April 18, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
On Monday, I wrote of the early life and career of Jason Robards Jr., pausing after his 1956 Broadway debut in the American premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. As James Tyrone Jr., he played the alcoholic and eldest son to an actor-father. Room enough to make comparisons in real life, as Robards, too, bared the same name as his actor-father, and sadly struggled with alcohol for much of his life. But therein the similarities end. James O’Neill Jr., on whom O’Neill based the play’s wastrel elder brother, never amounted to anything. Robards became one of the leading actors of his generation. And as for his namesake, he got along with his old man, who was nothing like the maddening father with whom O’Neill had horrific conflicts.
In 1958, when Robards was cast as the lead in his first Broadway play, The Disenchanted, by Budd Schulberg and Harvey Breit, he used his newfound clout to ensure that Jason Robards Sr. be in the show with him. By then, his father was sixty-six, and hadn’t appeared on Broadway in thirty-six years: a gift from son to father. When asked in a 1994 interview about similarities in their acting, Robards said of his dad: “He was better … and much better looking … I saw him on stage when I was eleven and I was mesmerized. That was in a production out in Los Angeles. But I wish I’d seen him at his peak, when he was onstage in New York.”
The Disenchanted, a thinly-veiled portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was well-received by critics, but was unable to find an audience. It only managed a five month run, closing shortly after Robards won what would be his sole Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play (he received eight Tony nominations overall, to this date, more than any other actor).
In his next two Broadway shows, Robards gave distinguished performances in problematic plays, Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic and Hugh Wheeler’s Big Fish, Little Fish. It wasn’t until 1962 and Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, that Robards not only scored a hit, but had his first starring role in an out-and-out comedy. Wrote one critic: “Jason Robards Jr. emerges as the new clown prince of Broadway.” Not sure if that compliment made Robards uncomfortable or not, for he quickly went back to doing dramas — and fast.
While continuing to squeeze time in for film and television work, Robards remained steadfastly committed to the stage, often in difficult plays. He was Arthur Miller’s proxy in the controversial After the Fall; a publisher in S.N. Berhman’s critically dismissed But For Whom Charlie (both part of Lincoln Center’s inaugural season of plays), and the serial monologist in the first Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s splendid Hughie — all of them in 1964. In total, he starred in eight Broadway shows in the 1960s (which is a lot of shows).
But a hard-lived life took its toll. His first marriage to Eleanor Pittman ended in 1958; his second, with Lauren Bacall, ended in 1969 (there was even a brief marriage in between the two). In the early ’70s, he took a number of jobs that were beneath him in order to meet the demands of alimony, child support, and other expenses. With little to excite him creatively, he would become anxious. In 2013, I conducted an interview with the late Clifford Stevens, who was Robards’ off-again/on-again agent for almost three decades. “Jason was so neurotic about work that if he didn’t work for two months, anybody he’d talk to, he’d go with,” Stevens said. “And then, two months later, he’d come back to me.”
Then a gig was culled together, almost as if snatched out of thin air, that turned into something profound; not only for Robards, but for everyone involved. The story of how the now legendary 1973 Broadway revival of O’Neill’s A Moon For the Misbegotten came to be is a great one, and who better to tell it than Clifford Stevens? Here it is, exactly as he told it to me:
“Jason called me, it was April , and he said, ‘I gotta do something to help José [Quintero]. He can’t get a job.’ José had a big battle with alcoholism, but now he was on the wagon. And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a movie in August. What do you want to do between now and August? That’s not a lot of time to put something together.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve thought about doing [O’Neill’s] A Touch of the Poet.’ And I said, ‘Jason, I couldn’t give Touch of the Poet away … that’s not gonna happen.’ And he said, ‘Well, Colleen [Dewhurst] and I have always talked about doing A Moon For the Misbegotten,’ and I said, ‘That’s not an easy play either, but I have a real affection for that one.’
So I sat down and called all the usual suspects; the people who could put together a Broadway tour … Kennebunkport, Playhouse in the Park … you could get seven or eight weeks, and you could also book a play for one week. They all said, ‘Oh boy, Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst — how about Plaza Suite?’ As soon as I mentioned Misbegotten … they froze. So, I was about to call Jason and say, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it happen,’ and then I thought about the Lake Forest Theatre in Chicago. Brian Bedford, who I represented, did many plays there, and I would go out there a lot. So I called and said, ‘I’ve got Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst to star, I’ve got José Quintero to direct, I’ve got A Moon For the Misbegotten, these are the dates they’re free.’ I was told there was already something booked and I said, ‘Postpone it! I’m putting you on the map!’
I called Jason, Colleen, José, and said, “You’re flying to Lake Forest,’ and they all asked ‘Where is it?” I said, “It’s outside Chicago. It’s a very nice theatre.’
I never thought anything was going to happen with it. Then a few weeks later, I was in London with Betty Bacall, and she was on the phone with Jason talking about their son, Sam. And she said ‘Clifford’s here, do you want to talk to him?’ I said, ‘How’s it going?” because I hadn’t talked to him in awhile, and he said, ‘We’ve got something really good here. We’ve got something really hot.’ I said, ‘You want to go on with it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’
Then the money became hard to raise. One time, when I was up at the farm with Colleen, she said, ‘When we’re in trouble, we call Roger Stevens’ [a renowned producer of the day]. I said, ‘I can call him, but the call would be much better calling from you. With me he might say he’ll think about it, but he’ll do anything for you, especially with Jason attached.’ And he gave us a booking at the Kennedy Center. That went so well that we were able to get the Morosco for eight weeks on an interim booking.
If I had to name the greatest opening night I ever went to, it was on that freezing December 29th at the Morosco. Elliot Martin [the producer] couldn’t afford a party, so Jason (who was not making a lot of money at the time), Colleen (who was practically broke), and José (who was always broke), all threw the party. There was a band, food, and then Elliot got up and read Clive Barnes’ review. And Jason said, ‘This night’s not gonna end,’ and he called his friends at the No Name Bar … we all got into taxis … and I remember … I was holding Colleen … and the front of my shirt was soaked with her tears. We knew this was not going to be just eight weeks, and she said, ‘I’ve been in this fucking business for twenty years, I’ve never been in a success.’”
Robards’ personal reaction to Misbegotten’s success was one of surprise. “Audiences must be starving for meaningful theatre,” he said. “They are responding to this as though it’s a new play.” His statement at the time proved more meaningful than he could have known: over the next twenty-one years, Robards went on to star in six “old plays” on Broadway (four of them by O’Neill). More on those productions in Fridays’s column, “Jason Robards: Act Three.”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.