Thesp Robards, 78, journeys into night

Oscar, Tony winner remembered for B'way perf, link with O'Neill

Oscar and Tony winner Jason Robards Jr. died Tuesday at age 78 at Bridgeport Hospital in Fairfield, Conn. after a lengthy battle with cancer.

The actor won back-to-back supporting Oscars in 1976 and ’77 for “All the President’s Men” and “Julia.” He also appeared memorably in such films as “Melvin and Howard,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “A Thousand Clowns,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and 1999’s “Magnolia.”

Despite his film acclaim, his name will forever be linked with Broadway and with Eugene O’Neill, beginning with his definitive performance in Jose Quintero’s 1956 production of “The Iceman Cometh.”

That revival so impressed the playwright’s widow that she allowed Quintero to stage “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” shortly thereafter — even though O’Neill had asked that it not be performed until 25 years after his death (which occurred in 1953).

Robards’ unshowy but emotionally true performances made him a significant acting presence in the American theater over the past several decades.

‘A gentleman of the theater’

When Robards was saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors last year, actor Frank Langella was among those to pay tribute: “Actors used to be called ladies and gentlemen of the theater. Those have become antiquated terms, but Jason Robards lives up to that tradition; he remains a gentleman of the theater.”

On Tuesday, Langella also praised the actor for his generosity and support. He recalled that in 1996, Robards was appearing in Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney” at the Roundabout in New York. The morning after Langella opened in “The Father,” at the Roundabout’s larger stage, he received a handwritten note from Robards and a bouquet congratulating him on the review in the New York Times. “There are not many actors who would do that,” Langella said.

Robards managed to combine a classical style of acting with no-nonsense realism; he could convey rock-of-Gibraltar stability (as in “All the President’s Men”) or overpowering fragility, as in his O’Neill work. His commanding yet vulnerable presence stood out in sharp contrast to a generation of Method actors in the 1950s, when he rose to fame.

He was influenced by his father, Jason Robards Sr., who appeared in more than 175 films and with whom he co-starred onstage in Budd Schulberg’s “The Disenchanted” (1959), for which Robards Jr. won a Tony award.

As a youth Robards had turned his back on his father’s profession. He was born on July 26, 1922 in Chicago, and at the age of five, when his parents divorced, he moved to Hollywood with his father.

Attending Hollywood High, Robards was determined to become a professional athlete. After high school, he went into active duty in the Naval Reserve and served in the Pacific. He survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and was eventually discharged in 1946 as radioman first class.

Steps up to bat

The war changed his ambitions. He read the works of O’Neill and, at his father’s encouragement, studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts — while making a last stab at semi-pro baseball. He stayed at AADA only eight months.

He worked in stock and local theater, copping a role as John Hodiak’s understudy in “The Chase” on Broadway. In 1952 he met Quintero, who cast him in the off-Broadway production of “American Gothic.”

But it was “Iceman” in 1956 that pushed Robards into the front ranks of theater actors. “I left sad that Mr. O’Neill was not alive to witness it, because it was so clearly what he intended but never got,” wrote critic Wolcott Gibbs in the New Yorker.

The American premiere the following year of “Long Day’s Journey,” with Robards, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge, made theater history. The play ran for almost two years.

Both those performances have been preserved — the former in a TV production and the latter in the film version with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell.

In 1958 Robards tried his hand at Shakespeare, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Productions of “Henry IV, Part One” and “The Winter’s Tale” were met with mixed response. But that did not deter him from trying “Macbeth” the following year.

The next decade and beyond were filled with rich performances.

Nommed for 8 Tonys

He was nominated for eight Tony awards, four of them for O’Neill works: “Long Day’s Journey,” “Disenchanted,” “Toys in the Attic” (1960), “After the Fall” (1964), “Hughie” (1965), “The Country Girl” (1972), “A Moon for the Misbegotten” (1974) and “A Touch of the Poet” (1978). He also scored a great personal success with “A Thousand Clowns,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and Harold Pinter’s “Moonlight.”

Other stage work includes Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” in 1994 with Christopher Plummer. He was scheduled to appear in a Jon Robin Baitz play, “Ten Unknowns,” at Lincoln Center, to open next February.

At first he scorned film and TV but later worked in these arenas to fund the alimony for several wives (including actress Lauren Bacall). Gradually, he developed respect and comfort with those media.

Came late to film

He made nearly a dozen TV guest appearances in the late 1940s and the 1950s (“Philco Television Playhouse,” “The Alcoa Hour,” etc.) Not an obvious film leading man, Robards came to films relatively late in life, making his film debut at age 37 with the 1959 pic “The Journey,” a respectable but not popular feature in which he played a Hungarian freedom fighter.

It was two years before his next film, “By Love Possessed.” Though critics weren’t enthused about the 1962 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” Robards received acclaim for his work as Dick Diver (Robards said he was the 26th choice for the role), opposite Jennifer Jones.

In 1963, he appeared in Moss Hart’s “Act One,” playing George S. Kaufman, his first of many forays into depictions of real people.

Soon film work came steadily, such as “A Thousand Clowns” (1965), “A Big Hand for the Little Lady” (1966), “Divorce, American Style” (1967), “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968), the classic Sergio Leone film “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969) and Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970).

It was Robards’ impersonations of famous people, however, that brought him his greatest screen recognition, in films and in TV.

His real-life depictions include Al Capone in “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” and Doc Holliday in “Hour of the Gun” (both 1967), Paris Singer in the 1968 “Isadora” and Lew Wallace in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973).

As Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate years, Robards won his first supporting Oscar for “All the President’s Men.” Portraying Dashiell Hammett to Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman in “Julia” brought a second statuette a year later.

In 1981, his third Oscar nomination came for playing a vagabond who might be Howard Hughes in Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard.”

He also rendered agent-producer Leland Hayward in the 1980 “Haywire,” Abraham Lincoln in “The Perfect Tribute” (1991) and the title roles in the cabler “Sakharov” (1984) and TV’s “Mark Twain and Me” (1991).

Presidential portraits

In addition to Lincoln, he played other Presidents: Richard Monckton (a thinly disguised version of Nixon) in the 1977 mini “Washington: Behind Closed Doors” as well as Franklin Roosevelt (“FDR: The Last Year,” 1980) and Ulysses S. Grant (“The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” 1981).

He starred in numerous other TV and film productions. On television he starred in Peckinpah’s “Noon Wine” (1966), a 1975 version of “Moon for the Misbegotten,” “The Day After” (1983) and a 1988 version of “Inherit the Wind.”

Later film roles include “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1983), “Max Dugan Returns” (1983), “Parenthood” (1989) “Philadelphia” (1993), “A Thousand Acres” (1997) and “Beloved” (1998).

He worked steadily through the 1990s, often doing voiceover work in such projects as “Lincoln,” “Irish in America” and “The Civil War.” His last TV role was in “Going Home,” which aired on CBS in March.

He also had a lingering bout with alcoholism, which he eventually conquered, giving up drinking in 1974.

Robards was married four times. He is survived by his wife, Lois, and six children, including sons Sam (by his third wife, Lauren Bacall) and Jason Robards III, both of them actors.

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