Being 100 years old isn’t the only distinction of Basilica Place resident Otis Morse.
“I usually don’t tell people this because they don’t believe me,” he says producing proof to his claim of an impressive acting career. Holding a worn glossy of a younger image of himself, he is shown sporting a full mustache. It is the facial hair that makes him easy to identify in the 1972 Academy Award Picture of the Year: The Godfather.
Morse appears in a pivotal scene in the movie. Counselari Tom Hagen (played by actor Robert Duvall) dines at the home of movie studio owner, Jack Woltz, to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Speaking no lines, Morse who plays the butler, pours wine into glasses. The next frame shows the infamous decapitated horse’s head in the bed.
Despite his years, Morse has a memory for detail, recalling dates and locations. Having lost most of his memorabilia, an Internet search at the Library of Congress substantiated another claim: his appearance in the Federal Theater Project’s Negro Unit’s 1936 production of Macbeth. Among the material is a program listing Morse as a court gentleman and a photo of him in costume. Starring noted actors Edna Thomas and Jack Carter, the all-black cast was directed by a 20-year-old Orson Welles. Adaptations to the play included a 19th century Haitian setting and voodoo priestesses in lieu of witches. The April through June run at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem had standing-room-only crowds and is attributed to launching the meteoric directing career of Welles.
In 1943, Morse who had no training as a dancer, danced in Othello, starring the legendary Paul Robeson at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the first U.S. stage production to cast a black actor in the lead role with a predominantly white supporting cast, running for 296 performances.
When World War II began, Morse saw combat in the army at Normandy. Between acting and modeling jobs, he worked as an x-ray technician.
Morse moved from Baltimore to Harlem as a child with his father, mother, fraternal twin and younger sister, returning to the city two years ago. He is twice divorced and had a son who died in adulthood. Despite having lived half of his life under segregated conditions, he says that the insulated community gave him limited exposure to outside racial conditions. A godson in California remains close, having hosted a trip to Disney World for Morse’s 100th birthday.
In 1974. Morse appeared in the movie Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, as the main character’s neighborhood friend. “My regret is that I didn’t keep my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card,” he says, adding that if a part presented itself, he’d be interested in performing again. He stays active by attending church, keeps abreast of current news, and is reading The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. “That’s my man,” he says delighted that he has lived long enough to see an African American become president. “It’s been a struggle but God has been good to me.”