BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, January 20, 1974
The theater, being rooted in fantasy, is full of
superstition and ghosts and wondrous coincidences, and people who work
in the theater are more likely than other people to believe in such
things as pre-determination. Eugene O'Neill firmly believed in the
Furies and he put them into his plays and was hounded by them in life,
and Jason Robards, who has played tag with the Furies himself, feels
that his spectacularly well-received arrival on Broadway as the
middle-aged, dying Jamie Tyrone in O'Neill's A Moon for the
Misbegotten has something fateful about it.
This is the third time that Robards has
triumphantly played a character modeled on O'Neill's tragic older
brother, Jamie—a man who haunted O'Neill all his life. Seventeen years
ago, Robards played Hickey, a symbolic version of Jamie O'Neill, in the
Off Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh, and was instantly
recognized as an extraordinarily talented
actor with a striking affinity for O'Neill. Later that same season, at
34, he created the role of the 33-year-old Jamie Tyrone in Long Day's
Journey Into Night.
Ever since then, Robards has wanted to play the
older Jamie Tyrone, a man in his 40s. "I'd love to do A Moon for the
Misbegotten some day—it's really an extension of my
present role," he said when Long Day's Journey established him as
a star. But the vicissitudes of the theater being what they are, and the
Robards destiny being what it was, he was 51 before the chance presented
itself. As it is, he barely made it. He had been living an O'Neillian
life for a long time and an O'Neillian life is a life of cataclysm.
Robards understood the Jamie character, written by
O'Neill "in tears and blood," because he had wept and bled himself. When
he played the young Jamie in 1956, Robards was a complicated man,
subject to depressions and fits of drunken rage. As Robards grew older,
the depression grew deeper and the drinking more destructive. The
O'Neill family had been plagued by alcoholism, and The Iceman, Long
Day's Journey and A Moon for the Misbegotten are imbued with
alcoholic guilt and despair. The O'Neill specter clung to Robards and
finally, a little over a year ago, nearly engulfed him. He fell into
what he now believes to have been a suicidal rage over losing the role
of Hickey in the recently released movie version of The Iceman,
and wound up in a horrendous automobile accident. It is double-edged
irony that he survived, and that he is making his Broadway comeback in
the O'Neill role he has so long yearned to play.
Robards today is at the top of his form. The
standing, bravo-shouting opening-night ovation for A Moon for the
Misbegotten will doubtless continue for months to come. Robards is
playing, of course, with the actress who is ideal in the role of Josie
Hogan, O'Neill's ultimate Earth Mother. The applause is for Colleen
Dewhurst, too—and for the play's director, Jose Quintero. The
combination of Robards, Dewhurst and Quintero with one of O'Neill's
finest, and, certainly his most lyrical play, has brought about a true
Like Jamie O'Neill, Robards was the older of two
sons born to a popular, handsome, hard-drinking, touring actor; like
Jamie, he chose to rival his father by adopting an acting career; also
like Jamie, he never recovered from a childhood sense of rejection by an
absent mother, and he grew up, like Jamie, with ghosts in his eyes. All
that, of course, was coincidence. But it was
inevitable, given this common background, that Robards should recognize
himself in Jamie, respond to his tragedy, and be inspired to interpret
him on the stage with a depth and poignancy that could bring audiences
cheering to their feet.
While Robards has made his reputation playing
O'Neill, and is unquestionably our foremost O'Neillian actor, he is more
than that. On the stage, he has been superb in any role that expressed a
universal and elemental human tragedy, a role in which he took an
emotional beating and, as has rather frequently been the case, a role in
which emotional disharmony manifested itself by drunkenness. He salvaged
Arthur Miller's flawed play, After the Fall; heightened the
tragedy of Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic; created a
sensitive portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted;
established a reputation for wry tragicomedy in A Thousand Clowns;
and breathed new life into Clifford Odets' The Country Girl,
a televised version of which will be shown in February.
