David Morse, Philadelphian, is one of the most familiar faces in TV and film. He has been ever since he and another familiar face, Denzel Washington, were in St. Elsewhere together from 1982 to 1988. Three decades later, both are up for Tony Awards on June 10 for their work in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Morse is up for best featured actor in a play for his turn as Larry Slade, and Washington is up for lead actor in a play as the central character, Hickey. The play is also up for best revival.
Speaking by phone from his home, Morse talked with us about his career, Iceman, St. Elsewhere, Washington, and having to do a four-hour-plus epic on Broadway eight times a week. He also talked about being part of a great ensemble of actors, as he is in Iceman and has been so many times on TV.
When you heard that Iceman, this enormous play, was being revived, did you think to yourself, “How is this going to even work?”
Our version is the cut-down version, only four hours – usually it’s closer to five! And, yes, I did kind of wonder, ‘Who’s going to come see this? Why do they think this should be done on Broadway? Where’s the audience for a four-hour play?’ And there have been several well-known revivals of it not terribly long ago. I particularly remember the one [in 1999] with Kevin Spacey. I think the special feeling in our version is down to Denzel and our cast.
How do you manage your energy in a behemoth like that?
I’m still trying to figure it out, especially on our two-show Saturdays. I am the only character who’s on stage and awake the whole time during the play. Larry is an explosive character, and my voice really takes a beating. And I’m trying to figure out how to do justice to Larry and not destroy myself.
The problem is, really, there’s only one way to do it. I kind of have to let it happen once I’m on stage. And it doesn’t always happen the same way every night. That’s part of the fun. There’s no point in trying to hold on to something you did that worked last night. I don’t want to know how it’s going to be tonight; I want to be surprised.
Your character, Larry Slade, has a long speech to begin the play while almost the entire cast is on stage asleep. What’s that pressure like?
You’re right: It is my most nervous part of the play. I’m far too aware of it. All these wonderful actors playing asleep and waiting to begin their parts, and they’re listening to me, probably thinking, ‘Move it, move it! I could do this so much better.’
Seriously, we support each other, because all of us know the pressure that’s on each of us. And we take turns with it. I hand it off to Colm Meaney, who plays Harry Hope, and he runs with it, and then he hands it off to Denzel as Hickey.
Is it really true that you and he had not seen each other since St. Elsewhere? And when you did get a chance to hang out, did you go back to those days?
It’s true: We hadn’t seen each other in 30 years. But he couldn’t have been more welcoming. It was really something to get together and talk about everything each of us has been through. His career has been beyond anything any other actor will ever experience. And, right, it was hard not to reminisce about St. Elsewhere.
There was one thing I’d always wanted to know. It was during the run of St. Elsewhere that Denzel started appearing in major, award-winning movies, movies like A Soldier’s Story and Cry Freedom, the Biko movie. But despite getting recognition for these movies, he still had to keep coming back to TV, year after year. I was curious to know whether he was resentful about it. ‘Oh, not at all,’ he said. ‘I had the best of both worlds: I got to make money in movies, then I got to come back and make money in TV.’
You’ve mentioned the strong cast in Iceman. To what extent are you drawn to shows and movies that have strong ensembles?
I think being part of ensembles has defined my career. It’s what I enjoy. The first movie I did, Inside Moves, starred John Savage, but the real star of that movie was actually the ensemble. And then I went from that to St. Elsewhere, the ultimate ensemble TV show.
The Green Mile, when you think about that movie, people loved it for the ensemble as much as the story. Hack, which was set here, was just great fun to do, with Andre [Braugher] and all the rest of the cast. And Treme on HBO was another one. Especially in TV, where you can spread the storytelling over weeks and months, if you have good characters who take on real life, the kind writers love to write about, it’s the sign of a good show.
What do you think of this idea being pushed by Actors’ Equity, that there should be a Tony Award for ensembles?
I think it’s long overdue. They’re talking about having two categories, one for outstanding ensemble in a musical and one for a play. However they decide to do it, it’s definitely time ensembles should be recognized.