As Jason Robards comes up the alley and through the stage door of New York’s Elysee Theatre, the thick-set security guard smiles in recognition. “Hey, that was Hickey,” he says. “Hickey from The Iceman Cometh. Right? How can you forget Hickey?”
How indeed. For when Jason Robards made his entrance in the 1956 off-Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s play and began to peddle Hickey’s lies and dreams, there was something magic in his pitch. A star was born that night—one the guard remembered from Robards’ subsequent television triumph in the role.
Robards is in the old Elysee—now converted as a TV studio—this gray Tuesday afternoon because of a series of achievements all evolving from the one the guard recalls. A small reception room is filling up with other actors whose names are familiar on marquees—Zero Mostel storms about with his cane; Carol Channing is a blizzard of teeth; Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Mutt and Jeff out of London’s Good Evening, are hitting one-liners like fungoes; Alfred Drake saunters by, neatly packaged like a minor diplomat. The parade continues amid the pitter-patter of $100-shoes, stars flanked by press agents and producers as grave as Charlton Heston down from the mountain with the Word. Alexander Cohen, the theatrical entrepreneur in command, is urging champagne on everyone. Robards already has a glass in his left hand full of it, while his right alternately handshakes with his peers and pulls a Parliament cigarette from beneath his moustache.
The occasion is the taping of a 90-minute TV special to promote the then upcoming Tony Awards—the theater’s Oscars. All the assembled have been blessed with nominations or special awards. The Broadway season has been a good one.
It has been especially good for Jason Robards, who is back on familiar O’Neill turf again. After The Iceman, after great acclaim in the master playwright’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (both on Broadway and in the movie) and after further renown in the Broadway premiere of O’Neill’s Hughie, (the last, ten years ago), Robards is playing James Tyrone Jr., the aging, guilt-ridden drunk in A Moon for the Misbegotten. The reviews have been unanimous raves, the audiences have been on their feet cheering, and the Morosco Theatre has virtually been SRO since opening night. Best of all, Robards is in the company of trusted associates who share the O’Neill mystique—director José Quintero (who has directed Robards in each of his previous O’Neill roles on stage) and co-star Colleen Dewhurst, a greatly admired actress who is finally enjoying a dividend after 27 years of paying her dues.
Jason Robards has completed a long voyage home. But the return to the Great White Way where Nobel Prizewinner O’Neill was born and where the 51-year-old Robards is regarded as one of its most esteemed actors has not been an easy passage. The one-time sailor—like O’Neill—has navigated a series of personal reefs and shoals. While his theater work in many major plays has brought almost consistent recognition, very few among his score of movies resulted in critical appreciation, box office stardom or personal satisfaction. Then there was the breakup of an eight-year marriage to actress Lauren Bacall, terrible trials with whiskey and self-doubt and, 17 months ago, a car crash in California which left him near death. Little wonder that the Robards performance which brought him to the Elysee taping is being looked upon as something of a personal resurrection.
Until they get on camera, Robards is all easy affability among the Tony nominees. Then he becomes ill-at-ease. While host Tony Randall introduces them with banalities, Robards looks embarrassed. “Now I know why Hepburn has avoided all this,” he mutters. He is between Mostel, the star of Ulysses in Nighttown, and Michael Moriarty who has had a grand season both on screen (Bang the Drum Slowly) and stage (Find Your Way Home). When Randall introduces Robards as “the immortal Jason Robards,” the nominee seems genuinely anguished.
Herb Gardner, who wrote the play and the movie A Thousand Clowns, in both of which Robards was memorable, once observed, “If you want to offend Jason, pay him a compliment. I think he’s not only embarrassed by acting, I really think he feels degraded.”
It is a bad afternoon for Robards. Later, in the No Name Bar, a favored retreat, he is listening to a photographer friend speculate about the Tony Awards and is assured that he is a front runner. “It’s got to be Moriarty,” Robards disagrees. “I know it.”
If Robards gives the impression that an O’Neill role fits him like a second skin, he is not altogether comfortable with the idea. “It’s strange all right, this thing between me and O’Neill,” he says next day, over lunch at Delsomma’s, around the corner from the theater. “It’s like a line from the Moon, ‘There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again—now.’ There’s something mysterious there, and I can’t pinpoint it myself. There’s an affinity I’ve got with the guy, and there are all these links—his father was an actor, so was mine, and we both spent some time at sea. But Christ, I didn’t write the stuff, he did. I’m only interpreting the roles.”
The relationship between Robards and O’Neill is interesting, but too much could be made of it. Robards has, after all, excelled in plays as different as The Disenchanted, about F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which Jason appeared with his father Jason Robards Sr. (and won a Tony as best actor of the year) and Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl (for which Variety named Robards best actor of that year).
Yet Robards’ fascination with O’Neill exists, and it began early. He read his first O’Neill play while in the Navy on a seven-year hitch as a radioman. He was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Subsequently he was decorated with the Navy Cross for valor. He served on the staff of Admiral Raymond Spruance and was aboard two cruisers when they were torpedoed. While serving on the light cruiser Honolulu off Leyte, Robards recalls picking up O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude in the ship’s library. “I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. I thought it was a racy book, you know, with that title. It’s got a come-on ring to it. What struck me was the dialogue and especially the head thing. How would you portray what’s going on in a man’s head?” Jason made up his mind to follow his father into the theater—after all, not long after his birth in Chicago, had he not been wheeled on stage in a pram?