On the screen, oddly enough, his most persuasive
and engaging roles have been in a handful of sophisticated Westerns that
were beset by distribution problems and failed to get proper attention.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue, for example, highly praised by a few
perceptive critics, disappeared after a mysteriously short run. In it,
Robards demonstrated, as he rarely has been able to do on the screen,
that in a role with some human dimension, and with a director (Sam
Peckinpah) who understands his style, he is a very appealing movie
But he is innately a man of the theater, and in
this era of diminished live theater in America, he and George C. Scott
are the only native Americans who have achieved the top rank that was
exemplified in more vigorous theater times by John Barrymore and Alfred
Lunt (Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn could have been up there, if they
had not abandoned the stage for the screen.)
Not long after having seen Long Days Journey
Into Night, playwright Howard Lindsay watched Robards enter the
Players Club one night, and said, "I thought, when I saw you walk in,
that I was seeing a young Edwin Booth." Booth was part of the O'Neill
legend. In Long Day's Journey, the father, James Tyrone, dwells
on his wasted talent, recalling the time when as a young and promising
actor he played Iago to Booth's Othello. He, too, had been heralded as
"a young Booth."
The O'Neill lifestyle in which Robards nestles
half-apprehensively, half-cozily, was typified
by the party he and Colleen Dewhurst jointly gave on the opening night
of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Like O'Neill, Robards is ill at
ease among the socially pretentious. O'Neill called them "poseurs" and
Robards calls them "phonies." There were no glittering celebrities among
the guests. At Robards' table were relatives, family, friends and his
former psychoanalyst. At Dewhurst's were her agent and a group of black
ex-convicts who have formed a street-acting troupe and whom she has
taken under her wing. Quintero was there with some close friends. The
play's producers were not invited. (They came anyway.)
O'Neill, who preferred the company of stevedores
and gangsters and sailors, would probably have found even that gathering
too high-toned. Robards, who enjoys family get-togethers and, for
drinking companionship, a handful of fellow actors who are old friends,
felt that the party had grown too big and formal for real cheer. Like
O'Neill, he is mostly a quiet man, ill-equipped for small talk, bored
with public preening and uncomfortable with the brittle surface of the
so-called beautiful people. That was one of the reasons for the failure
of his third marriage, to the glamorous and social Lauren Bacall.
Robards fell in love with O'Neill's work as a very
young man. He had joined the Navy at 17, thinking to make it his career.
World War II kept him at sea and at 22, shortly before engaging in the
Philippines campaign, he found a copy of O'Neill's Strange Interlude
in the ship's library. The dialogue impressed him and he began to
think of an acting career.
His father, Jason Robards Sr., after a brief stage
career had become a film actor. The young Robards had read screenplays
but was unimpressed by them. Reading O'Neill gave him a glimpse of what
real acting could be. Discharged from the Navy, he enrolled at the
American Academy of Dramatic Arts and in 1946 went with his class to see
The Iceman Cometh. James Barton was playing the role of Hickey as
a middle-aged man with little luster, and the poor production put
O'Neill on the shelf for a decade. Yet something in Hickey's character
reached out to Robards and gripped him.
"I saw part of myself standing there in Hickey," he
recalls. Playing the role 10 years later, Robards found himself
possessed by it. It was then that his O'Neill identity took root on
stage and began spilling over offstage. Robards, then 34, brought to
Hickey a dimension that O'Neill did
not live to see. The revival, largely due to Robards' intuitive
performance, began the restoration of O'Neill's reputation. Both
Hickey's creator and Hickey's interpreter blazed with new light when
Robards sailed jauntily onstage, straw-hatted, flashily dressed, eyes
gleaming satanically, croaking the line, "And another little drink won't
do us any harm!"
character revolves around his ambivalent relationship with his wife,
Evelyn. He deludes himself that he loves her and pities her for her
long-suffering efforts to forgive him for his waywardness. "I'd never
have the guts to go back and be forgiven again," Hickey says, "and that
would break Evelyn's heart because to her it would mean I didn't love
her anymore." It turns out that he has murdered her—out of "pity."
