Robert Morse on Bert Cooper’s musical ‘Mad Men’ send-off
The moon may belong to everyone, but “Waterloo,” Sunday’s midseason finale of “Mad Men,” belonged to actor Robert Morse, whose shoe-averse character Bert Cooper passed away peacefully during the Apollo 11 moon landing and bade farewell to the series with a delightful, posthumous song-and-dance routine of “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
If it was an an unexpected moment for Bert -- or rather, Bert’s ghost -- it was a fitting send-off for Morse, the seasoned Broadway veteran who won a Tony for his role in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and also starred in the 1967 film adaptation. We spoke to Morse about the instantly classic moment, the planning that went into it and even the possibility of a “Mad Men” musical.
So how are you feeling?
How am I? I think I would say it this way, I simply had no idea what I was in for the last 36 hours. I mean my phone has been ringing off the hook -- although they’re not really hooked anymore, I guess. All I can say is what a send-off! To show the world in a few minutes what I enjoy, being a musical theater person, to be able to sing on “Mad Men.” I got an email this morning from my wife who teaches up at Westland School. She emailed me and says, “Bobby, go out and get the paper. You’re in the L.A. Times!” But I’m absolutely amazed at all of this. It’s not like the old days when a day later all of this takes place! My son understands it because he’s computer-minded and he understands things, but I’m just overcome, by you, the L.A. Times, by the New York Times. I mean, this is unbelievable!
How and when did you learn about Bert’s fate?
Matt [Weiner] came up to me and said, “Bobby, two or three episodes from now, you have to pass away.” I went “Oh God, really? It’s been 7 years.” “Well, really you know, we just have to do that, things are going to happen. But I love you, you know how much I care about you.” He said, “When I did ‘The Sopranos,’ we’d just shoot somebody to get them off the show or they’d be drowned in a bathtub, with you it’s going to be very tasteful. You’re just going to pass away. We have a whole thing with the moon landing and what the moon means, the theme of the show, etc. It’s going to be the finale and I have an idea. You’re going to sing a song, you’re going to sing ‘the moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free’ and you’re going to sing it to Don. You’re going to come back, you’re sort of this hallucination. We’re going to do it with a great choreographer and we’re going to do it in the studio with a 20-piece orchestra. You’re going to rehearse it for two weeks. It’s a secret, don’t tell your wife, don’t tell your press agents, and most of all, don’t tell Meredith Blake. We want to keep it a secret.”
So what happened was it was a love letter. It was a package of dreams, it was Christmas and my birthday to Robert Morse from creator Matt Weiner. I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter and more elaborate fantastic exit or send-off. It was a gift to me, and watching Jon Hamm watching me was incredibly touching in and of itself.
I was concerned about it -- all of a sudden Bert Cooper’s going to sing a song? But in talking to Matt, and as I think you said, it served to emphasize the episode’s message. And I agreed with that. It’s very, very interesting that after all the hullabaloo, that he’s saying the best things in life are free, I realize it now and I’m in heaven. It’s not where you go, it’s who you meet along the way. It says a lot if you have that mind set.
What is your sense of the reaction to Bert’s farewell?
Anybody can be critical, I don’t want to go into that, the blogosphere or whatever, I can’t read them. They’re too depressing to me. Luckily I’ve felt very positive from what people have said. Sometimes people when they write about you they think it’s you. They take television very seriously. It’s “Robert Morse is a racist.” And I’m going, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. It’s the character, it’s what happened in that era. Some of it is still happening today. When Bertram Cooper says, “I’m all for the advancement of colored people, I just don’t think they should advance to the front of this office.” You know, that’s not me, that’s the writers saying this is the way it was. Not only that but it’s the way it still is somewhere in the world today. That is the wonderful thing about Matt. What a writer! All the writers, they’re just wonderful to bring this out every week, and to shoot it in 10 days. To do this musical in three or four days’ rehearsal. What fun, what a joy.
So Weiner came to you with the idea fully formed?
Absolutely. He was the one that said, “I have an idea. I don’t want to tell you about it yet. Believe me, you are going to sing. I’ve always wanted you to sing a song from your Broadway days.” I went, “Wow, that’s better than hanging!”
Singing is not something we expected Bert to do.
Absolutely. Then again, I have this idea for a “Mad Men” musical. Bert keeps reappearing, singing and dancing, sharing his words of wisdom. Roger could sing “Brotherhood of Man.” Pete could do “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” Joan could do “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
What song would Don do?
David Hyde Pierce did a show called “Curtains.” There’s a song in that show called “It’s a Business.” I don’t know if it fully applies, there might be something in it. I’m still working on what Don would sing, but I like “Look to the Rainbow” for Peggy.
What was the rehearsal process like?
I know the choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg. I’ve worked with her before and they hired her. I was so pleased to see her. Matt explained in the script: Bobby appears with four or five secretaries and he does this dance intermingling with them and sings to Don. Then Mary Ann Kellogg rehearsed with the dancers maybe two or three days. She had an assistant walk my part. This was just the bare bones of it. I came on the set, and the assistant stood in to the soundtrack and walked the part with the girls. I looked at it and said, “Thanks a lot, I will have that in a minute. I will know it, no problem.” And then of course she made suggestions. I put a sort of style into it. I didn’t want it to be like “How to Succeed,” this was the character Bertram Cooper singing, no embellishment, just be sweet.
After about three days, we showed it all to Matt and he loved it, he had a few changes he wanted to make just camera-wise. And we got it all together and then one day it was ready to shoot. We shot for about five, six, seven hours.
And how was it to film?
What was lovely about it, a lot of the cast came down and sat in the bleachers and watched me do it and watched it being done. I was very touched. My daughter was there, Allyn Morse, who was an extra on the show for a while. She came down to watch part of it with tears in her eyes. We all cried after it was over. There was a big cake they came out and gave me because it was my last episode. Everyone huddled around and it was very touching. A lot of goodbyes and hellos. Matt said, “You’re not going anywhere, I want you at every reading after this, I want you to keep knowing you’re a part of the company, I want you to come down and visit the set and be a part of the gang. Keep your chin up and know that this is a business and you have to pass away.”
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