When he was mustered out at the war’s end, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York where Jason Robards Sr. had studied (and where young Jason met fellow student Colleen Dewhurst). The son was destined to become a far more celebrated actor than his father. But before he would hear the bravos and read the glowing notices, there were the long years most actors know—saving cigarette butts in a cold-water flat, the struggling marriage, jobs as a typist in a P.R. outfit, or “stretching” applicants too short for the police academy, occasional Broadway walk-ons, radio and TV bits, summer stock—and hope.
It all changed, of course, for Jason Robards, when his association with José Quintero began. The 1956 production of The Iceman Cometh in the onetime nightclub which was then Greenwich Village’s Circle in the Square theater became a legend. Not only was Quintero’s direction considered far superior to the Broadway original of 1946, supervised by O’Neill himself, but the play was rich in several parts, not least among whom was newcomer Peter Falk as the bartender Rocky. But the most legendary thing about it was Robard’s Hickey—the manic salesman bent on destroying the pipe dreams of the hangers-on in Harry Hope’s saloon. Looking back on Robards’ interpretation of the doomed drummer, theater-lovers rank it with such towering performances of the period as Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and Olivier’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer.
The role of Hickey was to haunt Robards. When The Iceman was presented last year in The American Film Theater production directed by John Frankenheimer, Hickey was portrayed by Lee Marvin. After Robards piled his Mercedes into an abutment high in the coastal mountains above Malibu just after midnight on Dec. 8, 1972, speculation had it that his bitterness at being passed over as the movie Hickey had led to a drunken, suicidal drive. Robards’ friends deny it. Robards is philosophical: “I wasn’t that upset. I understand that they wanted to get Marvin. He’s an audience-draw. And Frankenheimer wanted him. I can’t go around calling up directors, telling them that I want the part. It just isn’t done that way.”
Robards nearly died that night. His shattered face has been rebuilt since in three delicate and difficult operations. The heavy moustache covers scarring which awaits another. Through the long and painful period of convalescence and plastic surgery, he was lovingly cared for by his fourth wife, the former Lois O’Connor, 38, a onetime associate producer for producer David Susskind, whom he married in 1970. They have a 2½-year-old girl, Shannon. Jason’s first marriage to Eleanore Pitman in 1959 had made him the father of three children, another Jason (also a sometime actor), Sarah and David, who was born blind. Robards also has an adoring 12-year-old son, Sam, whose mother is Lauren Bacall. They were divorced in Mexico in 1969. They had been married there too in 1961, following the dissolution of Robards’ two-month marriage to Rachel Taylor (“I don’t count that one”).
One observer of the tumultuous Robards-Bacall years (she had previously trained with Humphrey Bogart) remarked, “Maybe it ended acrimoniously, but they had some great moments too. She was tough-minded and cranky, and Jason was awful easy-going. But when it was over, Betty was still anxious to hear about any of his triumphs.”
Perhaps the generous Miss Bacall was tuned into the nationally telecast Tony presentations on April 21. The presentations’ producer Alexander Cohen announced that the theme of the evening was “homecoming,” to salute the great talents who owed their start to Broadway. Successively the cast and producers of A Moon for the Misbegotten swept the awards. Miss Dewhurst was honored as best actress in a play. Ed Flanders was named best supporting actor. José Quintero received the award as best director. The producers, Elliott Martin and Lester Osterman, received a special award. At three minutes before midnight, the final Tony—for best actor in a play—was awarded, as Robards had predicted, to young Michael Moriarty, for his brilliant depiction of a homosexual in Find Your Way Home. Gravely disappointed but gentlemanly, Jason Robards made an appearance at the party afterward to extend his congratulations all around.
Next evening Robards is in his dressing room at the Morosco. Was it rough about the Tony? He smiles, an utterly infectious, little-boy smile, then he points at a photograph of Eugene O’Neill up on the cluttered wall, near those of his two youngest children. “It’s a crap shoot. Like Erie Smith says in Hughie, ‘I ain’t done so bad, Pal.’ And Moriarty was awful good.” There’s almost no rue in the words.
A knock. A voice, “Fifteen minutes to curtain.” Robards glances at a watch Lauren Bacall gave him at the opening of Hughie. It is inscribed “Hughie—he’ll give you confidence.”
Outside, the audience is restless. There is hardly an empty seat. Pulitzer Prize committee members are reported to be in the house. The house lights dim. Silence. The rising curtain reveals the ramshackle Connecticut farm of Phil Hogan. In a little while James Tyrone Jr. will enter and Colleen Dewhurst—as Josie Hogan—will say, “With his eyes on the ground. Like a dead man walking slow behind his own coffin….”
Then he’s there. Cigarette in hand, the joking drunk, hung over, dodging serious things, brown suit, brown shoes, stiff collar, full of nervous twitches, rubbing the side of his suit jacket, hand to his silvering head, opening his jacket, closing it. The audience is taken by an unerring hand. It is a homecoming for Jason Robards.