During one performance,
Robards was shocked to hear himself say "Eleanore," instead of "Evelyn."
Eleanore was his first wife's name and his marriage was running into
difficulties. Soon after, Robards resorted to divorce—not murder—but he
seemed, more and more, to be living a life shadowed by the O'Neills.
At 46, Jamie O'Neill was
dead of the effects of alcoholism. Robards, at 46, was finding his
drinking increasingly unmanageable. Analysis helped some, and he quit
drinking for a year. He started to drink again—sometimes convivially,
and that was fine; sometimes to unwind after a performance, and that was
necessary; sometimes to escape, which is the worst kind of drinking of
all. He felt his career skidding, and he drank out of desperation. Both
Eugene and Jamie O'Neill had been through all of those phases. As Hickey
says, "I wrote the book." As Robards said during the run of Long
Day's Journey, "Jamie is the kind of drunk I understand." The older
Jamie he is now playing is a different kind of drunk, but he is no
stranger to Robards either. The young Jamie used drink to hide behind.
The older one cannot. He has come to see himself too clearly, and can
use drink only to kill himself.
Robards' next four
years were an uphill struggle for self rescue—more like Eugene, who
gave up drinking, than like Jamie. It took a profound shock to bring
Robards back—much as it had the playwright. O'Neill at 24 had
believed himself to be dying of tuberculosis, self-inflicted by
years of drinking and tramping. He regarded his recovery as a
"rebirth." Robards, at 50, was in an accident that all but killed
He regards his survival, with awe, as a return
from the dead. Although not born a Catholic, as O'Neill was, he has
a deep sense of religion. He cannot define it, but he insists he has
always been very religious.
"I often wonder about that sense of religious
guilt O'Neill puts into his plays. I had that. I was raised as a
Christian Scientist by my father—the guilts they put on you!"
It happened last December. The accident left
his face shattered beyond recognition and, it was thought for a
time, beyond repair.
Curtain down. Curtain up.
That is what the director, Jose Quintero,
softly calls out from the auditorium, to mark the end of Act I and
the start of Act 2, during rehearsals late in November of A Moon
for the Misbegotten, which has four acts. Robards walks into the
wings. He has no more lines until almost the end of Act 2 and can
think of other things until then.
He is craggily handsome, silver-haired, and
looks his age. It has little to do with the physical after effects
of his accident. His face has been superbly patched together by a
plastic surgeon who is internationally known as "the magician," and
there are no visible scars. He now bears a striking resemblance to
O'Neill, heightened by a new mustache that he grew to cover the one
scar that would show. His age is in his eyes, hazel sometimes, a
haunted pale green at others, a cavernous black when he is in a
mood. And his age is in the sag of his body, the weariness in his
voice, the downward droop of his mouth. But that is the offstage
Robards. Onstage he can still project the tautness, the vitality,
the mercurial change from gloom to manic wit, the controlled passion
that stamped his signature on Hickey in 1956.
"It was my role," he says. "I couldn't believe
they'd give it to someone else."
