Where: his dressing room (Music Box Theatre). 4:15 pm.
When I first met Jason Robards and asked to speak with him, he told me to follow him up to his dressing room so we could talk. Before I even put one foot on the first step, he dashed up the stairs in a split second, skipping one and two steps at a time. He turned around at the top of the stairs to see what was taking me so long, and all I could think was, "This is a sixty-nine year old man?!"
Robards reflects upon his life and his work with a well-balanced sense of wisdom and an easy-going humor. Over the years, numerous things have been said and written about his enormous talent as an actor. Yet during his current run on Broadway in Israel Horovitz's comedy Park Your Car In Harvard Yard, Robards explains how little he pays attention to the praises and the judgments of critics.
"I don't look at reviews while I'm playing. I can't. I have to just go with the play everyday and try to make it a first time. In fact, a lot of the times the good criticisms are worse than the bad. If you start doing the things that they say are good, then it's terrible. The only thing that interests me is the audience, the fellow actors, and the play most of all. When the people stop caring, I just know I have to look for work."
Finding work, on the other hand, has never seemed to be a difficult task for Robards. Even in the beginnings of his career, he was wanted on the stage and on 1950's anthology television series such as Studio One and Alcoa Hour.
"I did a lot of the early TV live, many years of it, here in New York. The reason for it was that all the actors here were stage actors. They'd been in stock, road companies, on Broadway, Off-Broadway, whatever. We were all people who could do this, and that's why they had that live stuff here.
"And what happened was all the wonderful young people with ideas were all writing like crazy for it. Television was like a vacuum cleaner. It just sucked up all the talent of those young writers. These guys were great, but they'd get used up. There was so much demand for these half-hour dramas and hour dramas.
"But, it was a beginning for all of us really, and it was a very exciting time. Technically, it wasn't very good. I was on a three camera, live show, and we lost two cameras on air! Yul Brynner was directing then, and he came down and whispered to us, 'Everybody run to the camera and say all your lines into it because we lost two cameras!'
"They're so far advanced now; I guess they can do anything. It doesn't train an actor, but yet good actors can go and do those TV series. Judy Ivey, who's one of the most wonderful actors I've ever worked with, she just came out of a series. Maybe people who don't know much can do them better. They just say all these mindless lines, and they don't think about it. And it comes out wonderful," he laughs.
If there is one thing for which Jason Robards is most known, it is his ability to interpret the characters written by Eugene O'Neill better than any other actor in history. Ever the humble gentleman, he attributes it all to good timing, rather than to himself.
"Starting the O'Neill stuff with Jose Quintero down at the Circle In The Square and then up here on Broadway, those were the most satisfying growth experiences for me. I think in two of the parts that we established—Hickey and Jamie--because O'Neill had not been done in this country when we did The Iceman Cometh, which started that revival of doing his plays. It was really an incredible play because he used all races in a small bar, and all of a sudden he was talking about the world. He was talking about all of our dreams and hopes, and when we don't have dreams we die, no matter where we came from.
"And Mrs. O'Neill was alive at the time, and gave us the play that had never been done A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which was a family play. I was from an actor's family, and it was almost in a strange way playing out my own life. And I had some wonderful actors--Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, and Brad Dillman.
"So when those two kinds of things happen, where you are in a play that causes a revival, and then you do a part in a new play of O'Neill's, that is what's remembered really. It isn't that you're better than anyone else.
"I did A Touch Of The Poet and the American premiere of Hughie, too. But other people have done Hughie, and probably done just as well, if not better. But I've done it a number of times. In fact, I still do it for benefits with my old friend Jack Dodson. He and I have been playing it for twenty years off and on. That helps you,” he jokes. “If you play a play long enough, then things happen."
Before he can spend all those years playing a role, however, Robards has to go through the initial process of rehearsing. All actors have a favorite way to get to the heart and soul of their characters, and his choice is through meticulous note-taking on his script, which he is kind enough to show me.
"I try to put verbs together that move sentences, and descriptive things. I'm not talking about acting. I'm just talking about breaking down the grammatical form of the thing. Also, sometimes you'll get an idea from a director who will say something very succinct. A word or so to you, and you write that down so you'll get the idea behind it. Like Jose said something to me once about, 'See how long you can stretch this wire before it breaks. See when you want to change the mood and the attitude, and not do it where it is now, but stretching and stretching until it breaks.'
