NEW YORK — Growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s in the North Shore towns of Danvers, Essex, and Hamilton, David Morse was not unlike the rebellious, disaffected young men of the tumultuous Vietnam era. He protested fervently against the war, dabbled with psychedelics, and struggled in school. But then he started doing theater.
“Those were difficult years,” Morse, 64, says during a recent interview in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre where he’s currently starring in a warmly received revival of “The Iceman Cometh.” “I was part of the first wave of drugs that spread out through the suburbs. It was a very confusing time, and nobody knew how to deal with it. I had a bunch of friends that didn’t survive it.”
Theater, he says, gave him an outlet for his pent-up energy and emotions. That path he forged onstage eventually led to a flourishing Hollywood career as a character actor in television series like “St. Elsewhere,” “Treme,” and “Blindspot” and in countless films including “The Indian Runner,” “The Green Mile,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Contact,” and “The Hurt Locker.” He earned Emmy nominations for playing George Washington in the HBO miniseries “John Adams” and a detective in “House.”
Now, theater has brought him his first-ever Tony Award nomination — as best featured actor in a play for his role as the anarchist Larry Slade in “The Iceman Cometh.” If Morse wins Sunday night, he’ll have earned it: He’s competing against Nathan Lane (“Angels in America”), Brian Tyree Henry (“Lobby Hero”), Michael Cera (“Lobby Hero”), and Anthony Boyle (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”).
The play that really turned the light on for Morse as a teenager was Edward Albee’s landmark one-act “The Zoo Story,” a drama that spoke to lonely, disaffected young men everywhere who were raging against the status quo and attempting to puncture the pretenses of middle-class life. “That’s the one that changed my life really,” says Morse, a soft-spoken but towering presence (he’s 6-foot-4). “The play just really connected with me, and I didn’t even know why.”
His high school staged the production, and Morse played Peter, the seemingly mild-mannered, bourgeois Manhattanite (with animalistic urges lurking beneath) who winds up embroiled in an increasingly unsettling encounter with a feral, logorrheic social outcast named Jerry, whom he meets on a park bench. “Peter’s the repressed guy, and that may have been a good thing for me to be playing at that time. Outwardly I was a hippie and had long hair,” he says, “but the life I was living was kind of traumatic. So emotionally, with that rage inside that comes out of the character at the end of the play, that’s where I was as a young man, just not knowing how to deal with those emotions.”
He credits Margaret Ferrini, his drama teacher and mentor at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, with being instrumental to his growth and maturation. “She was a real civil rights activist, and she was passionate as can be about theater and acting. Thank God I found myself in her presence. I don’t know where I’d be if that had not happened. She kept me on a path that got me through school.”
Because his grades were not good enough for college, Morse says, he drove to Boston with his mother, Jaci Fellows, to audition for a fledgling company that was producing plays on Cape Cod the summer after his senior year. He impressed artistic director Esquire Jauchem enough that he was immediately offered a spot with the troupe — even though he was only 17. “I said this kid is going to be a star. There was no doubt in my mind,” recalls Jauchem, who’s remained friends with Morse over the years. “When we started, if David had one line or one scene in a play, people would remember him. He just had a striking physical presence, and he’s extremely honest and real. There are no false notes with him.”
On the day of his high school graduation in 1971, Morse hitchhiked from Hamilton to Hyannis to join his cohorts for the summer. He lived on $20 a week and sold newspapers to make extra money. The company relocated to the city that fall and became the Boston Repertory Theatre, and everyone lived together in an old Victorian house in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury. Boston Rep would build out its own 200-seat theater on Boylston Place inside a building that once housed Ace Recording Studios.
“At that time in your life, it’s an adventure, and you’re happy to go through it,” Morse says of his impoverished existence. Over the course of the next six years, the company performed rotating repertory. Morse handled the graphics and advertising for Boston Rep and acted in productions of “The Little Prince,” Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” He also appeared in two shows with Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston.
The experience became his training ground (he later studied with the legendary acting teacher William Esper in New York). “With repertory, you had to play all these different characters. The range of roles is really what I fell in love with, every night getting to become somebody different,” he says. “That was my idea of acting, getting to be part of the company and a family. To this day, I think that’s what I look for in whatever I do.”
Indeed, that’s what Morse is currently enjoying with the starry ensemble of “Iceman,” headlined by his former “St. Elsewhere” colleague Denzel Washington (the two acted together for six seasons on the Boston-set hospital drama). In the Eugene O’Neill masterwork, a group of sad-sack, booze-addled pipe-dreamers seem to be stuck for all eternity inside Harry Hope’s saloon, where they’re awaiting the arrival of old pal Hickey.
Morse’s only brush with O’Neill came in a staged reading of “Iceman” at the Shubert Theatre in Boston a decade ago, in which he played Hickey. He’d just purchased new reading glasses. But as he began to read his character’s big entrance scene, he knocked the spectacles off his face and one of the sides broke off. He spent the next three to four hours “wearing these cockeyed glasses and trying to keep them on my nose while reading this epic part. It was stressful.”
As rehearsals for the Broadway revival began, director George C. Wolfe handed the cast a script with all of O’Neill’s copious stage directions stripped out and about 30 minutes worth of dialogue trimmed. “The stage directions are so long and detailed. It can be deadly, and it totally interferes with whatever impulses you have as an actor when he’s telling you so specifically what your impulse should be,” Morse says.
‘That’s the one that changed my life really. The play just really connected with me, and I didn’t even know why.’
His character is a cynical, embittered, prideful man who has withdrawn from the world and chooses to watch the suffering around him from “the grandstand of philosophical detachment.” But his cynicism is a pose. “He’s protecting himself from the pain,” Morse says. “He deals with it by drinking and denying that he cares about anything and insisting that he’s just waiting to die.”
The actor, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife and has three grown children, is happy to be back in the New York theater scene, where he spent time treading the boards after departing Boston in the late 1970s. He won an Obie award in 1998 opposite Mary-Louise Parker in “How I Learned to Drive” and last appeared on Broadway a decade ago in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” another play about a group of inebriated lost souls. He’s also thrilled by the camaraderie of the close-knit Broadway world, the way all the companies support each other.
“It just reinforces that we are part of a community here,” he says, “and to be recognized from within that community is really special.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.