Recalling his initial shock at learning that
The Iceman Cometh would be filmed without him, Robards starts
off mildly. "Well, I guess they had a right to put Lee [Marvin] in
the role." Pause. "Maybe they thought I wouldn't work for the low
salary everyone got." Pause. "Christ, they should have known I'd do
that part for nothing." Pause. "Maybe they thought I was
Robards and his wife of two and a half years,
the former Lois O'Connor, were living in a canyon about halfway
between Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and Marvin lived 15 minutes
away. As Robards recalls it, he ran into Marvin in Malibu. "Say, I'm
working with a buddy of ours," Marvin
said. The buddy was John Frankenheimer, who had directed Robards in
the two-part television production of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Robards went home and began to brood. Why was Frankenheimer
doing this to him? Why hadn't he at least called him with some sort
Frankenheimer says, perfectly reasonably, that
he wanted to do his own completely fresh version of the play. "I
never considered anyone but Lee Marvin," he says. "I didn't want to
do a copy of someone else's production. And I don't understand why
Jason expected me to telephone. I didn't feel I owed him an
But Robards felt otherwise. "It was, at first,
a quiet kind of anger," Lois Robards says. "It was not an enormous
rage. He would mutter, `Son of a bitch.' But he got angrier as the
weeks went by. He was so mad—as though something had been stolen
Robards insists that his life at that time was
in a decided upward swing. He believed he had finally found the
right woman. He and Lois had a year-old daughter; they lived on a
cliff overlooking the sea, to which Robards has always been drawn,
and he was working enough to keep financially solvent. He felt he
had successfully faced being 50—Lois had invited 50 friends to a
party and provided a fireworks display. ("I cried a little," Robards
says. "It was beautiful.") He was soon to begin shooting The Day
of the Dolphin with three of his "best buddies," Buck Henry,
Mike Nichols and George C. Scott, and he and Lois were making plans
to leave for location in the Bahamas. He was drinking less, sticking
mainly to sherry and beer. "I wasn't hitting the hard stuff
anymore," he says.
But the wound of losing Hickey continued to
fester. An actor's ego is a precarious thing, and self-doubt always
lurks close to the surface. "I suppose the psychoanalysts would say
that Jason had his accident because of Iceman," Frankenheimer
says. "Well, I refuse to feel responsible." Robards' analyst, Dr.
Ferruccio di Cori, feels that Robards' sense of rejection
contributed to the accident. "Jason is a very fragile person," he
On Dec. 9, two days before the filming of
The Iceman Cometh began, Robards drove the 50 miles into Los
Angeles to have lunch with his younger brother, Glenn. Jason and
Glenn had never been close, and their relationship is marked by some
of the ambivalence that O'Neill tended to dwell on in his portraits
of himself and Jamie. The three-hour
meeting, during which they discussed family problems, had a somewhat
jarring effect on Robards. Later he joined his friend Tom Runyon for
dinner at a Los Angeles restaurant Runyon operates as a hobby. "I
had clams and steak and drank some sherry," Robards says. "I wasn't
drunk, but I was very tired. I'd been away from home since early in
It was about 1 in the morning when Robards got
into his car, a Mercedes 190—"a classic car, in perfect condition,
that I'd had for years"—to drive the 50 miles home. Runyon got into
his own car, having agreed to follow Robards and stop off at his
house to say hello to Lois. Robards loves driving, is skilled at it
and knew the winding back road he planned to take "like the back of
my hand." It wound through what Robards calls "this secret and
wonderful canyon." He wore no seat belt.
The road ran along mountains on one side. On
the other side, unguarded by a rail, was a drop of about 300 feet to
the ocean. Land-slides are a familiar occurrence in the area, and
there had been several small ones in the past month. "You have to
understand," Robards says, "that you just can't go more than 35
miles an hour on that road, or you'd fly off the side of the canyon.
"That's all I was going. I was on the last
stretch, had done all the hairpin turns, and on the last turn—I hit
it." Robards remembers very little after that, although he was, of
course, told about it later. He does recall thinking, "Tom is
following me—thank Christ."
It was Runyon who saved his life. Robards' car
spun, then hit the mountain. The vibration from the impact was
something like the whirling of a Waring Blender, with his head at
the center of the whirl. His face bounced back from every surface
inside the solidly built car. No glass was broken, but every bone in
Robards' face was. His nose was splintered, both his cheekbones
broken, his palate cracked, most of his teeth knocked out and a
large section of his upper lip almost severed. It hung by a thread
of skin. His leg was punctured and a part of one finger was cut off.
Miraculously, he was not blinded.
