Theatre yesterday and today



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I’m taking the opportunity to acknowledge the anniversary of the passing of Jason Robards, who died twenty years ago today, by posting this tribute I wrote two years ago. It’s the last in a trilogy to this great actor, which you can access here: Part I and Part II.

When Jason Robards was first offered the role of Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, he didn’t want to do it. “I’m not going to play this,” he told his agent Clifford Stevens. “I never played a part this small in my life!”

Stevens, who passed away in 2018, gave me his exclusive take on the story in a 2013 interview: “The part of Ben Bradlee had been turned down by Henry Fonda, by ten different actors. Finally, we got Alan [Pakula] to sit with Jason, have a drink, and he said, ‘OK, we’ll use him…’ Then I had Jason read it and he didn’t get what a good part it was. I told him, ‘Jason, you have been making B movies, and sometimes less than B movies for years … this is Redford, this is Hoffman, this is an A movie. You have to do this. You have to re-establish yourself as an important actor.’ I then proceeded to make the worst deal for an actor I’ve ever made in my life. Terrible. I don’t even want to tell you about it. And I said to Jason, ‘I’ll make this up to you.’ So he did President’s Men, the movie came out, and within a week he was offered Julia, which again he didn’t like and wasn’t going to do. This time I went to Lois [Robards’ wife] and said, ‘Will you please get him to make this movie?’”

For All the President’s Men and Julia, Robards won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.

Personally, his Ben Bradlee is my favorite performance of all his film and television work. In just his few scenes he commands the screen in ways that only a truly great actor can: with authority, simplicity and subtle, sly humor. He’s riveting. I don’t think he was ever better.

Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men (1976).

As was his wont, Robards continued to return to the stage. In 1976, the same year as President’s Men, I was fortunate to see him take on the role of James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day’s Journey into Night, exactly twenty years after creating the role of James Tyrone Jr. in the play’s original production. It was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I was mesmerized (particularly by Zoe Caldwell as Mary Tyrone). In 1983, he gave a beautiful performance as Grandpa Vanderhoff in Ellis Rabb’s superb Broadway revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You (with Robards’ beloved Colleen Dewhurst in a supporting role). They were again reunited on Broadway for O’Neill’s centennial in 1988, when they performed in rep (no less), Essie and Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness!, depicting the mother and father O’Neill wished he had, and in Long Day’s Journey, playing his parents as they really were.

Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards as Mary and James

in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1988).

Four year prior to the two O’Neill plays, Robards made the bold decision to return as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, this time on Broadway, thirty-one years after he triumphed in it Off-Broadway. Once again, Jose Quintero was the director, and Robards was joined by actors of the caliber of Barnard Hughes and Donald Moffat. Although it wasn’t an altogether successful production, it did provide the thrill of watching Robards in action, especially in the famous end-of-the-play monologue. I can still recall the tears streaming down his cheeks during Hickey’s confession and breakdown. Robards scalding self-immolation was nothing short of monumental.

Jason Robards with Barnard Hughes in The Iceman Cometh (1985).