Malcolm Morrison

Malcolm Morrison, former dean of the Hartt School outside the Fuller Building on the University of Hartford campus. (Tom Brown, Hartford Courant / February 16, 2006)

Malcolm Morrison, who expanded the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in size and scope, died Friday at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford after a long battle with cancer. He was 73 and lived in West Hartford with his wife of 42 years, actress and teacher Johanna Morrison.

The British-born Morrison, who was a mentor to generations of future actors, directors and designers, headed Hartt from 1996 to the end of 2008, following his leadership role in North Carolina School of the Arts.

After a one-year sabbatical in 2009 Morrison returned to Hartt as a theater professor. He continued to direct at the school and elsewhere including a 2010 Hartt production "Coram Boy" and "Hamlet" in 2012. Last month he staged "12 Angry Men" at Northern Stage in Vermont.

"Under Malcolm's leadership, the Hartt School is now larger and more successful across a wide spectrum of performing arts programs than at any time in its history," said university President Walter Harrison at the time of Morrison's announcement that he was stepping down as dean. "Not only the Hartt School but the entire university is deeply in his debt."

Morrison oversaw the conversion of the former Thomas Cadillac distributorship in Hartford's North End into the new $21 million Mort and Irma Handel Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008.

Hartt was primarily a music school when Morrison arrived. He added majors in dance, theater and musical theater to its internationally known programs and oversaw a significant upgrade in the quality of students' performances and presentations.

Morrison battled several bouts with cancer over the past 10 years.

The British-born Morrison came to Hartt in 1996 to direct the theater division. He was brought in by Larry Allen Smith, dean of Hartt and former dean of music at the North Carolina School of the Arts, who asked Morrison for advice on expanding curriculum to include all aspects of the performing arts.

Morrison was made interim dean in October 1997 and was named dean the following year.

Morrison also directed "Noises Off," in 2009 at Hartford Stage, based on a production he staged at Monomy Theatre in Chatham, Mass.

British Born

An identical twin, Morrison grew up in Derbyshire, a coal mining and agricultural county in central England. His father, an insurance agent, was a Scottish Presbyterian; his mother, a homemaker, loved the theater and would attend regional theaters with her son.

In an 2006 interview with The Hartford Courant, Morrison recalled an early-morning job as a teenager at a bakery in the mid-'50s that would provide enough ``for bus fare, one cigarette, one match, one rum and peppermint water and my ticket to a show. That was bliss to me.

``It was just a given that I was going to [go into theater], but my father said, `How can you portray life when you haven't seen it?' As a result of that advice, I left school at 16 and joined the police force.''

He saw a lot of real-life conflicts, he said, ``but I also realized after three years that I was ducking the issue. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, which was theater.''

Because he had dropped out of school, Morrison had to make up those lost classes while attending the Rose Bruford College in England, a prestigious school that stressed professional and practical training in the theater.

``The one person I wanted to be — above everyone else -— was John Gielgud, who used to visit the school, along with Peggy Ashcroft, Wendy Hiller. They all turned up, and we'd sit around and talk about `Hamlet' or whatever. Gielgud's work on Shakespeare was quite spellbinding. Watching and listening, I felt there was a richness, beauty and depth behind it that only he could penetrate.''

Just as he was about to start his acting career in the '60s, he was asked to remain at the school and join the faculty.

``I thought, `Why not?' It certainly didn't preclude me from auditioning, although after four years of teaching and directing there, I didn't go for one audition.''

He also started adjudicating at theater festivals, lecturing and even coaching actors for the film ``A Man for All Seasons.'' In 1970, he became head of the college's acting program. It was the same year he met his future wife, Johanna, when he was lecturing in Manchester. ``I was standing at the bar, and this lady walked down the stairs, and I thought, `Oh, my God.' So I bought her a gin and tonic, and we were married the following year. Most people were giving up hope for me by that time.''