Currently tearing it up on screen in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Frank Langella is having a moment. And how many moments has this actor been blessed with over a sixty-year career? Uncountable — though four is a good number to start with — it being the total of competitive Tony Awards he has received, one of only two male actors to ever achieve that status. His rewarding life in the theatre (still going strong) is the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”
Frank Langella, born in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1938, took to acting immediately when, as a small boy, he raised his hand to play an elf in an elementary school play. “The moment I walked out on it [the stage] I found my calling at seven. I knew it was where I was supposed to be.” His early years as an actor were all about his exceptional good looks and deep, resonant voice, which he cultivated by listening to John Gielgud records as a young man. “I would sit up in my attic imitating him because ‘I tawked like ‘dis’… very much like a Jersey boy, which I was, and I had no one to train me out of it.” First cast as something of a matinee idol, as he matured, so did his acting and, as he told the New York Times in 1996, “The older I get as an actor, the more I want to get out of my own way.” It wasn’t until he lost his full head of luxurious hair that he admits to shedding his vanity and becoming a much better actor (though by all accounts he’s managed to retain his somewhat healthy ego). That’s okay — he’s earned it. When you’re eighty-two and giving one of the best performances of your life (his Judge Hoffman in Chicago 7), you can bask a bit.
“The spur was probably what spurs most actors,” Langella told the New Jersey Star-Ledger in 2008. “Feeling like a freak in life, like you can’t express yourself. Like you’re not popular, you can’t get a girl, you’re the least appreciated member of your family.” He was fortunate in one respect and that is his parents were supportive, giving young Frank $230 to pursue his passion. “I needed to go apprentice at the Poconos Playhouse,” Langella remembers. “And that was a tremendous amount of money.”
He made his Broadway debut in 1966 and the sixteen Broadway shows which followed are plentiful, though may seem slim for such a long career. But it’s not unusual for even the best actors to go through times when jobs are scarce or, in Langella’s case, when he didn’t even have a decent agent. Which is why his many summer seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts were an oasis for him, as well as time well spent at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Syracuse Stage (where he got his start and won a critics award in 1959), in addition to the West End in London, which predictably welcomed his style of acting. The plays he’s done read like the list every actor once made up when dreaming of a life in the theatre (or at least I did): Cyrano de Bergerac, The Seagull, The Tempest, Macbeth, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream… even My Fair Lady. A number of roles, like Cyrano, are ones he’s revisited more than once.
Seeped in this grand tradition has been a tonic for Langella and he must be credited for staying true to his passions. Sure, he played Skeletor opposite Dolph Lundgren in Masters of the Universe in 1987 but go figure — it’s one of his favorite roles. He was very fortunate in his first two films in 1970 to show his versatility in playing opposite types: a fallen aristocrat in 1920s Soviet Russia in Mel Brooks’s The Twelve Chairs, and the violently sexy novelist in Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife. He even played the swashbuckling title role in The Mask of Zorro in a 1974 TV film that he is really quite good in. He had a breakthrough role as a Lizard (in a full lizard-suit) in Edward Albee’s short-lived Seascape in 1975, winning the first of his Tony quartet. This led to a sensation in 1978, when he took on the title role in Dracula, nearly a half-century since the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi made his name with the vampire melodrama. It’s success made possible a 1979 film version, but Langella’s performance paled in comparison without the wit of the stagecraft (led by designer Edward Gorey’s black and white sets and brightly colored costumes) that made the Broadway production such gleeful fun.
One part of my research I uncovered that was close to my heart was something Langella said in 2012 on The Charlie Rose Show about the legacy of great actors who came before him:
Frank Langella: I grew up watching a generation of actors who are gone now: Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, George C. Scott, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Jason Robards, Irene Worth…
Charlie Rose: You can’t find their qualities in young actors now?
Frank Langella: No, it’s not required of them. Young actors are not asked to be things we were all asked to be… young actors today are not asked to fly; they’re not asked to soar. They’re asked to minimalize — miniaturize their talent down to a little soundbite on a television show… you want to be in things that are larger, that make you greater.
Theatre has always remained Langella’s one true medium and he wouldn’t find another role worthy of his talents on film until he was called upon to recreate his stage performance as Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, which he premiered in London, then did later on Broadway, where he received his third Tony Award. The role also brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 2008, to date his only one (though don’t be surprised if he lands one this year in the supporting category for Trial of the Chicago 7). In Frost/Nixon, Langella may be a half a foot taller than Nixon, and his dark, Mediterranean good looks will never be mistaken for Nixon’s paleness, but he does the necessary deep work of delving into the soul of the disgraced ex-President. I was fortunate to see him on the stage, but he might even be better in the film, which is well worth watching if you have never seen it. His London, New York and film co-star is Michael Sheen, who does a fantastic job as David Frost as well.
Mention must be made of Langella’s 2012 memoir Dropped Names, a collection of essays based on the extraordinary lengthy list of people he has known in the course of his lifetime (even John and Jacqueline Kennedy show up when Langella, while only a teenager, found himself in the living room of a friend’s mother’s Cape Cod home with the then- President and First Lady, being serenaded at the piano by no less than Noel Coward). The New York Times called the book “satisfyingly scandalous,” and I couldn’t agree more. He’s a wonderful writer with an eye for detail and a rip-roaring style that makes it a true page-turner. I couldn’t get enough of his stories. But it’s in the “Afterward” where Langella offers something revealing and somewhat revelatory when he writes: “And the wilderness in which I wandered as a young boy, believing myself forever lost, never to reach a destination, I have now come to feel is precisely the place to be.”
And what makes Frank Langella want to continue acting “until the day I die,” as he once told NPR in 2011? Summing it up beautifully in that same interview he expressed why he adores the challenges of theatre over film like this: “It’s the hardest thing to do. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of competence to finally know that if you’ve learned your lines and you understand what they mean and you’re ready to go and you fixed the costume and the light’s OK, you just walk out onstage, and you leap empty-handed into the void, and you see what comes back to you.”
Anyone who’s seen Frank Langella on stage has been an active part of that giving. And speaking for myself, I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more taking (and giving back) for however long that may be, safe in the knowledge that he will always be working as hard as he can to stay at the top of his game.
Note: for those who patted themselves on the back for my in-joke reference to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, with my title of a song from that show at the head of this column, congrats.
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. And please feel free to follow me on Medium and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.