Theatre yesterday and today



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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.

Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020).

“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.

Langella as King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2014).

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.

Langella as Dracula (1978).

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: