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On the Fritz

Tony Award winner Fritz Weaver returns to the stage in the Atlantic Theater Company's production of The Voysey Inheritance.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Fritz Weaver in The Voysey Inheritance
(© Monique Carboni)
Fritz Weaver thought he was finished with acting. After a lengthy stint Off-Broadway and in regional theaters in the two-character play Trying, in which he played Judge Frances Biddle, and suffering a near-fatal heart infection, the Tony Award-winning actor made what he calls "a secret decision" to retire. "I truly thought Trying was my swan song," says Weaver over a cup of tea at Chelsea's Le Grainne Café.

But "after a couple of spins in Central Park," the 80-year-old Weaver was willing to reconsider that decision. And then the call came from the Atlantic Theater Company: Would he play the pivotal if relatively brief role of Mr. Voysey in David Warren's production of David Mamet's adaptation of Harley Granville Barker's 1905 play The Voysey Inheritance (now in previews for a December 6 opening)? "I read the original play, and I know Barker would hate to hear this, but I thought it was dated," says Weaver. "But David Mamet made it not dated. I think it's because he didn't feel the need to use period language, but the language he does use is so strong."

Voysey, a financial wizard who has been embezzling from his clients to support his own lifestyle, is the latest in a very long lines of "bad guys" Weaver has played in his over 50-year career. "I used to worry when my kids were growing up that they would be dismayed by seeing their old man play all these villains," he says. No matter how heinous the character -- such as a 2005 role on Law & Order, in which he played a man who arranged to have another man's kidney cut out of him in order to save his own daughter -- Weaver tries to find something to latch onto to make him understandable, if not necessarily likeable.

"In Voysey's case, one of his sons calls him an artist at what he does," says Weaver. "And he's a good provider and family man, and I think that's an important aspect of why he does what he does. I like that he's a rogue, even if he's dressed up in very respectable clothing. He does what lots of people do and gets away with it."

That Weaver would still be acting at 80 is remarkable, especially since he never planned to be an actor at all. He grew up in Pittsburgh as the son of a social worker and an Italian immigrant housewife -- albeit one with dreams of being an opera singer -- but his life turned upside down during World War II. His father had become a pacifist and a Quaker, and so when he and his brother were drafted, they became conscientious objectors. The family was placed in a camp in upstate New York, where Weaver met a variety of artists, writers, and other interesting folk. "It seemed everyone interesting I met there went to the University of Chicago, so I decided to go there too," he recalls. "I wanted to be a writer, but while I was there, a friend asked me to play Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral."

After doing that, he was hooked on acting, and when a teacher told him he thought Weaver might be able to make a living as a professional actor, he moved to New York to pursue that dream. His New York career began in 1955 with John Webster's The White Devil, for which he won the Clarence Derwent Award, which was quickly followed by his Broadway debut in The Chalk Garden, which earned him a Theatre World Award and a Tony nomination.

After a series of what Weaver terms "flops," his next significant appearance on the Great White Way would be as H.H. Henderson in the musical All American in 1962. "Joshua Logan just gave me the part, and I think he assumed I could sing and dance," he says. "So I went to take dance instruction from Hanya Holm. She put me in the advanced class and made me do complicated things she knew I couldn't do to make me understand what I was getting into. Anyway, I had this one number with Ray Bolger, and he always improvised during rehearsals while I stuck exactly to the choreography. On opening night, we're in the wings, and Ray asked me what the steps were and I had to teach them to him."

In 1964, Weaver came to Broadway in The White House, in which he played a variety of U.S. presidents -- "the tall, linear ones," he says -- and Helen Hayes played many of the first ladies. "While we were in Philadelphia, someone suggested we go to Washington and do it in the real White House," he recalls. "LBJ had just become president and Helen did not like his politics at all; she was a real Republican. But when she met him, she curtsied all the way to the floor. I have to say I enjoyed watching the First Lady of the American theater play to the First Gentleman of the United States."

The next year, Weaver did his second (and last) Broadway musical, Baker Street, in which he played detective Sherlock Holmes. "He had always been one of my favorite characters; I had seen all the Basil Rathbone movies," he says. "But ultimately, there was something intractable about the story. It was hard to make Holmes a romantic figure. In the books, he was one of those Victorian men who didn't understand anything about women and was able to resist them. On stage, it was hard for my Holmes to resist Inga Swenson. But I think Hal Prince did what he could with the show; he was so brilliant." Weaver only disagreed with one of Prince's decisions. "There was this one number in Boston called "Dreary", in which Holmes explained that he took cocaine because he was so bored without a good case to work on. But the audiences didn't buy it and they took it out," he recalls. "That was too bad; it was one of my favorite numbers."

Weaver's greatest Broadway triumph was as Jerome Malley, the Catholic school teacher, in Robert Morosco's Child's Play. "I based the character on my father," he recalls. "I remember John Simon loved the performance, but said I played the part as if he was a repressed homosexual, and my father certainly wasn't that."

The part earned him the Best Actor Tony, besting fellow thespians James Coco, Frank Grimes, and Stacy Keach. "On one hand I thought I had a shot at winning; but on the other, I thought who's going to give a Tony Award to Fritz Weaver from Pittsburgh," he recalls. Weaver says the Tony didn't change his career. "It's nice for a résumé, but the downside is producers think you want a lot of money for your next show."

However, Weaver's life might have changed had it not been for Child's Play producer David Merrick. "I asked for a week off during the show to go to Rome for a screen test, and Merrick said absoutlely not," he says. And what was the film? "It was Man of La Mancha. I had already been measured for the beard, and I really thought I understood Don Quixote. But I didn't get to go to Rome and the part went to Peter O'Toole."

Weaver has worked quite steadily in the 36 years since Child's Play on both stage and screen, but no piece of work has had the same impact on him as the 1979 miniseries Holocaust, for which he received an Emmy Award nomination for his work as Dr. Josef Weiss. "We filmed some parts of the series in this concentration camp near Vienna, and it was so overwhelming. I remember on the bus rides back to the hotel, no one could speak," he says. "I still get fan mail about the show -- often from Germany and Israel. I think it means a great deal more to Europeans than to Americans; especially young Europeans who haven't been told their own history by their parents."

While Weaver no longer considers himself "retired," don't expect to him to take any part that comes along. "I still plan to be very choosy about what I do," he says. "It's getting harder for me to remember my lines. And I still think I wouldn't mind sitting in the park for a while."