“The phones have been ringing off the hook!” Robert Morse exclaims, which isn’t surprising given the 83-year-old actor’s turn in the Mad Men split-season finale last Sunday night. (Here there be spoilers, so anyone who has not yet seen the episode, you may want to turn back now. Seriously.) Having played Sterling Cooper & Partners’ co-founder and resident Zen philosopher/Japanaphile Bertrand Cooper on the show for seven seasons, Morse saw his character shuffle off this mortal coil right after his character witnessed Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Viewers learn of his demise via the sight of Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery) removing the name plate from Cooper’s office door after he receives a late-night phone call. But Morse gets one last onscreen moment before the credits roll: A dream-like song-and-dance routine done to the tune of “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” complete with a chorus line of secretaries, that ends with Cooper gently waving goodbye to a hallucinating Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
For viewers, it’s an oddly perfect send-off to the eccentric, elegantly attired character; for Morse, it’s a reminder that his reputation as a Broadway veteran and his past as a musical-comedy performer has not completely faded from memory. (He won a Tony for his role in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1962; he became permanently linked to the part after reprising his performance for the 1967 movie version.) When Rolling Stone reached him by phone at his house in Los Angeles a few days after the Mad Men episode aired, the actor said he was still “overwhelmed” by all the attention. Morse then amiably chatted about how showrunner Matt Weiner broke the news to him, why he almost ixnayed the idea of dancing off into the sunset and how the show reflected his own first-hand experience of the Sixties.
Did the reaction to Sunday night’s episode surprise you?
Oh, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That episode was a doozy. Keep in mind, I’m 83 years old…it’s weird to see people discussing a TV show on their computers and commenting on things that have just happened on TV. You know, you expect a reaction. You expect your relatives to call. But then the show airs, the papers are calling immediately, I’m getting all these messages on my Facebook page, I’ve got press agents telling me I have 12 interviews lined up seven hours later…I mean, this is all new to me. It’s absolutely overwhelming.
You said you had a bunch of messages on your Facebook page?
Yeah. I’ve tweeted once as well, though my 17-year-old son helped me with it. That’s about as far as I go with computers. But it’s been humbling to hear the reactions to it.
How did Matthew Weiner pitch you on this idea?
Matthew, as you may remember, was a writer on The Sopranos — and you may also remember how they got rid of characters on that show. One in the head or dumped into the river! [Laughs] So when Matthew told me about eight weeks ago that “Bobby, your character is going to pass away,” I immediately thought, “Uh-oh: who’s going to shoot me! Is it going to be Joan? Or Roger? Who’s takin’ out the old man? [Laughs] I mean, there already was a hanging in our office! How am I going to go, Matt?!?”
And he just laughed and said, “No one is going to shoot you. You’re not going to be found hanging in your office. You’re going to go quietly and peacefully, it’ll be handled sensitively.” Then he paused and said, “But I have this idea…”
“You’re going to sing something from the after-life.”
You’re very close! [Laughs] He said, “Ever since I hired you, I’ve always wanted to have you sing on the show. I never knew where I would be able to put it, but I have this notion of having you come back as a hallucination, Jon is going to see you and you’ll sing to him.” “Really, Matt?” “Yeah, and I know just the song.”
So it was always “The Best Things in Life Are Free?“
Yes, that was what Matt wanted from the very beginning. It was always going to be [Sings loudly] “The stars in the sky/the moon on high/they’re great for you and me/because they’re freeeeee!” And I went, “Oh, yeah…I’m not so sure.”
Wait, you turned it down?
At first; I wasn’t sure it would work until I talked to him about it a little more. I was concerned, because I didn’t want it to be Bobby Morse from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or any of the other musicals I did on stage. You know, 30 years on Broadway and all they remember you by is How to Succeed….
There are worse musical to be remembered by.
True, but I was afraid that it would just look like something else entirely; I didn’t want it to take you out of the show, you know? But then Matt said, “No, no…it’s going to serve to emphasize the episode’s message.” “What?!?” “Really, Bobby, it’s going to serve to emphasize the episode’s message.” “How’s it going to do that?” “I’m working on it, trust me.”
And ultimately, that’s what I think he did. It wasn’t just, go and sing a song, and au revoir Bobby. It was Bert telling Don: What are you doing? All this shit that you’re doing, cut it out. The best things in life are free. We just landed on the moon. Calm down. Enjoy things while you have them. I saw how the scene fit into the whole picture, and thought: Wow. This gives things a lot of perspective here. Let’s do it. We rehearsed for a few days and then just filmed it over the course of a day or so. No one else knew we were doing it — Jon was surprised, to say the least. [Laughs]
Speaking of perspective: You were already a working actor when the Sixties started. What was it like to go back and revisit this decade through the show, with the benefit of wisdom and hindsight?
It was very odd, because the first day I went on the set, I thought I’d walked into the road company production of How to Succeed: There were secretaries and desks everywhere, there were vintage phones all over the place, everyone was done up like it was 1960. I remember waltzing up the aisles and singing “A secretary is not a toy, no, my boy/her pad is to write in, and not spend the night in!” [from the play’s “A Secretary is Not a Toy”]. And everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because they’re all so damned young! [Laughs] To be fair, I look more like Rudy Vallee’s Boss Biggley than J. Pierpont Finch now, so….
The point is, it was both a reflection of who I was then and a bit of time warp when I first walked on the Mad Men set. It reminded me of what a great era that first half of the Sixties were — the Kennedy era. John Kennedy came to see me in How to Succeed and gave me a signed picture; I used to hang out in Bobby Kennedy’s place down in Virginia. They were wonderful days, the sun was out, our sleeves were rolled up. It was all very positive, for the most part. And then what happened?
The last half of the 1960s happened.
Right! And that’s really what this show reflects, I think: how things changed, some for the better and some for the worse. But to answer your question, it allowed me to remember how wonderful those days were and appreciate them more. Which is really part of the episode we’re talking about: Enjoy what you have while you can. [Pause] Can I ask you a question?
What did you think of the ending?
I thought it was maybe the most transcendent two minutes of TV I’ve seen in a long time.
That’s how I felt staring at Jon Hamm for seven hours while we filmed it. So we both had the same experience, only mine was longer. [Laughs]