Runyon drove Robards to the Santa Monica
Hospital. "I found out later I had something called chemical
pneumonia," Robards says. "I had vomited into my lungs and was
choking to death." By the time he reached the hospital, his heart
had stopped beating. "I was dead," he says, still awed by the memory
a year later.
By pure chance, the hospital had on its staff
one of the world's leading plastic surgeons. Dr. Butler (a
fictitious name, used at the doctor's request) received a call from
Robards' internist shortly after 3 on Saturday morning. A
tracheotomy was performed to alleviate the lung congestion, the
heart was revived, and then, though it was precarious to perform
further surgery, the lip was stitched into place; delay would have
guaranteed its loss.
When Lois Robards first saw her husband, she
was appalled. "His head was blown up like a balloon," she says. "His
eyes were swollen shut, and he had the tube in his throat. He
couldn't speak, of course. All I could think to do was say, `Jason,
I love you."
He was in intensive care for 10 days. At first
he could only marvel at having escaped from death. Then, he waited
tensely to know if the lip would take life; lip skin is impossible
to replace by graft and permanent disfigurement seemed a very strong
possibility. Dr. Butler was not optimistic. He tried to joke with
Robards about it. "You've got a good hole there," he said. "From now
on, the thing to do is play cigar parts." Robards thought that was
very funny. After five days, the lip was secure. But Robards could
not speak for two weeks, and he communicated with Lois and his
doctors by scrawled notes. He wondered if he had permanently damaged
his voice box, as well as his looks. One of the notes he scrawled to
Lois was, "Have I got what Jack the Hawk had?" He was referring to
the English actor, Jack Hawkins, who had temporarily lost his voice
because of cancer of the throat.
Robards was in the hospital for a little over a
month. Lois brought their baby daughter, Shannon, to visit him on
Christmas day. His recovery, after having his face bones set, jaws
wired, teeth replaced and cosmetic surgery performed, was more rapid
than his doctors had thought possible.
"I'm a fast healer," Robards says.
"Do you believe it? The bum is working," Dr.
Butler said on hearing that Robards was making a movie shortly after
leaving the hospital.
Curtain down. Curtain up.
Robards felt himself to be truly on the mend,
emotionally, as well as physically, about six months after his
accident. The calm came from the same source as the tempest—O'Neill.
He was invited to do a summer engagement
of A Moon for the Misbegotten with Jose Quintero, the
director who had discovered him. Quintero himself has not been
unaffected by association with O'Neill. He has one thing in common
with O'Neill that Robards does not—a Catholic-mystic background—and
regards the playwright as his "spiritual father." "If Jason nearly
died because of O'Neill," Quintero says, "O'Neill also saved his
Robards attributes the healing as much to
Quintero as to O'Neill. In a way, the two are inseparable. "As soon
as I started working with Jose, the anger started to go away,"
Robards says. "He put me at ease."
It was a kind of fateful timing that enabled
Quintero to be of use to Robards in the summer of 1973. He had
recently recovered from a period of artistic and personal
depression, characterized, as with O'Neill and Robards, by flight
into alcohol. Now he had quit drinking completely and forever.
A Moon for the Misbegotten was
enthusiastically received in its limited run outside Chicago last
June and July. The production had an unexpected blessing in Ed
Flanders who, some years the junior of both Robards and Colleen
Dewhurst, played the role of Josie Hogan's father with a wicked
Irish wit that would have enchanted O'Neill. Word of the
production's success filtered back East, and money was found to
produce it, first at the Kennedy Center in Washington and then on
Broadway. A Moon for the Misbegotten was proving to be a
cathartic event all around.
Curtain down. Curtain up.
