If you were a child in the 1960s or ’70s, you might remember singing the rousing “Chicken Fat” exercise song, a recording commissioned by Kennedy’s fitness initiative in 1962. The song was written by the creator of the hit musical The Music Man, and the lyrics (“Go, you chicken fat, go!”) were sung by the star, Robert Preston, who had won a Best Actor Tony for portraying the salesman Harold Hill. Preston had already made a name for himself in Hollywood, and Broadway seemed to be his for the taking. Preston would be 100 years old today.
Perhaps the most surprising turn in the actor’s career occurred in 1964 when the Music Man legend started shaving his head for a new Broadway role. The leading man let go of his thick mane for a chance to play Benjamin Franklin.
Ben Franklin in Paris never gained the same recognition as The Music Man. Although Preston sought to shed his Harold Hill reputation by playing a founding father, The New York Times review of Ben Franklin was less than charitable to the new musical: “Not even Mr. Preston’s superb salesmanship can con one into thinking that there is magic in this musical’s pitch.” Preston’s career sustained, however, on stage and screen, throughout the rest of his life.
Preston was interviewed for this magazine during his stint as Franklin (“That Brassy Music Man Returns to Broadway as Poor Richard”). While his closest circle opposed Preston’s portraying a septuagenarian at 46 years old, he claimed the driving force behind his decisions was a pursuit of lively, fascinating characters rather than some prediction of star power.
Preston’s passion for theatrical performance was rooted in a romantic outlook on Shakespeare. After studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, he found himself stationed in London as an intelligence officer during World War II: “It was, as it was for almost every G.I., the first trip. But I knew it, I knew it. I had worn Lincoln Green; I had been in Bushy Park when the signs did not read KEEP OFF THE GRASS, but DON’T SHOOT THE KING’S DEER; I knew the fable of the Dunmow Flitch. I didn’t have to visit the Tower. I’d already been flanked on the stage by beefeater costumes. I already knew all the forests we rode through. I’m a fellow with little formal education, and my nostalgia is that of a man for places that no longer exist as they did.”
The actor sometimes became so committed to a show’s success that he bankrolled the production, as he did with the doomed Mexican Revolution musical We Take the Town. Not even doctor’s orders could keep Preston away from the theater, coaching his stand-in Pancho Villa. Producers noticed his dedication to the art of performance, and his leading ladies — from Ulla Sallert to Carol Burnett to Bernadette Peters — noted his intensity and professionalism.