By the time brawny baritone Harve Presnell arrived on the film scene, the "Golden Age" of musicals had long passed. Born in Modesto, California in 1933, he graduated from Modesto High School and initially trained for an operatic career. He was performing nationally when the opportunity for Broadway first came his way. Legendary composer Meredith Willson happened to catch an earful of the gifted singer in concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and, in the virile mold of an Alfred Drake or Howard Keel, wrote the role of Johnny "Leadville" Brown in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" specifically for him as a showcase. The Broadway musical, with Tammy Grimes as the spunky title heroine, was a resounding hit while Harve wrapped his glorious tonsils around such sturdy, wide-stanced songs as "Colorado, My Home" and "I'll Never Say No." Unlike Grimes, Presnell managed to recreate his part when the celluloid version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) came out with a certifiable film star, the indomitable Debbie Reynolds, inhabiting the backwoods role. The film version was also hugely popular with audiences.
It seemed like a star was about to be born but there were precious few movie musicals for Presnell to sink his teeth into and he quickly faded into the woodwork. He tried adjusting to straight dramatics with the rugged western The Glory Guys (1965) and sang again in the highly unworthy teen frolic When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965) with Connie Francis, but little else came his way. The disastrous film version of Paint Your Wagon (1969) starring the highly miscast Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg, was redeemed only by the presence of Presnell and his superb rendition of "They Call the Wind Mariah."
By the 70s he was finished in films and was relegated to Keel-like stock and tour roles in such productions as "Annie Get Your Gun" (as Frank Butler) and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," among others. He even played Rhett Butler in a musical version of "Gone With the Wind" at London's Drury Lane Theatre, but did not generate much of a stir. In 1979, Presnell served as a replacement in the Broadway musical "Annie" as Daddy Warbucks and stayed with the role for years on tour, also reprising the tycoon in the failed 90s sequel "Annie II: Miss Hannigan's Revenge," which was later retitled "Annie Warbucks."
More than 25 years had passed by the time Presnell returned to the movies as a brash and balding character actor. He struck pure gold as the righteous, dominating, ill-fated father-in-law of William H. Macy in the Coen Brothers' cult film hit Fargo (1996). This success, in turn, led to meaty roles in Larger Than Life (1996), The Whole Wide World (1996), The Chamber (1996), Face/Off (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), to name a few. Over the course of his career, he has proven himself a strong presence on TV as well with recurring roles on prime-time ("Lois & Clark") and daytime ("Ryan's Hope"). Presnell may have been born 10-20 years too late to have become a singing film star, but he has come back in spades to launch a whole new career as a noted character performer. Recent roles at age 70+ include TV's "The Pretender," "The Monk" and "ER," and the films Mr. Deeds (2002) and Old School (2003), indicate there are no signs that the twice-married actor is interested in slowing down.