Award-winning actor David Morse, 65, was born in Beverly and raised on the North Shore. He studied acting at the William Esper Studio and worked with the Boston Repertory Theater before moving to New York. His breakout role was as Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison on the series St. Elsewhere, and his extensive TV credits include House, Hack, Treme and the HBO miniseries John Adams. On film, his credits include Contact, The Green Mile, Disturbia and Twelve Monkeys. He earned a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award for his stage work in How I Learned to Drive. Most recently, he filmed Escape at Dannemora, opposite Benicio del Toro. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children.
Jonathan Soroff: Would you ever name a child of yours “Boomer”?
David Morse: Oh, my god, of course I wouldn’t. It was entertaining to get the name while I was doing the show, but it was not for very good reasons. It was a way for them to make fun of me, and ultimately I kind of took it personally, so no. I would never do that to my child.
Why do you think people love medical TV dramas? I think it scares the crap out of them. If it’s done well, that’s part of what’s fun about it. I think St. Elsewhere was one of the ones that really changed the way you tell those stories. People die. It’s really bloody. And you have all the people having sex in the closets. It was entertaining but also really revealing about the dark side of the medical profession.
Which do you prefer: Stage, film or TV? There’s no snappy answer for that, but I just got to do six months on Broadway with Denzel Washington and an amazing cast in The Iceman Cometh, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I don’t get to do theater very often, so when I do get to do it, I’m thrilled. I love it.
Which of your films is your favorite? Well, there is one that has tremendous meaning to me personally. A lot of people look at The Green Mile, which was remarkable to be a part of, but there were two films I did with Sean Penn, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, and they really changed my career and life. The Crossing Guard took four years, and it was such a personal experience. I was very involved with the creation of it, and the script and the editing. I was involved with the whole process, and to do that with Sean and Jack Nicholson and those people was just an extraordinary time in my life.
One role you were dying to land and didn’t get? Oh, I don’t even know where to start with that question. That’s a long list. Did you ever see Sophie’s Choice? I was up for a part in that, and that leaps to mind, to do that with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
Are you the only actor to play both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? I never understand why I’m asked to do Lincoln, and I’ve done it three times. I, of course, have the voice of Gregory Peck running around in my head, and then Daniel Day-Lewis came along, but to be asked to go into the minds of two of the greatest men in the history of our country, and to live there for a while, is a rare honor. I’m happy to have done it.
Any other president you’d want to play? You know, I almost got to play Bill Clinton in something Peter Morgan wrote for HBO. I got very close, and it’s one of those things that really bugs me that I didn’t get to do it. There was a scene where Clinton eats a bowl of display fruit, and I’m allergic to fruit, so I didn’t get the part because of a bowl of fruit.
Greatest actor you’ve ever worked with? I can’t answer that, but what I can say is that there’s a quality that you almost can’t define that really great actors share. The youngest of them was Ryan Gosling. We did a movie called The Slaughter Rule, and he was only 19 when he did it. I knew as soon as I was in the room with him that he had that quality that people like Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks and Mary-Louise Parker have. It’s an element of truth and fearlessness that’s just thrilling to be with.
Anyone who you were intimidated to work with? Meeting Jack Nicholson was not intimidating but interesting. We didn’t meet on set. We met at Monkey Bar in Los Angeles. We wanted to meet in a relaxed way. He wasn’t intimidating, but the world around him was just so bizarre. There are so many sycophants just sucking off him wherever he goes, like mosquitos. It was a world that I hadn’t experienced to that degree. That kind of huge movie star world.
Worst audition disaster? [Laughs.] There are dozens, but I’ll tell you two. After St. Elsewhere, I wanted to do a comedy, and there was a new series that James Burroughs was doing. I rehearsed like crazy, and the role was this kind of wild character. My wife, Susan, said, “Do it like Elmer Fudd.” And I did. They were just sitting there with their mouths hanging open. The other one was St. Elsewhere. I had to do the most emotional scene in the script, and Bruce Paltrow saw my sneakers and asked if I liked them because he was thinking of getting a pair. I was so emotional, and he thought I was so weird because I couldn’t talk to him about my sneakers. I had to go back to Studio City and do it again.
Greatest lengths you’ve ever gone to for a role? Well, doing Proof of Life in Ecuador, I knew was going to be a challenge to shoot. Taylor Hackford said, “I need somebody who will go to the edge of the cliff with me,” and I said, “I’m there.” And my stand-in ended up getting killed doing a scene that I was supposed to do. He was killed going over a cliff in a truck. That was only one of a lot of things that happened on that movie. We were shooting at 14,000 feet. People were being carried off the mountain with stretchers and oxygen tanks. Volcanoes erupting. Mudslides. It was pretty intense.
Funniest or weirdest thing you’ve ever read about yourself in a tabloid? Well, just the number of hemorrhoid commercials I’ve done. But the very first movie I ever did, I did an interview with the New York Post. Robert Redford was the biggest movie star in the world back then. The interviewer asked me if I wanted to be like Robert Redford. I was so embarrassed by the question, I said, “I can’t imagine that there’s any actor who doesn’t think about what that would be like.” And the next day, the headline was, “Actor Thinks He’s the Next Robert Redford.”
Role or project that you think you’ll be remembered for? Well, it seems to be The Green Mile. And, surprisingly, St. Elsewhere. I can’t believe how many people still talk to me about that.
Anyone you’d never work with again and why? More than one. It’s almost always people who are in the position of being in the center of things, having responsibility, and they affect the climate of what you’re working on.
Is there a director you have a particular affinity for? The deepest collaboration I’ve had was with Sean. I was with him on the very first movie he ever wrote and directed.
Anything you wish you could erase from your resume? Yes. But IMDB keeps insisting on putting it out there.
World War Z—unfairly overlooked by the Academy? No. Probably not. I think it was a really good movie, although they reshot the last third of it. For me, it was hard to watch, because I saw all the stuff that wasn’t there, instead of the stuff that was.
Do you like playing the good guy or the bad guy? I prefer playing interesting roles.
Favorite actor from Hollywood’s Golden Age? I didn’t know that much until I did my first play in New York, and a friend said, “You have to watch Jimmy Stewart. You have to watch Spencer Tracy. Henry Fonda” So I did, and Spencer Tracy was the one who really stuck with me. He had a solidity and an honesty and a sense of fun about him.
What’s the most elaborate change of appearance you’ve done for a role—either costume, prosthetics or makeup? Maybe Mike Webster in Concussion. There was a lot of prosthetic work on that. I’d get in the makeup chair at 3 in the morning and we’d finish at 8.
How do you feel about critics? I once made the mistake of having lunch with a critic and critiquing critics. It was not a good outcome.
Actor who people mistake you for? Well, generally it’s me. They’re like, “You’re not…you’re not…” And I’m saying, “I am him.” But when I was younger, it was always Michael Moriarty.
Do you choose films that look like blockbusters to subsidize the more indie films you do? Well, there was a point in my life when I was really trying to control what my career was going to be, and I was going bankrupt. I realized that I have three kids to feed and keep a roof over their heads. It’s just a reality that you have to make money. So there are things that I have to do because I know they’re going to pay, but I try to do the best ones out of those.
Was it the best TV show of its era? Well, Hill Street Blues was on then, too, and you certainly can’t say one was better than the other. But they both really changed dramas on television. ◆