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A Qualified Success

Family Values

Currently featured in The Man Who Had All the Luck, Sam Robards discusses his past, his parents, and his profession.

By New York City
Sam Robards
Sam Robards
Two weeks before previews begin for the Roundabout revival of Arthur Miller's The Man Who Had All the Luck, Sam Robards is chatting about his role during a lunch break at the rehearsal studio. Gus Eberson, explains Robards, is "a genius with a wrench, the sort of guy who's able to discern things in automobiles merely by listening or observing the behavior of the vehicle. He's a good man." After he helps David Beeves (Chris O'Donnell) repair a car, Gus becomes his friend and trusted employee. "He's an immigrant searching for the American Dream, someone who thinks he's going to participate in this social mobility. He comes to the town looking for happiness, trying to find a wife."

The play is set, in Miller's own words, "three feet above Ohio" during the 1930s. The original 1944 production, which marked Miller's first outing on Broadway, lasted only four performances. (Robards notes that "my part was played by Herbert Berghof, who directed me in a play many years ago.") Except for two members, the present cast appeared in a Williamstown production last June; this is Robards' first experience doing a play he's performed previously. "We did all the work eight months ago and now it's sort of muscle memory," he says. "Sometimes, you feel like you're ending up in places that you really haven't done the work to get to...but you have done it. Very odd, but it's fun. When you do a play, the dialogue is ingrained. I always thought it fades away after the last performance but, in fact it doesn't."

What makes all of this "particularly special," Robards adds, is a connection to his late father, Jason Robards: "My father and Arthur Miller worked together in After the Fall in 1964 at Lincoln Center. It was the first production there. To be able to work with Miller on Broadway is a little bit of extra closure for me. At one point during rehearsals in Williamstown, Mr. Miller said, 'I was talking to your father like this and now I'm talking to you.' I find that exciting." At a memorial service that took place on February 26, 2001, Robards recalled his dad's retort when young Sam broke the news that he wanted to act. The elder Robards repeated the same thing that his actor-father (Jason, Sr.) had said to him: that it was an actor who shot Lincoln. "That's something we should all keep in mind," says Sam, sounding very much like his father.

As a youngster, Sam would see his parents--Robards and Lauren Bacall--in plays and visit them backstage. "I'd always go out and stand on the stage with nobody there," he recalls, "but it was never, 'I'm going to be an actor!' I wanted to be a fireman or a cop. Or a boxer--that's what I really wanted. But I got kicked out of college and had to do something. I got an understudy/assistant stage manager job--and, fortunately I've kept working." Having read that the elder Robards was a Civil War buff, I ask if this might have been an area of interest that the two shared; but Sam says that, while his father was interested in the war, he wouldn't really call him a buff ("Fishing was the thing that dad and I had," he tells me). I mention that when I once interviewed Bacall at her apartment in the Dakota and began by admiring a painting on the wall, she said, "Fine, but let's get on with it." Robards laughs: "That's Mom! She's not going to mince words. That's the way she is with me. She's so great."

In 1981, Robards made his Off-Broadway debut in Album, understudying Kevin Bacon and Keith Gordon and later succeeding Gordon as Boo. At Second Stage, Robards appeared in Flux, again with Kevin Bacon. Next, in a Connecticut production of The Philadelphia Story, he played Tracy Lord's brother, Alexander ("a role not in the movie"). Other credits include Mr. Cherry in the Kennedy Center's Idiot's Delight, Tristram in Alan Ayckbourn's Taking Steps for the York Theatre, and Cootie in a 1988 production of Michael Weller's Moonchildren at Second Stage that also starred Kevin Anderson, Cynthia Nixon, Penelope Ann Miller, and Alan Ruck. In his two most recent stage appearances, Robards was directed by David Warren: he played Joseph Percival in the Roundabout's Misalliance in 1997 and Swallow in the Vineyard Theatre production of Nicky Silver's The Altruists in 2000.

Checking a quote, I ask if it's true that Robards considers acting "better than a real job." "Absolutely!" he exclaims. "C'mon, there are people who work for a living. Seriously, I think it's a noble profession, and very different than being a celebrity. There's nothing wrong with that; they're just two different things. Acting is sort of a minor talent, an interpretative--rather than a primary--art, like painting or writing music. And you get paid sort of inordinately, though not necessarily in the theater. You've got to do movies and television; otherwise, you can't make a living wage. When I started, which was 21 years ago, you actually could: I was living in a five-floor walk-up studio apartment in Hell's Kitchen for $300 a month. I was working downtown, making 270 bucks a week, but I could pay my rent."

Sam Robards with Chris O'Donnellin The Man Who Had All the Luck(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sam Robards with Chris O'Donnell
in The Man Who Had All the Luck
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Robards made his movie debut opposite a teenaged Molly Ringwald (also making her screen bow) in 1982's The Tempest, loosely based on the Shakespeare play. In his most recent film, Life as a House, his character was sexually involved with a male teen played by Hayden Christensen: "I had never played a creep before," he says of that assignment, then goes on to admit: "I didn't understand what that character was doing in the film. When I read the script, I thought: This doesn't really make sense. I was happy to play it and get paid, but that character was from a whole other movie." Among Robards' intervening screen credits were two pictures starring Michael J. Fox: Bright Lights, Big City (1988) and Casualties of War (1989). Jason Robards filmed an unbilled cameo for the former but, according to Sam, "the first director got fired and the scene was cut." Sam and his mother "are in the same room, but not together" in Robert Altman's star-filled Pret-a-Porter (a.k.a. Ready to Wear).

In Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Sam played Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine. And he appeared as a cybertronics employee who adopts a robot child (Haley Joel Osment) in Steven Spielberg's AI: Artificial Intelligence. A personal favorite among his movies is the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1999, American Beauty, in which Robards and Scott Bakula portrayed a gay couple--"the most normal guys in the neighborhood. When I saw [the film], I thought: 'If I never work again, at least I can say I was in this.' I didn't have much to do, but it was great to be part of it."

On television, Robards has been involved in four series: TV 101 ("Matt LeBlanc was in that; I always work with people who hit it big"); Get a Life ("as Chris Elliott's friend"); Maximum Bob ("I loved that show; it was strange, but TV needs a little more strangeness"); and Spin City, in which he had a recurring role during the 1998-99 season ("It was fun to work with Michael [J. Fox] again, though I played the most boring man on the planet"). One of his TV highlights was the 2001 live telecast of On Golden Pond, of which he says: "That was great! It was important to me to work with Chris Plummer, who's an old friend of my dad's. It was fun to work with Julie Andrews, and Glenne Headly [who played Robards' love interest] is a wonderful actress. I really did enjoy that."

Robards has a son from his first marriage and two from his second. "Yes, my three sons," he jokes in a reference to the 1960s sitcom. "I am Fred MacMurray--and I'm currently holding auditions for Uncle Charley." He met his wife, the former Sidsel Jensen, "at an airport in Paris. Her first name is Danish; the 'd' is silent. It's pronounced SIS-sel. We were both working on Pret-a-Porter. She was a model. We sort of didn't like each other initially, but then we became friends. Luckily, she has enough patience to put up with me."

The affable Robards acknowledges that, "Like a lot of other actors, I go through fallow periods when things are not good. You think: What am I doing here? I should be doing something else, I should go back to school. I know a lot of people who, after September 11, made big changes in their lives. But I've been fortunate so far, and hopefully that will continue. If it doesn't, there's always something else in this big old, goofy world. I am proud of my parents and of what they've accomplished, which is awesome; but I'm just trying to have fun, and do good work, and be the best I can."


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