Presnell was singing opera in Europe when composer Meredith Wilson first heard his deep baritone voice. Wilson wrote the leading role of "Leadville" Johnny Brown in his Broadway hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Harve in mind. His costar in New York, Tammy Grimes, did not make the cut for the movie version, but Presnell did, recreating his performance opposite Debbie Reynolds. He was to return to Broadway only one more time, as the final Daddy Warbucks in the original run of Annie. He played that role extensively on the road, and returned to the character in both ill-fated sequels, Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge, and Annie Warbucks. The remainder of his stage career was spent in summer stock and regional theatres, where he played in any classic musical in need of a larger-than-life leading man with a booming voice, including Camelot, On a Clear Day, and Annie Get Your Gun. He received some nice notices from the New York Times for his dinner theatre stint in Man of La Mancha.
He is primarily remembered today for his later film and television performances, playing old coots and codgers. He played William H. Macy's father-in-law in Fargo, General George Marshall in Saving Private Ryan, and had a recurring stint on Dawson's Creek, playing another sour old man. But I can't get used to that more recent persona, and prefer to remember him as the 6-foot-4 powerhouse baritone. He would have been a huge star had he been born a decade or two earlier, when musical stars of the stage became nationally known.
In addition to the afore-mentioned Annie sequels, Presnell was involved with a couple of other real stinkers. He appeared in the dismal film adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe musical, Paint Your Wagon, singing the famous song from the piece, "They Call the Wind Mariah." But the film was headlined by Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood; anybody who places those two guys in the leading roles of a musical deserves what they get. And they got a real bomb (Harve comes off fairly well in this turkey, as he had legitimate musical cred). But his expertise didn't help much with the disastrous attempt to turn Gone With the Wind into a stage musical in 1972. He played Rhett in the London production of this hopeless endeavor, which had a book written by Horton Foote, of all people. On opening night, Presnell was famously upstaged by Charley the horse (yes, they had an actual horse onstage), who took a steaming dump while Atlanta burned, and set the critical tone for the show.
Harve Presnell won a Golden Globe Award for Promising Newcomer in 1965, sharing the honor with George Segal and Topol. He died last week at the age of 75.