Gordon MacRae was an accomplished radio, movie, stage, and television actor as well as a recording artist. He is best known for his roles in the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma! as Curly, and in Carousel as Billy Bigelow.
While in high school, MacRae acted and sang in drama club productions plus he learned how to play piano, saxophone, and clarinet. At 19, he entered and won a talent competition where the prize was a two week gig at the New York World’s Fair singing with Harry James and Les Brown. In 1940, while MacRae was working as a page at NBC, he was hired to sing with the Horace Heidt band. After two years with Heidt, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
After his enlistment was complete and the war was over, he went back to New York. He won his first part on Broadway in the play, “Junior Miss”. While working on Broadway in Ray Bolger’s show “Three to Make Ready” he was signed to a long-term contract by Capitol Records in 1948. To promote MacRae, Capitol teamed up with the Young and Rubicam advertising agency’s client, Gulf Spray Oil, to sponsor a 15 minute music show during the summer of 1948.
Before signing with Capitol Records, MacRae first signed with the Musicraft label in 1946. With Walter Gross and his orchestra, MacRae recorded songs like “Prisoner of Love” and “They Say It’s Wonderful”. His was one of the most popular male voices on the radio at the time as he was heard on over 500 radio stations.
In 1948, he signed a seven-year deal with Warner Brothers and made his first movie, “The Big Punch”. In the same year, MacRae also began starring in The Railroad Hour on radio. The radio show was on weekly for six years.
MacRae’s movie career lasted from 1948 until 1981 though is slowed significantly after the 1950s. His final movie was in The Pilot, starring Cliff Robertson. Between “The Big Punch” and “The Pilot”, he made 16 feature length movies and three short-subjects.
- The Big Punch - 1948
- Look for the Silver Lining - 1949
- Backfire - 1950
- The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady - 1950
- Return of the Frontiersman - 1950
- Tea for Two - 1950
- The West Point Story - 1950
- On Moonlight Bay - 1951
- Starlift - 1951 (cameo role)
- The Screen Director - 1951 Short Subject
- About Face - 1952
- Screen Snapshots: Fun in the Sun - 1952 Short Subject
- By the Light of the Silvery Moon - 1953
- The Desert Song - 1953
- Three Sailors and a Girl - 1953
- So You Want a Television Set - 1953 Short Subject
- Oklahoma! - 1955
- Carousel - 1956
- The Best Things in Life Are Free - 1956
- Zero to Sixty - 1978
- The Pilot - 1980
Though MacRae is best known for his roles in musicals like “Daughter of Rosie O’Grady”, “Oklahoma!”, and “Carousel”, his first movie was not a musical. Pack that piece of information away for your next game of Trivial Pursuit!
MacRae was a recording artist with Capitol Records for 20 years. His solo recordings and the recordings he made with singer Jo Stafford sold over 5,000,000 records. The recordings included everything from love songs to show tunes to hymns.
In the late 1950s and into the 1970s, MacRae had a drinking problem. He admitted to an arrest for drunk driving while filming Carousel. In the early 1970s he worked hard to overcome the drinking and eventually conquered the disease. MacRae humbly counseled other alcoholics .
In the 1960s and 1970s he appeared as a guest star on several television shows, even landing his own show on NBC for a year. During this time he continued recording for Capitol. In addition he appeared in concerts and night clubs regularly from the 1940s until just before his death in the early 1980s.
After his final movie role in 1981, MacRae had a stroke in 1982. He recovered and continued giving concerts when he could until 1985 when he was diagnosed with cancer. MacRae died on January 24, 1986 of complications for cancer in Lincoln, Nebraska.