valerie Does Another Classic Leno" and the episode where Valerie goes to the People's Choice Awards. I liked the way Mickey could be vulnerable and yet rise to the occasion of helping Valerie when she needed him. Mickey really loved her, you know.

Out of all the theater you've done, what stage roles have you enjoyed performing the most?
I loved being in Fiddler on the Roof; what an amazing show – could do it for years (Nachum the beggar). I liked touring as Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew because it was always a challenge moving from state to state and audience to audience doing Shakespeare. I loved doing Pippin with Tommy Tune, Barry Williams and Maxine Andrews. Also enjoyed doing FDR in Annie a couple of times and especially doing Roger Sherman in 1776 on two occasions for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

What is the most memorable moment you have had while performing onstage?
I was doing a production of Funny Girl in Erie, PA, for a dinner theatre, but had to miss dress rehearsal due to flu. I did opening night with a temperature of 102. I'm always anxious about lines and entrances, and nobody had told me they had cut "Find Yourself a Man", which was a number before my entrance as Ziegfeld. I was pacing backstage when there was this protracted silence and one of the girls on stage said, "Don't worry, Fanny, Flo will be along any minute." I ran like a bat out of hell to get on stage. The poor girl playing Fanny nearly broke my hand when I took hers on stage. It was the most breathless entrance Ziegfeld ever had.

You've worked with many famous people and appeared on some interesting television series over the years. What's the first thing that pops into your mind about:

Jo Anne Worley?
A great, generous, funny gal. We've kept in touch for many years. She was in Hello, Dolly! in my first show for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and again as Miss Hannigan in Annie. She is a delight. We went thrift shopping in Pittsburgh.

Joe Namath?
A really good actor and a gentleman. And very sweet. He arrived at Kenley Players for Picnic totally off book and worked very hard. I gave him his first make-up kit when he did the show. I also made him a life mask when we were playing in Columbus. I had him lying on his bathroom floor while Donna Mills watched. Joe is claustrophobic and hated the experience of the life mask.

Tommy Tune?
Really kind and talented. We did two shows together for Kenley: Pippin (he was amazing) and Walking Happy. Later I worked with him on Cloud 9 as first understudy, assistant stage manager and then stage manager. I was with the show from the first day of rehearsal until it closed. Tommy and I keep up a Christmas correspondence. Nice guy. And yes, tall. Very tall.

Will & Grace?
Pure joy. Everyone was so kind and supportive. Director Jim Burrows is incredible and goes out of his way to make you comfortable. And I got to meet Rip Taylor whom I have been stealing from for years.

Brothers & Sisters?
Scared out of my mind. My scene was with Sally Field and she is SO tiny. And giving and kind. I couldn't believe I was working with such a legend and, yes, I like her, I really like her.

Lez Be Friends (a sitcom pilot about a butch lesbian and her two gay male roommates in 1969)?
A romp. Director Glenn Gaylord created such a great atmosphere on the set, and the kids were SO young and such fun. We did the whole thing in four days: one day to rehearse, one day to shoot; one day to rehearse and one day to shoot. Two complete episodes. And we all just loved it. No egos, no tension. Just swell.

I'm curious about the two sitcom pilots you wrote. Can you tell us more?
I wrote the pilots for the contest that Sean Hayes was running. I'm really a playwright. Plays happen in the ear, I think; TV/movies happen in the eye. Not trained for the eye so much. One sitcom is called Almost Heaven, which is the name of a catering company in Brooklyn. Very influenced by The Golden Girls (older wisecracking mother, daughter runs the operation with her gay brother and her unmarried niece). The second is The Queen and the Marine set in a Washington neighborhood where drama students live. A former Marine needs a place to stay and one of the grad students who is gay needs a roommate. They influence each other in all the positive ways possible. Big on tolerance.

What's your book, An American Scrapbook, about?
An American Scrapbook is 40 short stories in verse with photographs from the turn of the century that interconnect creating the life of a mythical town in Pennsylvania. What was going on in the mind of the person being photographed, why were they having the picture done, what was the photographer thinking, why were they wearing what they were wearing? Drama, humor, warmth. It is being given a stage performance at Gannon College in Erie, PA, in March.

In high school I was:
Miserable. I was REALLY effeminate...a sissy, to be exact, who was constantly taunted and teased by a lot of the students. It was an all-boys school and I used to regularly throw up before school every day. Thank God I had my Irish wit and was quick with words. I HATED it.

My favorite comfort food is:
Anything handy. I like donuts...but I'll eat anything handy.

The last good book I read was:
Anything by Adriana Trigiani or Patricia Cornwell.

The last good play or musical I saw was:
Pippin done by Deaf West Theatre. Why someone didn't take that to Broadway is a mystery to me. It was so brilliantly reinvented by Jeff Calhoun. I saw it twice. I also really liked Cherry Jones in Doubt – saw it twice when I was in California.

I never miss a television episode of:
Castle, The Closer, Damages (when I can find it), any Law and Order (D'Onofrio is so brilliant), NCIS (PERFECT cast).

If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
Any Johnny Mathis, any Bonnie Raitt, the original Follies, any Mahler, all of Mozart.

Three of my favorite movies are:
The Song of Bernadette, Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Those are just a few. I have a long list. I saw King Solomon's Mines six times in three days.

If I could have anyone in the world - living or dead - be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Gore Vidal, Michelangelo, Barbara Stanwyck.

What's next for Robert Michael Morris?
I have no idea. I was dropped by my agency, haven't worked in two years, keep sending out scripts to competitions, continuing to write plays, and am working on my memoirs. I'm still trying to figure out how show business works. Mainly I just keep trying to stay connected and creative. I have great hopes for a musical about Sarah Bernhardt I am working on with Alden Terry, a composer from New York. I did the book and lyrics and he is doing the most amazing music.

Thank you, Michael, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Robert Michael Morris and purchase a copy of his book, check out his website at

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