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.
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.
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.
But the deep and abiding love Robards felt for O’Neill was never more evident (and effective) than when he held forth outside in bitter cold weather on a late afternoon in March of 1982. The setting was improbably staged on the back of a flatbed truck, where he performed a monologue from Long Day’s Journey, in protest against the imminent demolition of a trio of Broadway houses: the Bijou, Morosco and Helen Hayes Theatres.
In what was a sad state of affairs, just before the final say of the New York State Supreme Court, a group of actors bellowed into the wind, voicing their objections to the loss of these three jewels in the crown in the best way they knew how: using the words of the playwrights whose shows played these hallowed houses, among them Death of a Salesman at the Morosco, and Long Day’s Journey at the Helen Hayes, the theatre where Robards had made his Broadway debut.
A sort of make-shift documentary was made chronicling the protest called “The Rally to Save the Theatres,” featuring dozens of the actors who took part in the event. I have viewed what may be the one-and-only copy at the Lincoln Center Library in New York City in its Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. Its highlight occurs while the weather is worsening and Robards takes to center stage to perform a James Tyrone’s great speech from Act IV of Long Day’s Journey into Night.
It is a performance that simply has to be seen to be believed.
And since I wasn’t there, and New York Times reporter John Corry was, this is what he wrote eloquently the next day: “By the reckoning of most people on the street, and of the other actors on the stage, Mr. Robards offered one of street theater’s finest hours. Glancing only once at his hardbound copy of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, he did the lengthy speech in which the father, an actor, tells his younger son that by surrendering to commercialism he had ruined his life. ‘I’m so heartsick. I feel it’s the end of everything,’ Mr. Robards said. He was only reciting from the play, of course, but as he spoke he turned and glanced at the Morosco.”
I quote Corry verbatim because he got it exactly right. Watching the film, Robards is simply magnificent. At one point, as if on cue from on high, at the mid-point of the speech, snow flurries begin to swirl about his head, his wispy white hair blowing in the wind. There’s no denying the colder it got, the hotter he becomes. Seeming to invigorate him, his voice gets stronger and his commitment to forge ahead more fervent, the weather be damned. In my viewing of it, the line of Tennessee Williams from A Streetcar Named Desire came to mind: “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly.”
Robards’ final motion picture, as the dying patriarch in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia, provided one hell of juicy part. Don’t be fooled by how he looks in it though, for there was still life left in him. His health rallied the next year, allowing him to shoot a TV movie called (with unintended irony) Going Home. It was the last performance Robards ever gave. The cancer he’d been valiantly fighting for awhile took him the day after Christmas, 2000. He was seventy-eight.
Robards had a favorite quote about what acting in the theatre meant to him. He referred to it in interviews on more than a few occasions, so I’m sure it was precious to him. I offer it here:
“There is a stage life that is different from life. There’s a compressed time and it often forces a lifetime into a few hours. As Ralph Richardson once said, ‘That is our chance to dream.’”
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.