July 17, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The noted stage, screen and television actor Barnard Hughes was born July 16, 1915, one hundred and eight years ago yesterday. His first role was in 1935 on Broadway in Herself Mrs. Patrick Crowley. His last, in the year 2000, was playing a judge on a short-lived NBC series Deadline at the age of eighty-five. When he died, his obituaries claimed he had performed in over 400 roles in the theatre. If that figure is true, it’s not hard to imagine him being good in all of them. “I didn’t make a lot of money, but I worked all the time,” he told a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in 1987. “I worked for writers who didn’t make money, I worked for directors who didn’t make money. There wasn’t a basement in New York I didn’t work in.”
Those years of devotion paid off when in 1978 he received the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play for Hugh Leonard’s Da. His competition was steep. In any other season Frank Langella’s Dracula; Jason Robards in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet or Hume Cronyn in D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, could have easily taken home the prize. But it wasn’t surprising when Hughes’s name was announced. Da was his 19th Broadway show, and the first in which he was the bona fide star. It was about time. “I like coming out last on the curtain call. I love standing alone and taking a bow. I’m sure there are times when I appear to be enjoying myself inordinately on that stage. If that’s so, it’s because it is so.”
Cast as he was virtually his whole career as an old man, Google Image “Young Barnard Hughes” and there are zero results. Having been in plays over five decades, he was sixty-three when he earned his Tony for Da, a marvelous performance that was tossed off as if it were the easiest thing in the world to achieve. His solid Irish heritage added to the complexities he conveyed as Nick Tynan, a cantankerous Irishman and adoptive father to the play’s protagonist, loosely based on author Leonard himself. Hughes’s own parents, Owen and Madge Kieran Hughes, were Irish immigrants upon whom he drew a portrait as “Da,” entirely genuine in its humor and pathos. When the actor Martin Sheen purchased the film rights to the play, it was with the intention to play the role of the son himself. It took him five years to find the financing, and it probably would have gone a lot easier had he chased after a movie star to play his “Da,” but Sheen had no such thought. There was no way he was going to make the movie without Hughes recreating his stage role. The film is a hard one to track down on DVD and it’s not streaming anywhere currently, but keep an eye out for it. It’s worth a look.
“Bernard” Aloysius Kiernan Hughes was born in Bedford Hills, N.Y. on July 16, 1915. He later changed the “e” in Bernard to an “a” on the advice of a numerologist, who told him it would be better for his career. We’ll never know if that was the reason or not, but he certainly never had trouble finding work. As the story goes, he was tricked as a young man by a friend into auditioning for a repertory company that performed Shakespeare in high schools, and wound up winning a small part in The Taming of the Shrew. He worked with that company for two years before heading off to his World War II Army service. Returning to New York, he became a regularly employed actor in the early days of television, featured on numerous soap operas and live dramas, the likes of The U.S. Steel Hour and Kraft Theatre. He liked to say that he could have played the roles “without pants,” as he told the New York Times in a 1978 interview. “I was always sitting behind something like a desk. I was a judge or a businessman or a lawyer or a doctor. Nobody saw my bottom half.”
He memorably played many small parts on film, be they dramatic as in Midnight Cowboy or off-beat comedic ones in Where’s Poppa? He was featured in prominent guest shots on dozens of classic TV shows over the years, such as All in the Family, Hawaii Five-O and The Bob Newhart Show, on which he occurred as Bob’s Hartley’s father, Herbert. He starred in a couple of series, too: Doc, Mr. Merlin and The Cavanaughs, a personal favorite of mine. I happened to have a friend in the cast, John Short, who played his son, who invited me to a live taping one night in 1987. He knew to ask me because the guest actor that week was one of my idols, Art Carney, who would be playing Hughes’s brother (whom Hughes’s character, Pop Cavanaugh, called “the weasel”). Watching those two pros go at it for a few hours was a delightful treat I will always treasure.
On Broadway, Hughes made his mark in such classical fare as Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud; Mike Nichols’s Uncle Vanya with George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson and Julie Christie, and as Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, which earned him his first Tony Award nomination. And, in no particular order he also distinguished himself in such dramas and comedies as Abelard and Heloise with Diana Rigg, A Majority of One with Gertrude Berg, Nobody Loves an Albatross with Robert Preston, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, starring Christopher Plummer, All Over Town with Cleavon Little (directed by Dustin Hoffman) and most especially, opposite Jason Robards in a 1985 revival of The Iceman Cometh. His Harry Hope was more than memorable, it was damn near definitive.
His last Broadway show in 1999 was a revival of Noël Coward’s Waiting in the Wings, where he got the chance (not for the first time by any means) to appear on stage with his wife of fifty years, Helen Stenborg. The couple met while touring with that same Shakespeare Troupe in the late 1940s. Married in 1950, they made it to their 56th wedding anniversary before his death, five days before his 91st birthday in 2006. They had two children, both of whom followed them into the theatre: the Tony winning director Doug Hughes, and the actress Laura Hughes, with whom I got to share a stage in the 1995 Los Angeles premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor.
I only met Barnard Hughes once. It was in 1998 when he was shooting a scene for what turned out to be the last film he ever made. We were introduced while he was seated on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, relaxing between takes, there to film a scene for Tim Robbins’s The Cradle Will Rock. A friend of mine, who was working on the film, invited me to hang out behind the cameras and watch a scene being filmed. Meeting Barney (as everyone called him), and with my mind working the way it does, I immediately tried to figure out if he had ever played the Brooks Atkinson. When I recalled that I had seen there in Abelard and Heloise, it prompted a fond memory for him. He smiled and said, “Did you know Diana Rigg did a nude scene in that one?” I nodded and said, “I do remember. I was fourteen.” This made him laugh. Then he leaned in and said, “I watched it every night from the wings. And Diana Rigg would say to me, ‘Barney Hughes, you’re a dirty old man.’”
I can’t speak for Dame Diana, but to me Barney Hughes will forever be a grand old man.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. To receive all future columns by email, hit the blue FOLLOW button above and feel free to comment below or write me at Ron@ronfassler.org.