By D. Keith Mano
June 28, 1982 12:00 PM

All his professional life, Robert Preston has gone looking for trouble—not as a prima donna or an off-camera brawler, but as an actor who refused to be content playing himself. “I’ve never been typed,” he says with grim satisfaction. “John Wayne played ‘that guy’ all the time—mostly because that’s all he could do. Gable played Gable parts, and Bob Taylor played Bob Taylor parts, whether he was in armor or a full-dress suit. I resisted that.”

Never has that resistance begat such glorious excess as in Blake Edwards’ raucous Victor/Victoria. It was Edwards who envisioned Preston as Toddy, the aging homosexual cabaret entertainer who gives the movie a shot of wicked panache. For Preston, who is as masculine as five o’clock shadow, this was imaginative casting indeed. Fey, devilish, wild Toddy calls to mind a slightly dangerous Liberace. The movie’s final scene is his by now notorious transvestite dance number: Try to imagine Julia Child doing a Rockette high kick, or Spiro Agnew in hairnet and curlers. “I don’t mind if I look like Marie Dressler,” says Preston, 64. “If Blake wants me to go in drag, I will.”

If there is a bond between the two men, it may come from Preston’s sense that they both were once victims of Hollywood. “Blake was as unhappy as I was under somebody else’s thumb,” he says. “He was depressed enough to go into deep analysis, and on him it looks good because it worked. But he also has that important thing that only success will bring you, and that’s complete independence. Toddy’s his baby too.”

Word is, Toddy may win Preston an Oscar. Even if he doesn’t, the role brings the actor sweet satisfaction after a hit-and-miss movie career. Preston was signed by Paramount at the age of 19, but his bluff, energetic, super-American face didn’t fit any recognizable type. Though he did creditable work (Union Pacific, Beau Geste) for the studio and Cecil B. DeMille, whom he detested, by 1940 Paramount had him wearing a sarong in Typhoon. “It was the little male version,” he says. “The wardrobe mistress had to have a tuck made so it came up and covered my navel.” Preston claims he became “physically ill” when he saw the movie. “My kid brother had to help me to the men’s room,” he says.

Born in Newton Highlands, Mass., Robert Preston Meservey had come to Hollywood—or at least the Lincoln Heights section of L.A.—when he was not yet 3. His tubercular grandfather needed the clean, dry air of Southern California, circa 1920. Robert’s father, Frank, was in the garment business. His mother, Ruth, worked in a music store. “A film career never crossed my mind then,” says Preston. “Anyplace you went you were likely to see a movie company shooting, but that wasn’t for me.”

Enter E.J. Wenig, a dedicated high school drama teacher and fanatical amateur Shakespearean who had Preston playing Hamlet at the age of 14. “E.J. could costume anything Shakespeare had written,” says Preston. “You couldn’t get into his apartment, there were so many outfits. When I graduated he took me down to the Musart Theater, where Patia Power, Tyrone’s mother, was recasting her Elizabethan repertory company. We never told her my age, which was 16, and she cast me as Julius Caesar.” Later Preston toiled at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he performed in 42 productions and began one serious and very durable love scene.

Catherine Craig (née Feltus) had come to the playhouse by way of Indiana University. Roy Feltus, her father, had been an advance man for Ringling Bros., and later took his own circus on a successful South American tour. Catherine often went along. Before she and Preston were married, in 1940, both were signed to contracts by Paramount. “I filled in here and there,” says Catherine, a bit apologetically, “but I didn’t really fulfill much beyond that.” Gallantly, Preston objects. “She was a wonderful actress,” he says, “but she didn’t fit into any of those molds that they were familiar with. Neither did I. There was no way they could categorize me, thank God, or I would have had a flash-in-the-pan career.”

Still, Paramount insisted on alterations, and unceremoniously dumped Preston’s last name. “Today I could have kept it,” he says. “But at 19, what do you say? You don’t argue with the studio. They wanted to pull my hairline back. I said, ‘Go ahead.’ I thought everybody that went into pictures had his name and hairline changed.”

During World War II Preston spent three years as an Army Air Forces intelligence officer in England, France and Belgium. Returning to Hollywood in 1945, he made a disillusioning discovery. “The first time I was out in civilian clothes, I went to a party that Veronica Lake was throwing,” he recalls, “and no one even knew I’d been gone. I was disgusted.” He was also determined to assert his independence. “I didn’t need the paternalism of a studio anymore,” he says. “They gave me a much better contract, but I was still going to play the lead in all the small pictures and the heavy in all the big ones.” When DeMille offered him the part of the villain in Unconquered, Preston said no, and the director never spoke to him again. Reversing manifest destiny, Preston elected to go East to Broadway. It was a courageous decision. “I have always had confidence in my own ability,” he says.

Next began his elaborate personal program to reeducate New York audiences about Robert Preston, California sarong model. Preston didn’t mind replacing established stars in Broadway hits (his first New York role involved taking over for José Ferrer in Twentieth Century in 1951), and he kept at it, excellent performance after excellent performance, as irrepressible as bracket creep. But intergalactic recognition didn’t come until 1957, when Preston landed the lead in The Music Man. “They stopped looking for a musical comedy performer because they were getting too much flak from them,” he recalls. “Things like Ray Bolger saying, ‘I like it very much, but I need 15 minutes in the second act where I do my stuff.’ Finally they said, ‘Let’s get an actor. What about Preston, if he can carry a tune…’ ”

Like Toddy in Victor/Victoria, Harold Hill in The Music Man is a semi-sung role. Perhaps Preston’s armor-piercing macho vigor is put in manageable perspective by music. Audiences are comfortable with him, reassured. His dramatic method, after all, is calculated to communicate an impression of ease. “First you become rehearsal sharp,” he explains. “Then, after that initial public performance, you tell yourself the truth. You say, ‘I’m uncomfortable here, I’m uncomfortable there—why?’ The one thing you must do is remove every moment of personal discomfort before opening night.”

The technique overlaps his personal relations as well. Preston, apparently, is a dream to work with: professional and enthusiastic, if somewhat distant. DeMille aside, he speaks well of everyone. True, Margaret Sullavan cut him dead when they starred together on Broadway in Janus; she thought he was getting too many laughs. “That became her problem, not mine,” he says. “If she was unhappy, I’m sorry. Onstage or on the set, you’re there to solve difficulties, not to make them.”

But how much, one might wonder, has that all-American, cargo-door-size grin cost him? Beneath the facade, what would his secret flight recorder show? If driven to it, Preston will admit that Catherine “can probably remember my being temperamental, because I’m not afraid to show her a side that I won’t show to other people.” Catherine agrees. “When he’s in a play, you know what the tensions are, and I feel it’s best to let him get rid of them somewhere. Quite often, there’s nowhere else. We do go around a bit then. Why not? That I understand. Sometimes, though, he’s temperamental and I don’t understand.”

In the Preston household, like most others, there is not always a meeting of minds. He would describe their Greenwich, Conn. estate as French provincial. No, no, it’s Tudor, says she. How big is it? “Uh, there are 10 bathrooms,” he says at last, ticking them off on his fingers. That might seem excessive for two people and one dog, Boy, their semiretired golden retriever, particularly since the Prestons don’t socialize much. “Yet it’s cozy,” Catherine insists. “I guess because we converge into little nesting rooms, and walk through the rest of it.” Yet the Prestons seem more loyal caretakers than homeowners, as if in service to some unspecified landlord.

Surrounding the house are eight acres of fastidiously kept grounds. Catherine has her own greenhouse; the swimming pool is within a stone’s splash of the manor. The pond on the property has long aspired to full lakehood: Trout and bluegill drowse in it like so many entrées. Stark rock outcroppings thrust up on cue. Last spring Preston cut 10,000 loosestrife plants around his pond by hand. Neatness and discipline have been raised to a kind of rugged absolutism here. But no direct heir will benefit from this meticulous effort: The Prestons are childless. “We had every test possible,” says Robert. “We were on the verge of adopting many times, but then the next job would come up in Greece or something like that.”

Preston calls himself, persuasively, a “home person”; travel, one senses, has become more essential to Catherine. Now and then she refers to Greenwich as “limbo, out of the way, removed.” She has a quiet beauty, and beside her expansive, booming husband, she might seem an object played off of—a retaining wall for Preston’s torrential drive. She is defined, much more than he, by the relationship, and that, unquestionably, has taken a toll. There is a volatile quality about Preston that is never quite masked by self-control and good nature. The sensual angry man waits beneath. Cast defiantly against type in Victor/Victoria, Preston is known for his offstage romances. Glynis Johns, who starred in a 1963 production of Shaw’s Too True to Be Good, was just one of the women on his extramarital résumé. But whatever pressures were brought to bear on his marriage, they were less than a match for its profound equilibrium. “We keep each other pretty straight,” says Catherine. “And that’s a real pleasure. Bob wears well.”

Professionally, too, Preston has demonstrated a stubborn resiliency. Though he has never become the A-movie leading man he once longed to be, his craftsman’s pride and unquenchable energy have made him a performer of the very first rank. “They’re crazy about Victor/Victoria at MGM,” he says proudly. “We started to get the feeling as the rushes were going across the ocean. All of a sudden I was getting notes from David Begelman [MGM/UA’s vice-chairman]. Nice messages. Even flowers.” Preston pauses, his memory playing back over a lifetime of Hollywood frustrations. “Funny,” he says reflectively, “it comes at a time when I really could care less. And it took only 45 years.”