"During rehearsals, you break things down second by second. Then you put it back together again, roll it, get timing, and then it-" He finishes his sentence by letting his hand slice through the air in an upward, soaring motion.
Another thing that always flies high for Jason Robards is his film career. He has starred in literally dozens of motion pictures, so picking out his most satisfying film acting experience is not all that simple for him to do.
"A lot of times you have a pleasant experience doing a film, and the film's terrible. You say, 'God, this was a wonderful film. We had such a good time.' and the thing goes down the toilet!
''I liked doing Cable Hogue with Sam Peckinpah. He and I got along great, and we had a good, hard working session on that out in the desert for months. And I liked doing A Thousand Clowns because I had done it on the stage. Those are probably the two..." He thinks for a long moment. "I've done an awful lot. I can't even remember what I've done, and I haven't seen a lot of the stuff I've done.
"But, I know my worst experience right away. I was doing a picture with this guy Werner Herzog, a crazed German film director. He put us all in jeopardy and killed a number of people on the film. That was a picture called Fitzcarraldo, which I never finished because I got very ill down there in the jungles in Peru. That's not doing a film. I was in the war in the jungles in the South Pacific, and it was easier than that! At least, when we were there it was a purpose. It is not a purpose to kill people in a movie!"
With the lack of good parts being written lately for actors in the same generation as Jason Robards, some good actors become fed up with the situation and go into a state of semi-retirement until the right part comes along. It is refreshing to see that Robards is not an actor who holds such contempt. He is an actor who desires only to work.
"You can't do anything about age. We all age. So, you just got to go with what you got. You have to do what you can do as long as you work. I don't want to retire. I love working. I love being with people. And you learn something every time you work. That's the good thing. I've been working more now, and I've been going from one thing to another.
"But I've been at it for forty-five years now, and I expect all these young people to keep going and do the things that we did--or do the things that I didn't do so well and wish I had done better," he jokes. "There are a lot of young, wonderful actors out there, and that's great. I just did a picture with James Spader. God, he's a wonderful young actor! We did a thing down in New Orleans, and I played his dad." Then he deadpans, "At least I got to come down in age, and not play his grandfather.
"Sometimes I get interesting parts, but it depends. In Parenthood, I played the patriarch, but that was a good part. It wasn't kindly, old Santa Claus somewhere. For instance, a couple of years ago, Kirk Douglas and I did Inherit The Wind, and I know Kirk is always looking for things to do. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau--those guys are all contemporaries of mine. Who else?" he thinks aloud. "I haven't seen a lot of my old pals. They're all out on the coast."
Then Robards suddenly lets out his famous laugh, which is such an infectious cackle that even if the joke was as mundane as "Why did the chicken cross the road?”, if Robards laughed at it, so would you. "Everybody left me!" he says between the laughter. "I'm the only one left here in New York! But I've always been in the east. No matter where I go to work, I live here. It just seems more alive to me, and I don't like to sit out in the land of the eternal sunshine."
When the average person goes through some kind of turmoil in his life, it usually becomes neighborhood gossip for a few weeks, and then disappears. But when you are a famous actor like Jason Robards, the stories of past imperfections get rehashed time and time again. Yet, Robards is unaffected by present-day articles that concentrate on occurrences in his life that happened over twenty or thirty years ago.
"It doesn't bother me. Life..." He chuckles a bit to himself before starting over. "That's the way life is, I guess. Certainly things happen, and I have nothing to hide. It's all out in the open, and I've never hidden anything about any of my marriages or drinking and all that stuff. We all learn, and we have to hit some tough roads at times. It's lucky we survive."
So if anyone is going to tell the story of his life, it should be Robards himself. "I was starting to write a book, but I got it on the wrong subject. It was called A Curious Friendship With O'Neill, and what I was trying to do was relate the O'Neill things with my own life. It became so psychological, I couldn't even do it. Now I don't even want to do an autobiography. I read all these about who they've slept with and all these terrible stories.
“So, I don't know. Maybe I'll just tell some funny stories. My wife is on me about getting back to it again. I should, but what happens is if I start to get some time—two weeks of sitting around--I get antsy. So, I'll go do whatever. I have to keep going, and I don't feel tired out yet. So, that's good."
Whenever an actor has been as successful as Robards for as long as he has, we usually chalk it up to a combination of things. But what makes him so great really has nothing to do with his longevity or his numerous awards. It is the fact that he knows that he can learn more, and is willing to learn more, about his craft that makes up the magnitude of the talent of Jason Robards. AAA
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