The summer cast, which disbanded and engaged in
other projects during the next five months, reassembled in New York
toward the end of November. Quintero called the first formal
rehearsal on Nov. 27 on the stage of the Morosco. More rattling of
ghostly bones. Nov. 27 turned out to be the 20th anniversary of
O'Neill's death. It also turned out that the Morosco was where
O'Neill had his first full-length play produced on Broadway—Beyond
the Horizon, in 1920. O'Neill's actor father, James, finally
reconciled with O'Neill after years of conflict, sat in a box to
watch the play. At its end, he said to his son, tears streaming down
his cheeks, "Are you trying to send the audience home to commit
Robards' actor father had died 10 years ago. He
had not gotten along with his son either over the years, but they
were reconciled when Robards Sr. came to
see Jason several times in Long Day's Journey Into Night,
once watching the whole performance from the wings.
Robards was dressed jauntily for the rehearsal
of A Moon for the Misbegotten. He wore well-cut tan trousers
with a slight flair at the cuffless bottom, a tan bush jacket, a red
velour shirt; he had arrived in a plaid, Sherlock Holmes hat that
matched his plaid wool topcoat. There is still much of the Jamie in
him. O'Neill describes Jamie in Moon as having "the ghost of
a former youthful, irresponsible Irish charm—that of the beguiling
ne'er-do-well, sentimental and romantic. It is his humor and charm
which have kept him attractive to women and popular with men as a
Clearly, Robards, like Jamie, is attractive to
women. Four of them have married him. He and Lauren Bacall, by whom
he has a 10-year-old named Sam, are still good friends. He is also
good friends with his first wife, Eleanore, who is the mother of
three of his children—Jason 3d, 24, Sarah, 22, and David, 16. He is
not good friends with his second wife, Rachel, to whom he was
married very briefly, but whom he has been supporting, with
displeasure, ever since.
Lois Robards, to whom he has been married
nearly four years, is a slim, elegant, perceptive woman, 14 years
younger than Robards. "She boosts me up," he says. Lois is one of
eight sisters, and her family has always been closely knit. "For the
first time in my life, I belong to a family," Robards says.
"Jason cares more about himself now," Lois
Though he drinks less, Robards is still, like
Jamie, a popular drinking companion—of such as Christopher Plummer,
Peter O'Toole, and George C. Scott. He calls them "Chrissy," "Tooley
O'Pete," and "G. C." As for the humor and charm, those are among his
most viable qualities onstage and off. The charm, however, is only
part Irish. There are equal parts of Welsh and English, and a
smidgeon of Swedish.
He still has, in common with Jamie, mixed
feelings toward his mother. Those tangled feelings surfaced during
early rehearsals of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Robards found
himself choking over some lines in a long, anguished monologue that
is the play's fulcrum. Jamie is describing his mother's death and
his fury at having been abandoned by her. The fury, unrealistic in
terms of a middle-aged man's loss of his elderly mother, is a
displacement of Jamie's childhood sense of abandonment. The real
Jamie had discovered as a boy that his mother
was a morphine addict. That aspect of the relationship is
relentlessly explored in Long Day's Journey, and it is one
that Robards has had ample opportunity to reflect upon. "Do you
realize that Jamie talks directly to his mother only once in the
entire play?" he says.
The Act 3 lines which Robards kept choking on
during rehearsal: "...her body in a coffin with her face made up. I
couldn't hardly recognize her. She looked young and pretty like
someone I remembered meeting long ago. Practically a stranger. To
whom I was a stranger. Cold and indifferent. Not worried about me
anymore. Free at last. Free from worry. From pain. From me...." And
later he adds: "It was as if I wanted revenge—because I'd been left
alone ... because no one was left who could help me."
The lines make more emotional sense when
construed as the words of an abandoned child, rather than those of
an aging, if bereaved, adult. And that explains why Robards, whose
mother is very much alive, reacted to them as he did. He actually
found himself crying during one rehearsal—"Much too early," he says.
Later in the act, he is called on to sob at some length.
Ella O'Neill had withdrawn into a drugged
world, where her children could not reach her. Unable to cope
herself, and with her husband often on tour, she sent both of her
sons, barely past infancy, to boarding schools.
