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Book review: “Promise Unfulfilled: The Brief Life and Bizarre Death of Actor Robert Morris”

A question has dogged the “Route 66” television series for decades: What the heck happened to Robert Morris, the actor once slated to co-star in the drama who died less than a year after it launched?

A new, self-published book by Vernon Gravely, “Promise Unfulfilled: The Brief Life and Bizarre Death of Actor Robert Morris” (233 pages, photographs, Kindle version available) answers that question and more. At the least, Gravely’s diligent research puts flesh and bone on Morris, who seemed forever destined to be not much more than a trivia question since his passing at age 25 in 1960.

Morris co-starred with George Maharis in a “backdoor pilot” of the future “Route 66” television series in a 1959 episode of “The Naked City” titled “Four Sweet Corners.” Writer Stirling Silliphant and producer Bert Leonard — both who provided critical guidance to “Route 66” — helmed the episode.

In the episode, Maharis and Morris portray two restless GI’s named Johnny Gary and Lincoln “Link” Ridgeway, respectively, who return to Gray’s grimy New York City neighborhood to find his baby sister ensnared in a shoplifting ring.

As it turns out, the “Four Sweet Corners” episode is on YouTube. Maharis, with his ample charisma and intensity, is the obvious star here. But Morris gets his moment to shine about the 17:00 mark.

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Leonard and Silliphant originally envisioned “Four Sweet Corners” as a springboard for another TV drama called “The Searchers,” where two Army veterans hit the open road to discover the meaning of life.

They eliminated the Army vets backstory, renamed the drama “Route 66” and dropped Morris in favor of Martin Milner as Maharis’ co-star.

Gravely theorizes Leonard didn’t want two obscure actors in “Route 66” and tapped a better-known Milner instead. James Rosin, who wrote a book about the “Route 66” series, said he didn’t think Morris was considered for the role. It’s also possible Morris turned down an offer after he and his new wife, Janice Caplin, lost almost all their possessions in a fire and soon moved to the West Coast.

Morris was born Robert Morawczyski in a working-class part of Reading, Pennsylvania, to parents of Polish descent.

Morawczyski showed good athletic ability, participating in wrestling, swimming, track, weightlifting and especially football for the local Red Knights team. He was a teammate to Lenny Moore, a future member of the Baltimore Colts and Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Morawczyski also competed for a short time in Mr. America bodybuilding competitions.

After high school, Morawczyski got involved in a local theater, changed his name to Robert Morris (a prizefighting brother also switched to the same surname), landed a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, interned at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Connecticut and earned representation from the coveted William Morris Agency.

Morris began to land gigs in television and the occasional film. But even during his early years, the epilepsy that ultimately claimed his life began to dog him. One acting colleague recalled a time when they saw one of Morris’ hands shaking. Another said Morris “seemed out of it” and surmised mental illness.

Gravely speculates a football injury led to Morris’ epilepsy — a credible possibility after the hundreds of documented cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy seen in the brains of former NFL and college players. Another acquaintance said Morris also cracked his head on the pavement during a fight.

Morris moved with his new wife Janice to Santa Monica, California, in 1959. Afraid of cancer that killed her relatives, Janice became a big proponent to alternative diets and fasting to prevent the disease. Gravely speculates Morris also latched on to the lifestyle when he couldn’t afford the drugs to treat his epilepsy.

As a result, Morris rapidly lost weight. Driver’s license data indicate he lost at least 25 pounds, and another friend swore he dropped 50. Morris became so emaciated, he couldn’t perform manual labor between acting jobs. He couldn’t land the few acting gigs that were available because he looked so frail.

In May 1960 after a violent seizure, Morris checked into a so-called health ranch in southern California and later died there. Speculation raged about his death for years, but Gravely tracked down Morris’ death certificate. It stated Morris suffered an epileptic seizure and choked to death on his own vomit.

His body wasn’t discovered until the next morning. The ranch offered to cover Morris’ cremation costs if it wasn’t held liable. Janice, in dire financial straits, agreed to the arrangement but later regretted it, wishing an autopsy would have been performed.

Janice returned to New York, where she later died of the cancer she dreaded in 1975. She and her late husband’s son, Paul, briefly dabbled in acting but grew up to be a professional musician for rock ‘n’ roll bands.

Gravely researched contemporary newspaper accounts and public documents and interviewed Morris’ classmates and former acting colleagues, including Maharis himself. (You can read Route 66 News’ interview with Maharis here.) The result is a much more complete and sympathetic telling of Morris’ life.

Milner and Maharis each went on to long careers in television and a few movies. Milner died in 2015. Maharis was still alive at this writing, at 91 years old.

When Maharis left the “Route 66” show in 1963 because of a life-threatening bout of hepatitis, he was replaced by Glenn Corbett. Corbett’s character name was Linc — a doppelganger to the Link name of the character Morris portrayed in “The Naked City” episode that led to the series.

(Image of the book cover courtesy of the author)

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