April 16, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
For the first time in writing an appreciation of an actor, I’m somewhat intimidated by fear of falling short, devoted as it is to Jason Robards Jr. This is not only due to how much I admired him as an actor, but because of how much I respected his commitment to the stage. Though prolific in film and television (IMDB puts the number at 132), Robards continually returned to the theatre on a regular basis with credits for 29 shows on-and-off-Broadway, spanning a 42-year stage career. It’s a remarkable output, especially when you put it like this: Here was an actor who skyrocketed to theatrical fame after his second off-Broadway credit (as Hickey in 1956’s fabled revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), and just about from then on, stepped up to the plate (like the slugger that he was), always the star player, the captain of every company he led, with every member of his team looking to him to bring the runners home and on to victory. That is a kind of pressure that might make another actor blanch, but not Robards. He did it time and time again.
When young Jason was born in 1922, his father, Jason Robards Sr., was a successful New York stage actor. However, the allure of greater stardom drew him to Hollywood and the hundreds of silent films being shot there. He brought his wife and three children to settle in Los Angeles, only to be met by failure in both work and marriage. Now divorced; his father took custody of the three-year-old Robards and his siblings at a time his father’s career began a disastrous downhill side, as reported in a 1977 interview Robards did with the Washington Post. “He [Robards Sr.] went broke. We didn’t have a nickel,” says Robards. “He did too many bad movies. He got down to doing day parts. It was very degrading. We were very close. It was terrible to have your father and your best friend suffering. It put me off the movie business for a long time. The last thought in my mind was going into the business. I avoided it like the plague.”
In 1940, at age eighteen, and upon graduation from Hollywood High, Robards enlisted in the U.S. Navy. When World War II erupted the following year, he indeed saw his share of action; on one occasion, he survived his battleship getting sunk by two Japanese torpedoes, which left him treading water until an American destroyer came to the rescue hours later. Then, as the story Robards himself liked to tell, sometime during the course of his seven years of Naval service, he made the conscious choice of acting as a profession while reading a ship’s library copy of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude. It came as a total surprise, considering the profession was one his old man had forever struggled with.
He headed for New York City and was told by his father that if he really wanted to make it professionally, he had to learn a thing or two about acting. So Robards enrolled where his father had, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was there, under free enrollment provided by the G.I. Bill, that Robards Jr. studied alongside fellow ex-soldiers Charles Durning and Don Rickles. Not surprisingly, these three members of the class of ’48 did not meet any sort of instant success when they graduated. Robards, in particular, didn’t catch a break until 1953 (at age 31), when he finally got a decent role, cast in an Off-Broadway play for producer Theodore Mann and director José Quintero. Working with kindred spirits the same age as he, made Robards feel connected to these men, both of whom (like Robards) would become future trailblazers in the theatre. And though American Gothic may have only run a few weeks, a bond was formed that would pay off three years later, when Mann obtained the rights to produce The Iceman Cometh Off-Broadway.
When Robards heard about the production from a friend who had been cast in it, he did everything he could to try and talk his way into reading for Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, the play’s pivotal role. But he was nothing like the way O’Neill described the character: “Fifty, a little under medium height, with a stout, roly-poly figure.” At age thirty-four, and thin as a rail, Robards didn’t come close. Besides, according to Mann, Hickey had already been cast with Howard Da Silva, who had accepted the part. Mann told Robards he could offer him Willie Oban in the play; the down and out, disbarred Harvard lawyer.
But a few days later a funny thing happened. Da Silva took a film instead — and for a lot better money — Iceman was paying $30 bucks a week. Now Mann despaired. “Without the right Hickey we can’t do this play!”
Timing being everything, it was then an agitated Robards showed up at the theatre unannounced. “I was told Jason was downstairs and had to see me,” Mann writes in his book Journey in the Night. “When I came down, he said he wanted to read. Before I could say no, he launched into Hickey’s fourth act monologue. I could tell he’d had a couple of drinks, but as I heard him read, I felt a shiver go through me — no one had ever come close to what Jason was doing.”
Robards had discovered his true element with a part he was meant to play. His reviews were so good that he helped make Iceman the biggest hit of the new Off-Broadway theatre movement. It’s a pity O’Neill didn’t live to see it, as the original Iceman, produced on Broadway ten years earlier, had been a bitter disappointment. Robards, Mann and Quintero were then inextricably linked on many O’Neill productions in the years to come As Mann wrote about Robards: “In O’Neill roles he had a heartbreaking desire to be needed, with his arms down or outstretched cupped palms — offering the essence of himself and his character. His heart was bare and exposed and this created a magnetic pull that made an audience feel they had to help him.”
With that, I think Mann gets at the core of why Robards became the playwright’s foremost interpreter. He had the ability to share that damaged part of himself that nearly always bled through in his acting, be it comedy or tragedy (he was equally adept at both). Much of this may have had to do with his long-time (and well-known) battle with alcohol; an addiction that even surviving a 1972 car accident couldn’t abruptly end. It wasn’t until nearly five years later that Robards fully committed to Alcoholics Anonymous. He was so grateful, that he lent his famous voice and face to radio and television commercials, in the hope of persuading others to seek the help of AA, to which he gave full credit for saving his life.
In that fateful year of 1956, with Iceman having opened on May 6th, the swiftness with which November 7th rolled around was a rare and beautiful thing. For it marked another opening night — this one on Broadway — with Robards as part of the quartet that formed the Tyrone family in the American premiere of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, alongside Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and Bradford Dillman. Due to the surprise success of the Iceman production, Carlotta Monterey lifted her late-husband’s ban on Long Day’s Journey being produced until twenty-five years after his death (it had only been three). She gave Mann and Quintero the rights (and her blessing) for a production that won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize and that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. Which is how in just the span of a few months, Jason Robards found himself part of two of the greatest theatrical events of the 1950s (and that is not hyperbole).
Which feels like a good place to take a short intermission and pick up tomorrow with Act II of the extraordinary career of Jason Robards.
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.