December 8, 2019: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The actor Ron Leibman died on Friday at the age of eighty-two. Though a stage veteran throughout a more than fifty-year career, the headlines of many obituaries — like this one from People Magazine — have led with: “Actor Who Played Rachel Green’s Dad on ‘Friends’ Dies.” For a theatre animal like Leibman, someone who devoted many days and nights to “getting it right” eight times a week, this would not at all be kosher. In fact, years ago in an interview (with People, as irony would have it), he said, “It’s amazing, the power of the tube. I’ve done all this body of work, and they say, ‘Oh yes, Rachel’s father.’ I go, ‘Give me a break.”
Having in 1992 had the privilege of relishing his Roy Cohen in Los Angeles in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, prior to its 1993 Broadway run, I can attest to what it was like to see Ron Leibman at his most electrifying (and terrifying). In fact, “Leib” is Yiddish for lion (or “leyb”). And if there was ever an actor more ferocious, I would have trouble coming up with who it might be. Yes, those lion-like jaws of his could chew scenery, but as his commitment was all, most times you bought it. He could tear into comedy with such relentlessness, that when reviewing his performance in Neil Simon’s Rumors, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that he reached “a level of red-faced farcical apoplexy that recalls the valedictory performance style of Zero Mostel.” Rich went even further, pronouncing that “This actor is the soul of farce.”
Born in 1937 in New York City to a father who worked in the garment industry and a homemaker mother, Leibman graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and from there went to Chicago, where he became involved with the improvisational Compass Players, the precursor to Second City. When he returned to New York, he was accepted into the famed Actors Studio and shortly thereafter began appearing off-Broadway and in regional theatre, prominently in some early works of John Guare and Robert Lowell.
He made his Broadway debut in a 1963 comedy titled Dear Me, the Sky is Falling, which starred the legendary Gertrude Berg, and also featured William Daniels and Howard DaSilva (later to co-star in 1776). Two months after its run ended, Herman Shumlin, the director of Dear Me, cast Leibman in a new play Bicycle Ride to Nevada, which sadly opened and closed on the same night. A few months after that, the prolific Mr. Shumlin cast Leibman once again, this time in a play which had a far more respectable run of 316 performances. The Deputy was German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s indictment of Pope Pious XII’s failure to do little to help the Jews during the atrocities of the 30s and 40s. And if you think that the Jewish Mr. Leibman essayed a character of his own religious heritage, you would be wrong. He played Captain Salzer: a Nazi.
In fact, it was such an incongruous role for Leibman, that it made for a number of stories about his time with The Deputy, one of which he told on the 1979 Tony Awards in front of a live television audience (you can catch it at the 21.00 minute mark):
I first encountered Leibman in 1969, when at the age of twelve, I saw Cop-Out, in which he shared co-star billing with his then-wife Linda Lavin. This one-act by John Guare (in his Broadway debut) was paired with Home Fires as its “curtain-raiser.” Unfortunately, the curtain fell on both plays within a week of its opening. As was my custom in those days, I went backstage and met the husband and wife team and even got their autographs. It was forty years later when I next engaged with Leibman, when I met him at an Emmy Governor’s Ball (he was with his second wife Jessica Walter, who had been nominated for her priceless Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development). In spite of not winning, Walter was very much the belle of the ball that night, with well-wishers offering congratulations on her breakthrough comedy performance. I noticed Leibman by her side, seemingly comfortable sharing the spotlight. This was her night, and he knew it. But I chose to lean in anyway, and over the din of the very loud room, semi-shouted into his ear “I saw your Roy Cohn. I have no words.” He gripped my shoulder in response, and with that gesture, expressed his thanks — no words.
Of his Roy Cohn, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a play, much has been written. The role does tend to honor its players, with Al Pacino winning an Emmy for the 2003 HBO film, and Nathan Lane a Tony for the 2018 Broadway revival. But Leibman got there first, and put his stamp on it in only the way he could. In their book The World Only Spins Forward, in which Isaac Butler and Dan Kois gathered stories from hundreds who were involved with Angels in America over the past thirty years, Leibman admitted: “To be honest, I had qualms about playing Roy Cohn. I loved the play. But I detested him as a human being in real life so much. I thought Tony had done a wonderful job of creating his own version of Roy Cohn, but nevertheless I was always ashamed of him. I was ashamed of him because he was a Jew. I was ashamed of a lot of things about him. If I was going to play him, I was going to have to go to places that were very uncomfortable in order to make the character uncomfortable.”
Which he did. And oh man was he good.
While still a teenager, I loved seeing Leibman on film in supporting roles in Where’s Poppa? (hilariously running naked through Central Park), The Hot Rock as a somewhat demented racing car enthusiast, and as the totally out-of-control World War II combat soldier in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (“Nobody fucks with Paul Lazzaro!”). In 1979, he was perfectly cast opposite Sally Field in Norma Rae, the role which won her the first of her two Academy Awards. Their scenes of sparring and growing mutual respect helped to earn that film a Best Picture nomination, with their platonic love story one of the best ever captured on screen.
In the year before the release of Norma Rae, Leibman starred in Kaz, a one-hour CBS drama about a convict-turned-lawyer, which he also co-created. For his efforts, he wound up winning the Emmy over Ed Asner, James Garner and Jack Klugman as Best Actor in a Drama Series. In a 2011 interview he did for the AV Club, Leibman quipped, “ I’m sitting at my desk now, and there’s an Emmy award right in front of me that I got from that. I got an Emmy, and the show was canceled two weeks later. [Laughs.] What a business, huh?”
“Turn us on and we’ll turn you on.” Well, it was 1978.
In 1980, I attended the Broadway opening night of Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures, which featured Leibman in a role where he barely left the stage. He had replaced Tony Curtis, who (to put it politely) was not up to the task. In swooped Leibman, learning the part on quick notice and doing it superbly. The last play I saw him in was twenty-two years ago, downtown at the Public Theatre, in Tony Kushner’s adaptation of The Dybbuk, titled: A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds. He played an old Rabbi and I remember thinking, “I wonder how many more plays Leibman’s got left in him?” Although only sixty years old, it seemed to take everything out of him. As it turned out, he did one more play in New York after that, a three-character play called Adam Baum and the Jew Movie. Much of the past two decades were devoted to film and television, and it was always a delight to see what he would come up with (even in parts that didn’t call for very much for him to do). I distinctly recall his talents being relatively wasted on a couple of episodes of The Sopranos, playing the cardiologist tending to Tony after his being shot in the chest by Uncle Junior.
But that’s the trajectory of an actor’s life. The roles you get aren’t always going to be a Roy Cohn. And though Leibman wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I always found him enormously entertaining, as far back as a teenager seeing him fully take stage in Cop-Out (as only the best stage actors can). He led an actor’s life, and it’s fortunate there’s enough film on him so that people can see what a unique talent he was. And for those that were lucky enough to see him in the theatre… well that was just icing on the cake, wasn’t it?
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.