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Behind Beverly native David Morse’s serendipitous  rise to silver screen-and small screen-fame. by David Thomson. Photographs by Diana Levine

One of these hit TV series or movies might be the response expected when actor David Morse is asked what he considers to be his big break. Instead, his answer is “Mrs. Ferrini.”  Margaret Ferrini was the then-budding actor’s theatre teacher at Hamilton-Wenham High School and, according to Morse, she not only changed his life, but also the lives of a lot of other students.

Morse was born in Beverly and lived in Essex before moving to Hamilton as he was entering eighth grade. At that time, a teacher named Mrs. Baker was the first to recognize something in him that was special. It wasn’t until high school, however, that Morse went from not making the basketball team freshman year to auditioning for his first play. He never looked back. Ironically, he says, “Sports would not have me, and if they would have, I probably would not be acting.”

It was a tumultuous time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Morse was in high school. He says that Ferrini, who was very involved in civil rights, would often stage productions reflecting her feelings about what was going on at the time, in addition to traditional high school plays, such as The Wizard of Oz.

Ferrini’s influence on Morse was evident; since he knew it was very unlikely he would be drafted, Morse participated in Vietnam War peace marches in the late 1960s.  His focus on civil right and charitable work is something Morse has carried through his life.

Morse’s first paying job was a far cry from the bright lights of Hollywood. It came on one 4th of July when a friend at Skips Galley in Essex called upon then high-schooler Morse for help because the dishwasher didn’t show up. He later worked for about a year and a half in the pressroom of the old Beverly Times for the Christian Science Monitor, which printed its papers there. He earned three dollars an hour for bundling papers as they came off the press.

The now-closed Mariner restaurant in Beverly is the only place he recalls being willing to spend his money, with the Fisherman’s Platter being his favorite. A typical teenage boy with a large appetite, he would sometimes eat at the Mariner and then go home and have a second dinner. (Not as typical, in today’s world, at least, Morse would hitchhike back and forth between home and work.)

As a senior at Hamilton-Wenham High, a gentleman named George Winn-Abbott was directing Morse in a play. The director was also part of a group of people forming a repertory theater in Boston. After a successful audition, Morse was asked to become a member. He started right away and was so busy doing a play that  he wasn’t available to accept in person awards he had won in high school for acting and artwork.

Starting at age 18, Morse spent six years living in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury and performing at the Boston Repertory Company, which is now a nightclub on Boylston Street. “At the time, there was a terrible heroin epidemic in Boston, and our house was robbed a lot,” Morse says. “I drove a cab for a while at a time when cab drivers were being shot in the back of the head once a week. “As strange as it sounds, going from Hamilton to Roxbury was an amazing adventure, and I loved it.”

In the late 1970s, Morse left Boston to continue his stage career with the Circle Repertory Company in New York. It was there he met his wife, Susan, with whom he has three children and just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

In 1980, Morse made his theatrical film debut in the acclaimed drama Inside Moves. “After starring in this movie, I thought I’d never have to do TV,” Morse says. “I was offered a lot of TV, but I wanted to focus on film and couldn’t catch a break.” At that time in the industry, actors were pegged as film or TV actors and they could not move as seamlessly between the two mediums as they can today.

“Despite my reluctance to work in television, NBC brought me out to L.A. for pilot season and I read for Ted Danson’s role in Cheers,” Morse recalls.  “Then, I got the script for St. Elsewhere and thought it was better than any movie or TV script I had read. I didn’t think I would have to do TV for too long, because there was nothing like it on the air and I didn’t think it would last.” In fact, at the end of its first season, St. Elsewhere ranked 63rd out of 64 shows on network television. The only show that ranked lower? Cheers.

Despite its ratings, St. Elsewhere was renewed and ran for six seasons, with Morse playing Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison for the entire run. The show not only launched Morse’s career, but the careers of co-stars Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, and countless other big movie and TV stars.

Moving from St. Elsewhere proved to be a very difficult transition. “I was offered countless series, and if I did another one, it would be the end of my hopes of doing movies,” Morse said. Enter actor Sean Penn, who was making his directorial and writing debut in 1991 with The Indian Runner. He fought for Morse to be cast as a small-town deputy sheriff at odds with his criminal brother, who was played by Viggo Mortensen.

What happened next?

This opportunity was the turning point that Morse had worked toward and hoped for since his days at Hamilton-Wenham High. He was determined to be cast as characters who were different from those he had been playing, and he found success with several critically acclaimed roles, often playing the bad guy.

In Los Angeles in 1994, Morse’s entire family was rocked, literally, by an earthquake that destroyed their home. With his career more focused on movies that were taking him to sets around the world, the family moved to Philadelphia, his wife’s hometown, as he felt he no longer had to live near Hollywood to work as an actor.

In 1995, Morse reunited with writer/director Penn, appearing in The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson. This was the start of a string of hit movies for Morse in which he appeared alongside a who’s who of actors: The Rock with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, Contact with Jodie Foster, The Negotiator with Kevin Spacey, Proof of Life with Meg Ryan, and, most notably, The Green Mile with Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clarke Duncan.

Morse has returned to the small screen on several occasions, starring in the 2002-2004 CBS series Hack, which was filmed in Philadelphia. He also guest starred in multiple episodes of the FOX series House, which earned him an Emmy nomination. Morse can currently be seen in the acclaimed HBO series Treme, set and filmed in New Orleans. The series, in which Morse plays a police officer, began its third season in September.

Morse’s most recent big screen role was that of a grandfather to the title character in Disney’s The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Next year, he’ll appear on screen in the film World War Z-co-starring Brad Pitt-as a prisoner who has witnessed a zombie slaughter.

Since moving his mother to Philly a few years ago, Morse doesn’t get back to the North Shore as often as he would like to see his youngest sister and friends who still live in the area. When he does, however, Morse says he likes to climb on the rocks on Halibut Point and walk around Rockport.

It isn’t lost on Morse that his middle name, Bowditch, comes from Nathaniel Bowditch, who was born in Salem and is often credited as the founder of modern maritime navigation. “When I’m in Essex walking through the boat yards or the marshes, it takes me back to the places from childhood that are so vivid in my mind,” Morse says.  “I’m really grateful for having grown up on the North Shore.”