If acting isn’t a calling but a compulsion, then Jason Robards, who died on Monday, had it big time. Perhaps his need was linked to other compulsions–most pertinently, drinking. Perhaps it wasn’t. Whatever, Robards’ drive wasn’t just to act in movies, which he said he tolerated because of the freedom the money afforded him. He was compelled to take that Hollywood money and return to act in the theater.
Again and again he came to Broadway and Off-Broadway, where he began. He returned many times to the works of Eugene O’Neill; Robards had received his first wallop of attention as the disillusioned and disillusioning Hickey in the legendary 1956 Circle in the Square revival of The Iceman Cometh.
Since O’Neill died before Robards began acting, it can’t be said that the former wrote his plays for the latter. It only seemed that way. In particular, the great playwright’s stage alter ego Jamie Tyrone seemed the actor’s alter ego as well; Robards played that haunted figure in Broadway productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. On both occasions, huzzahing critics concluded that it wasn’t so much Jason Robards as Jamie Tyrone, but Jason Robards is Jamie Tyrone.
Robards made no secret he was himself a drinker, so the assumption has long been made that his connection to Jamie’s self-loathing was intrinsic, the actor’s nature in exact synchronicity with the character’s. Perhaps this was an inaccurate belief, since Robards was able to keep himself professionally active, whereas Jamie Tyrone wasn’t. The actor was often quoted as saying that he never drank before a performance. Eventually, of course, he went on the wagon and remained there.
His understanding of what makes Jamie run, and run down, was comprehensive and unforgettable. Those who saw Robards’ Jamie wrangle with his younger brother Edmund (Bradford Dillman) in the gasping and grasping last act of Long Day’s Journey Into Night still vividly recall the horrifying spectacle. And those who were lucky enough to get into the 1973 Moon for the Misbegotten remember with equal clarity the night of understanding and conciliation played out between Jamie and Josie (Colleen Dewhurst) with such chiseled tenderness. Not incidentally, José Quintero was always the director of these O’Neill forays.
Robards was so persuasive in O’Neill that he helped to bring about a reassessment of the playwright’s contribution to American dramatic literature. Without the Robards-Quintero collaboration, O’Neill might still be in eclipse, considered a one-note pessimist and not the author of arguably the best American play of the 20th century: Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Indeed, it was Robards who showed that O’Neill characters are what actors aspiring to any kind of on-stage grandeur need to cut their teeth on. Without Robards–who also played in productions of O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, Hughie, and A Touch of the Poet–actors like Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Gabriel Byrne might not have been tempted to try leaping O’Neill’s hurdles. Into the bargain, of course, they pitted themselves against Robards’ performances.
Robards’ love of the boards and the proscenium and the curtain going up was such that he didn’t restrict himself solely to playing tragic O’Neill figures. He also acted in plays by Arthur Miller (After the Fall), Lillian Hellman (Toys in the Attic), Herb Gardner (A Thousand Clowns), Harold Pinter (No Man’s Land), and George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You). His hound-dog face and physique and growl of a voice would seem to have marked him more for serious plays than for comedy; his characterizations often had the effect of acid dripping on metal. But he was up to playing both ends of the spectrum.
Curiously, he won his only Tony for his depiction of an alcoholic author in the 1958 adaptation by Budd Schulberg and Harvey Breit of Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted. At the beginning of what was ostensibly a fictionalized portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his dissipated Tinseltown days, Robards clutched a bottle of whiskey and described a screenplay he was imagining that started out with the camera panning over a vista of a smooth ski slope that then became, shockingly, a woman’s thigh. The nasty anger he invested in this speech was another in the long list of indelible moments he contributed to theater history.
To be sure, Robards was marvelous and successful in movies–never, though, as a leading man. He won back-to-back Oscars in 1977 and 1978 for his portrayals of real-life personalities Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men and Dashiell Hammett in Julia. He was incisive and moving as recently as last year in Magnolia, where he again seemed to be drawing on his own experiences, this time as a man dying of cancer. He must have derived some pleasure from making films for movie theaters and television, or he probably wouldn’t have found the time to appear in over 80 of them.
But it was as a stage actor first and foremost that Jason Robards will be remembered–not just for the roles he played or the often harrowing conviction with which he played them, but also for his dedication in giving brilliant, live performances eight times a week. For all of these reasons, he will remain a beacon to other actors, today and in the future.