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Modesto native Presnell dies

Modesto native Harve Presnell, who starred on Broadway in such musicals as "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Annie" and was known for his roles in the films "Paint Your Wagon" and "Fargo," has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 75.

He died Tuesday night at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. His daughter, Etoile "Ruby" Presnell of San Diego, said he was surrounded by family.

Standing 6 feet 4 inches tall, the 1950 Modesto High graduate had rugged good looks and a booming baritone. He retained a soft spot for Modesto after making it big, returning to his hometown frequently to sing in benefits for schools and other organizations.

"He lifted you up, that's what his legacy was," his daughter said. "He had a way of making you feel you were the most special, talented beautiful person in the world."

Born George Harvey Presnell on Sept. 14, 1933, in Modesto, he worked on his family's ranch on Ladd Road, helping pick peaches, said his cousin Arlene Sutton of Escalon. The family was large — Presnell and Sutton's fathers were two of eight children — and every Sunday, all the relatives would get together at the grandparents' home.

The family supported his show business career. "We were all excited for him," Sutton said. "We thought it was great."

But his father, Hubert Presnell, told The Bee in 1972 that he missed his son's help on the ranch. "I can honestly say I lost the best farmer I ever had when he started his singing career," he said.

The younger Presnell began singing as a child and performed in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals and choirs at Modesto High.

"He was a joy," said Oakdale resident Bill Dooley, a classmate and fellow singer. "He was a great guy, a lot of fun, a character, a joker. He was a ladies' man. He was tall, blond and handsome."

Mr. Presnell maintained other interests, becoming a rodeo champ at age 16 and playing varsity football for Modesto High School.

He majored in physical education at Modesto Junior College before heading south to study voice at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. He later attended the University of Southern California, where he was selected to perform with the madrigal singers on a European tour. At 20, he signed on as a soloist with the Roger Wagner Chorale for recordings and a national tour.

Mr. Presnell performed in operas and musicals around the world before getting his big break in 1960 by starring as Johnny "Leadville" Brown on Broadway in the musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The show was a hit, and he was tapped to play the same role opposite Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 film version.

Five years later, Mr. Presnell co-starred with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in "Paint Your Wagon," playing Rotten Luck Willie.

Big shock from 'Annie'

In 1972, he starred as the dashing Rhett Butler in a musical version of "Gone With the Wind" in London. By the end of the decade, he had shaved his head and returned to Broadway as gruff but big-hearted Daddy Warbucks in the musical "Annie." That part became one of his trademark roles and he played it on tour and in the Sacramento Music Circus.

The actor first was offered the role in a tour of "Annie" and thought the title was a showbiz abbreviation for "Annie, Get Your Gun," the musical in which he had once played sharpshooter Frank Butler.

Then he attended "Annie" and saw a bald, older man instead of a dashing, romantic lead.

It was a big shock, he told The Associated Press in an interview in 1993. "I thought, 'What's this? I'm a leading man!' " But the reality was good for him, Mr. Presnell said, adding: "It was a question of saying, 'I'm no longer Frank Butler or Rhett Butler or "Leadville" Johnny Brown. And they were paying good money.' "

In 1990, he repeated the Warbucks role in "Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge," a sequel that folded quickly during its Washington tryout. He also played Warbucks in 1993's off-Broadway show "Annie Warbucks."

He played William H. Macy's father-in-law in the Coen brothers' 1996 movie "Fargo" and Mr. Parker in the NBC series "The Pretender" (1997-2000).

From time to time, Mr. Presnell returned home and performed in benefits in Modesto for Modesto Christian School, Central Catholic High School and the Modesto Symphony Orchestra. He was an avid pilot, occasionally flying his planes to Modesto.

Etoile Presnell said her father was only diagnosed with cancer a few months ago and was active, calling people and performing until right before he died.

She said he didn't care about celebrity or fame and was more concerned about family.

"He loved his land; he loved to work on the land," she said, adding that her father had homes in Montana and Los Angeles. "He was a family man, and yet he had this whole other life, where he was in musical theater."

His family and friends knew they could count on him for anything, she said.

"He was a problem solver, a go-to solid rock of pure, unconditional love," she said.

Mr. Presnell is survived by his wife, Veeva; six children; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been set.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or lmillegan@modbee.com.

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