Hope Robards was divorced from her husband when
Jason was 5 and his brother was 1. She remarried, and resigned her
children's care to their father. He, being often on tour, placed
them, barely past infancy, in a boarding school.
Robards, offstage, speaks of his mother calmly
and tolerantly. Lois Robards is less tolerant. "We spent a recent
Thanksgiving with Jason's mother," she says. "I was horrified to
find it was the first Thanksgiving they'd spent together in 27
years. I was afraid to ask how many Christmases they'd spent
Curtain down. Curtain up.
Ironically, the movie version of The Iceman
Cometh, released at the end of October , has done much to
enhance Robards's reputation. Many reviews of the film, justly
laudatory in every other respect, mentioned the absence of Robards
and compared Lee Marvin's performance unfavorably with his in the
play. Dozens of friends called Robards after reading the reviews.
The gist of their comment was, "Those are
the best notices you've ever had." The reviews were not as good as
those for A Moon for the Misbegotten, which were unqualified
At home in a rented town house a few days after
the opening, Robards is relaxed and, for him, expansive. His eyes
have the old, mischievous Jamie gleam, and the glow of success has
smoothed the tension from his face and subtracted several years from
his age. He consumes a lot of coffee and smokes a great deal. He
seems to have made up his mind to drink only for relaxation.
("That's swell," said a friend who drank with him after a recent
performance, "but get yourself a chauffeur.")
Lois Robards is a soothing presence, trim in a
sweater and jeans, her long, light brown hair coiled in a bun. She
answers all phone calls, screens invitations and allows Shannon
O'Connor Robards to be visible in small and entertaining doses.
Shannon is blonde, juicy, vocal, in perpetual motion and full of
"I'll be 70 when she's 21," Robards says, "but
I intend to be around to take her down the aisle."
His reaction to his success is, he says,
surprise. "Audiences must be starving for meaningful theater," he
says. "They are responding to this as though it's a new play."
What next? Can Robards play anything as
successfully as he can play O'Neill? Perhaps not quite as
successfully, he admits.
There is one role he is particularly eager to
play, that of Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet, a
character O'Neill modeled on his father. Robards was to have done
Melody on television this month with Quintero, but had to withdraw
because the strain of simultaneously playing two very demanding
O'Neill heroes proved too taxing for his voice and his psyche.
Quintero also withdrew, because he will not direct the play with
anyone but Robards. (The television producers are suing both Robards
and Quintero for breach of contract.) They will probably do the
play, instead, on Broadway, after the run of A Moon for the
Misbegotten. Robards also hopes, one day, to play the father in
Long Day's Journey. If he had his choice, he would like to
perform in a season of O'Neill repertory. He would particularly like
to revive The Iceman Cometh, for Hickey is still his favorite
of all the O'Neill roles. He would also like to revive O'Neill's
long one-acter, Hughie, in which he appeared 10 years ago.
And he has been trying fore several years
to get backing for a musical about Junius Brutus Booth, the
alcoholic father of Edwin and John Wilkes.
What about Shakespeare, with whom Robards has not,
to date, been too successful? "Of course I want to do more of Billy Big
Boy," Robards says. "I'm too old now to play Hamlet, but I'd like to try
Dr. di Cori, who uses psychodrama in therapy and
has analyzed Robards' acting as well as his personality, feels Robards
is not empathetic to Shakespeare. "But does that really matter?" he
says. "What's wrong with being the greatest living O'Neill actor?"
What indeed? Laurence Olivier, certainly one of the
greatest Shakespearean actors, was disappointing when he played O'Neill.
His recent portrayal of James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night
failed to catch O'Neill's earthy, Irish-American rhythms. He was
brave to try it, and it was a tribute to our only Nobel Prize–winning
playwright, and Olivier is still the untouchable.
Robards will bravely try more Shakespeare, and
perhaps one day he will even master Lear. But it doesn't really matter.
There is nothing very wrong with being the leading interpreter of our
own greatest dramatist, and Robards is that, for all foreseeable