The David Morse Code

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Staying true to his craft in Escape At Dannemora

Benicio Del Toro (left) and David Morse star in Escape at Dannemora (Photos courtesy of Chris Saunders/Showtime)

When inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in the small Upstate New York Village of Dannemora back in 2015, actor David Morse was as intrigued as everyone else about this inside job that stretched out for three weeks. Little did Morse know that three years later he’d have a feature role in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora.

Directed by Ben Stiller, the seven-part series stars Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano as Matt and Sweat, who are aided by Patricia Arquette’s Tilly Mitchell, a prison worker romantically enmeshed with both of them, who helps facilitate their escape. Morse plays Gene Palmer, an inmate escort guard who befriended Matt and was subsequently duped by him. For the 65-year-old character actor, the combination of the story, the writing and the chance to work with del Toro and Arquette proved to be an irresistible lure to playing this role. Meeting up with Stiller, who wound up executive producing and directing every episode, sealed the deal for him.

David Morse shares his favorite acting roles

“Finding out that [Ben] Stiller was going to be directing the entire thing [made a difference, given that it was such] a Herculean kind of task,” he recalled. “We met in New York and had a great meeting, talking about the show and our lives. And not having met him before and being really familiar with his movies—some dramatic, but [the comedies] most people are familiar with—I really saw a man who was so much more complicated and had so much depth to him than you would guess.”

For Morse, who has played George Washington and former Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster in the 2015 film Concussion, taking on a role based on a real-life person always presents certain challenges. In playing Palmer, he not only listened to an interview the inmate escort guard did with NPR and read transcripts of the deposition, but offered to meet with him a number of times. Morse found out Palmer was uncomfortable with the proposition.

“I asked if he’d like me to talk with him to show respect for what he’s been through, but he didn’t really want to do that,” Morse said. “There’s always this challenge with [playing] living people. And even [historical figures] like George Washington, who people have such a personal and clear idea of who they think he was. It’s different with Gene Palmer. People obviously don’t know him in that way, but his community and family knows him. Given what he did, you try to play him in a way so that you get some sense of how this could possibly have happened to him or how he’d get himself in a situation where he would wind up going to jail, while being respectful of the man. It’s a fine line to walk.”

In playing a prison guard, it’s the latest in a long line of uniformed characters the Boston native has played over a career that dates back to his debut in the 1980 Richard Donner drama Inside Moves. While his other prison screw role includes, 1999’s The Green Mile, he has also played a deputy sheriff (The Indian Runner), an ex-cop-turned-cabbie (Hack), an army colonel (The Hurt Locker) and most notably, New Orleans police lieutenant Terry Colson in HBO’s Treme. Morse has particularly fond memories of the latter, given the fact that the part he originally auditioned for went to John Goodman. And while he thought he missed out, series creator David Simon reached out for what was supposed to be a one-off character.

David Morse portrayed George Washington in the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams.

“When I didn’t get [the original role I wanted], and I didn’t hear from [the Treme people], I was really kind of hurt and disappointed. Then I was doing a film in Vancouver, and I got a call that David wanted to talk to me. He said he had a role that he’d like me to do. I’d be Melissa [Leo’s] sort of love interest,” he recalled. “All he had was one scene, and he couldn’t really tell me about the character and there was really nothing to go on. I hadn’t seen it, and it hadn’t aired yet. I didn’t know anything, and I read one scene. I thought that this was David Simon, and how many times was this going to happen? So, let’s go and see where it takes us. It was pretty remarkable to be a part of that and live in New Orleans for three and a half years. I was happy that I did that.”

Having cut his teeth as a member of the Boston Repertory Theater, Morse’s big break came in 1982, when he landed what became a six-year stint on the television medical drama St. Elsewhere. And while he’s grateful for the opportunity, his fear at the time was being looked at as “merely” a television actor having already appeared in film and on the stage. The potential for that to happen has driven how Morse has continued to creatively define himself.

“When I was on St. Elsewhere, there was not only the concern of getting typecast in a certain kind of character, but getting trapped in the world of television, and not being able to get out of that. Or being trapped in the world of musical theater and not being able to get out of that. Or being trapped in a certain world and trying to bridge those worlds was so difficult at that time. Now, there’s much more cross-over,” he said. “But at that time, there wasn’t. I did nothing but television for 10 years, once I started St. Elsewhere, it was very difficult to break free of that. And I’ve said this before but I really didn’t want to be defined as a television, movie or theater actor. I want to do it all, as long as I didn’t get stuck under the industry’s thumb doing what they thought I could or should do. It’s something I’ve really tried to do.”

Escape at Dannemora is currently airing on Showtime. Check your local listings.

Check out David Morse’s favorite roles:

David Morse’s Favorite Roles

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