Updated January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

As a young man, Jason Robards Jr. watched his actor father and best friend Jason Sr. succeed—and fail—on both stage and screen. Undaunted, he decided he wanted to follow in his footlights. Jason Sr.’s advice? “It’s heartbreak, kid.”

Half a century of acting and two Academy Awards later, Jason Ro-bards Jr. was himself a patriarch of his profession when he died on Dec. 26 in a Bridgeport, Conn., hospital near his home. With his presidential bearing—he played FDR, Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln—and an unforgettable voice that was half patrician, half drill sergeant, “he was as good as an actor gets in this country,” says Mary Steenburgen, his costar in three films. “He would say to me, ‘We are just making faces.’ But underneath there was this love and respect for the craft.”

Robards, 78, had fought cancer and a staph infection that led to a three-month coma in 1999. Given his illness, he nearly turned down a role as the crusty dying father of Tom Cruise in 1999’s Magnolia. “I told [director Paul Thomas Anderson], ‘I don’t know if I can do it, I’m on oxygen,’ ” Robards told Daily Variety. “He said, ‘Bring it along—it’ll save me on props.’ So I knew right away that I loved him.”

Robards loved his colleagues like family and his family like colleagues. Born in Chicago in 1922, where his father was playing in a road show, Robards and his younger brother were raised by their dad after Jason Sr. was divorced from their mother, Hope, who lived to be 97. As his father moved from the stage into background parts in Hollywood—”He went down the tubes out there,” Robards later told The New York Times—Robards joined the Navy. He was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and later served in Guadalcanal, but rarely spoke of his service. “You make it or you don’t,” he told The Washington Post a year before his death.

“When he left the Navy after World War II, Robards had had a literary love affair—one of the ships’ libraries contained the words of Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill—but not the other kind. “I went in at 17, came out at 17,” he said. “You have no life. First girl you kiss, you marry.” That first marriage, to Eleanor Pitman in 1948, produced children Jason III, 51, also a TV and film actor, Sarah Louise and David. After a decade, the couple split, and a second marriage, to Rachel Taylor, lasted only from 1959 to ’61.

Robards’s first steps into acting were less than auspicious: He debuted as the wrong end of a cow in a kiddie production of Jack and the Beanstalk in New York City. “They didn’t trust me with the front end, I think,” he told The Washington Post. Several years of struggle followed, and he nearly quit acting before winning the leads in now-legendary New York City productions of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night in the 1950s. With that, his career took off. Two decades later he won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor in 1976’s All the President’s Men and 1977’s Julia, but no role would ever be as important to him as one in the 1958 play The Disenchanted, which won him his only Tony in eight nominations and costarred his father. “It’s the best time we ever had,” Robards recalled. “That show, it was like a family.”

Robards Sr. died four years later, while Robards was married to third wife Lauren Bacall (their son Sam, 39, also acts in film). The pair split after eight years but remained close. With a work ethic as steely as his voice—”He stayed until the last dog was hung,” says Lanny Cotler, who directed his 1998 film Heartwood—Robards became a big name in 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, and as big a drinker. After three divorces, “you really feel guilty,” Robards said. “Like you’ve taken another soul and crushed it. And guilt and drinking go hand in hand.”

It wasn’t until after he nearly died in a 1972 car wreck—he arrived at the hospital with no heartbeat—that he quit drinking. But his 1970 marriage to film producer Lois O’Connor outlasted everything except death, and produced Shannon, 29, a film editor, and Jake, 26, who just began acting—with his father’s blessing. Robards remembered what his father had said about heartbreak, he said in 1999, “but I didn’t tell that to Jake.”

Kyle Smith

Vicki Sheff-Cahan and N.F. Mendoza in Los Angeles and Fannie Weinstein in New York City