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Long Journey Into Light

BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, November 25, 1956

Jason Robards Brightly Reflects on a Somber O’Neill Assignment

Jason Robards Jr. wears the role of Jamie Tyrone, the older son in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” like a second skin. For Robards feels himself to be closely attuned to the spirit of O’Neill and particularly to the character of the despairing Jamie, who represents O’Neill’s elder brother in the autobiographical play.

The 34-year-old actor is, like Jamie, the son of a once famous matinee idol. (Robards Sr. was a star of the silent screen, by whom young Jason felt overshadowed.) Like Jamie, who tries to drown his self-disappointment in drink, Robards was, at one time inclined to look for a way out in alcohol. (Psychoanalysis helped him curb this tendency.) And finally, like O’Neill himself and a number of characters he has drawn, Robards knocked about at sea for many of his youthful years. (He was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.)

The resemblance, happily, ends there. For O’Neill, with his superb flair for wringing from any reasonably maladjusted creature the last, bitter drop of tragedy, painted Jamie in bigger-than-life strokes of anguish and brutality. Robards is only life size—six feet when he straightens out of his habitual slouch—and, while introverted and sensitive, with the O’Neillian tough veneer, he can scarcely be said to be plunging toward an O’Neillian doom. In fact, while shoving Jamie down the road to perdition every night, Robards himself is actually poised on the edge of success. He has been twice singled out in recent months for brilliant work in two O’Neill plays—first for his portrayal of Hickey in the Circle-in-the-Square revival of “The Iceman Cometh” and currently, of course, for his violent and vivid impersonation of Jamie at the Helen Hayes.

Baseball Stoop

Robards is a spare man with a long face that ends in a jutting chin. His deep-set, tired eyes and his dark hair flecked with gray make him look weathered beyond his years. His slouch, which he calls a baseball stoop, was acquired in the course of an intensely athletic youth, during which he often assumed a catcher’s stance. He makes broad, fluent gestures with his hands and, when shyness makes him grope for a phrase, he sometimes snaps his fingers together nervously.

This gesturing of the hands and a dry, slightly self-conscious chuckle are mannerisms that do not leave him onstage; they were part of Hickey’s character and are now a part of Jamie’s, but in both cases they blend into painstakingly thoughtful and introspective characterizations—by virtue of acting techniques not, for a wonder, learned at the Actors Studio. Robards has never been near the Studio, as he happens to feel that television has given him an ideal training ground.

“I’ve been in 200 TV shows,” said Robards the other day, over his third cup of coffee at Sardi’s where he had been only twice before. “I’ve played all kinds of TV roles, from cowboys to fathers of teenagers. It’s helped me a lot. Of course, I was very lucky to have had good directors.”

As for his stage work, in 1952 it was providing him with just about enough to starve on. He had come back from a year’s road tour in “Stalag 17.” His wife and two young children had plodded after him from city to city (their 5-month-old Sarah slung from her mother’s shoulder in an improvised canvas hammock and 3-year-old Jason sturdily making his own way).

A united family was about the sum total of Robards’ assets when he hit New York. He could not find a job on Broadway. His television contacts (fairly tenuous at the time of his departure, anyway) had withered away. He took a $60-a-month cold water flat in the meat-packing district of Greenwich Village.

Eventually Robards landed a leading role in José Quintero’s Circle-in-the-Square production of “American Gothic,” which ran for seventy-seven performances in 1953. He was praised by the critics and within a few months of the closing, major television roles began flowing steadily his way.

Rapid Casting

When he heard last spring that Quintero was casting “Iceman,” he applied for the role of Hickey and got it after one reading. It was inevitable that Quintero should have picked him for his uptown production of “Journey.”

Notwithstanding this stepped-up professional activity, the Robards family continued to heat water over a gas stove in the Village so they could save to pay off an accumulation of debts. It is only now that the success of “Journey” seems assured that they are looking around for less Spartan quarters. They have also apportioned a good slice of the new budget to some square meals for the head of the family. No one ever tangled truly and well with O’Neill without showing some scars, and Robards has lost twenty of his normal 163 pounds since he started playing Hickey. In fact, he has to fake a bit in “Journey” where Fredric March, as Jamie’s father, comments, “The hot sun will sweat some of that booze fat off you.” This is Robards’ cue to increase his slouch, push down his belt and thrust his stomach out in a brave attempt to simulate the non-existent booze fat.

In addition to weight loss, a feeling of exhaustion after each performance is the price Robards is paying for the privilege of doing two mammoth O’Neill roles without a break between. “When I do the long fourth-act drunk scene,” he said, “my hands become covered with sweat and I get athlete’s cotton mouth the way I did when I used to run cross-country at Hollywood High School.”

Analyzing Jamie

Robards thinks the tension may be partly due to his close sense of identity with Jamie. “Jamie is the kind of drunk I understand. He uses drinking to be more drunk than he actually is—he’s a two-purpose drunk—the kind who, when he really wants to say something, says it and then covers up as a drunk. He switches back and forth. That’s the way I used to drink during the seven years I was in the Navy, and for a while after I got out—when I was 25 and living started getting complicated.”

Living stayed complicated until Robards made up his mind to follow what he called an “inward drive” to be an actor. He could not give in to this compulsion to act without a struggle, because he had been deeply unhappy over his father’s shattered career.

Hollywood Mystery

When 1 was little, my father was one of the biggest names in Hollywood,” Robards said. “Suddenly—and how it happened to him was always a great mystery to me—he wasn’t a star anymore; he was on the fringe. From the time I was 14 I was always conscious of a sense of worry, of terrific insecurity—agents, phony talk, the waits for the phone to ring. It’s not what I considered living.”

But the lure of the stage proved irresistible after all, and Robards Jr. entered the American Academy of Dramatic Art (where Robards Sr. had studied in 1911) with his father’s blessing.

“My father has the most tremendous personality and wonderful looks—he looks like Fredric March,” Robards said. “Being his son was a little overwhelming at times—quite a lot like the way Jamie is overshadowed by his father.”

After the Academy came the usual stints in summer stock and on the road, leading to the eventful meeting with Quintero. “I don’t feel I’ve really started,” Robards said, speaking of his current triumph with characteristic modesty. “There are plenty of places to go. I’d love to do ‘Moon for the Misbegotten’ someday; it’s really an extension of my present role—it’s about Jamie a few years later. I’d also like to do some Shakespeare—and, of course, I’d like to go back to the Circle in the Square to do another play with José.”

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