- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Actor Jason Robards, who died the day after Christmas in Bridgeport, Conn., at age 78, for the most part grew up in Hollywood. But his father's vicissitudes as a character actor in the movie industry left the younger Robards with a wary view of the trade.

Mr. Robards remarked during interviews for the Bill Murray comedy "Quick Change" (1990) that he had stalled while attempting to begin his memoirs.

"It's hard," he said. "Some things I'd rather forget, and I don't want to write one of these things about a life of athletic stunts in bed, which is what seems to be in demand now. I was born on the road, you know, in Chicago in 1922, while my father was touring in 'Seventh Heaven.' Then I lived in New York for about five years and then out here starting in the late '20s, when my father came out to be in the silents.

"I saw that whole era as a child, in a way, while seeing him go down the drain in it. We were poverty-stricken by the mid-'30s. It wasn't a success story for us out here. There's things I could write about, but little of it would be inspirational."

Mr. Robards spent six years in the Navy, between 1939 and 1945. "I was at Pearl [Harbor], I was in a lot of different things out in the Pacific, all the way through to Okinawa," he said. "That was the end of it for me, finally. It was terrible. I never got to go home. I kept saying, 'Why does everybody else get to go home, and we're not?'"

The long-suffering sailor found himself back in New York City in 1946 and strangely attracted to his father's profession. He enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Art, which had introduced Jason Robards Sr. to acting in 1911.

As a struggling actor, the younger Mr. Robards developed a fondness for the city during the late 1940s and the subsequent decade, when he emerged as a formidable interpreter of Eugene O'Neill characters in a revival of "The Iceman Cometh" and the original production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

"We were all making the rounds," he recalled. "That was one of the good things about New York in that period. You could walk around and look for work at the offices of agents and producers. You didn't need an appointment. We'd go out every day, pop in and ask if there was any work to be had. I did a lot of other jobs — drove cabs, taught school, set up pins in a bowling alley. I even stretched people.

"[The job] lasted about four months," Mr. Robards continued. "You'd rig guys who were a little too short to qualify for the police or fire department on this kind of rack device with slings around their arms and legs and neck. I think you had to be 5-7 to qualify for the jobs they wanted. I put on a white coat to look official. The patient lay down on a table, and after he was all attached, you'd work these pulleys to stretch him a bit. You had to rely on his pain threshold to tell you how much he could take. Then he'd stagger out and get down to the bureau in a hurry, for fear he'd shrink back down to 5-2 or whatever. It paid about $50 a week, which wasn't bad… . Then one day there was a padlock on the door. No further explanation."

Mr. Robards eventually returned to Hollywood with an impressive string of theatrical credits. He played Hickey in the 1956 revival of "The Iceman Cometh," Jamie Tyrone in the 1957 production of "Long Day's Journey" and an alcoholic writer (a barely disguised F. Scott Fitzgerald) in the 1958 dramatization of Budd Schulberg's novel "The Disenchanted."

The latter won Mr. Robards a Tony Award. It also permitted him to share the stage with his father, cast in a supporting role. Then and now, the title seemed ideal to summarize Mr. Robards' flair for ruminative and disillusioned characters.

Hollywood did the prodigal no particular favors with roles in "The Journey," "By Love Possessed" and "Tender Is the Night," a misbegotten Fitzgerald adaptation that had spent too many years as an elusive prestige project.

A lackluster 1963 version of the Moss Hart memoir, "Act One," also left Mr. Robards as a wasted resource. His engaging performance as George S. Kaufman had little chance as a picture-saver. By the late 1970s, however, he had won Academy Awards for best supporting actor by playing Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men" and Dashiell Hammett in "Julia" — and should have made it three in a row for Howard Hughes in "Melvin and Howard."

Sidney Lumet's superlative movie version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in 1962 preserved the Robards performance as embittered, volcanic Jamie, and the movie itself is rivaled only by "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a great movie re-enactment of a great American play.

Re-creating his role in the Herb Gardner comedy "A Thousand Clowns" in 1965 finally gave Mr. Robards a modest claim on commercial appeal as a film actor. Even then, one took it for granted that Mr. Robards needed exceptional character roles to sustain a Hollywood career. He was in his late 30s by the time he began appearing in movies, and his craggy, lived-in face was unlikely to prove a magnet for teeny-boppers.

The association with "All the President's Men" has obscured the abundance of Mr. Robards' roles with Washington pedigrees. Everyone remembers that he played Mr. Bradlee in 1976 but forgets that he also did President Nixon a year later on the TV feature "Washington: Behind Closed Doors."

He had the title role in "F.D.R.: The Last Year," a TV historical drama of 1980. He also supplied the voice of Ulysses S. Grant for Ken Burns' "Civil War" and narrated PBS documentaries about Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He did Abraham Lincoln at least three times on television.

His biographical resume also includes Doc Holliday, Al Capone, Mark Twain, Andrei Sakharov, Lew Wallace, Paris Singer and Leland Hayward.

Lincoln was on his mind during the "Quick Change" press junket. Mr. Robards had recently completed a role as the president in a TV drama titled "The Perfect Tribute," which was scheduled to be shown early in 1991 to coincide with Lincoln's Birthday.

"I first played Lincoln on live TV in a thing called 'Fire and Ice.' It was done in the early 1950s for the old DuMont network — WABD, their flagship station in New York. It was about the loneliness and caring of the man. Burnside was crossing the Rappahannock. Lincoln was waiting for a telegraph report about casualties. It was one hour. A wonderfully simple piece. Of course, about all you think of in that situation is to keep checking the beard, to make sure it isn't falling off. The beard and the mole."

Several years later, Mr. Robards returned to the role in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" revival of Robert E. Sherwood's play "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." He was asked if the reprises had enlarged his sense of the president. "They sure have," he said. "Just more and more and more about the agonies. As you grow older, you also understand more about the things one goes through. It pulls things out of you that weren't ready to be expressed before."

Filming "Tribute" had left him with one especially haunting experience. "I tell you, when I did the Gettysburg Address for this new show, it was the weirdest thing," he said.

"We're out in a field with a platform, way out in the wilds outside Atlanta somewhere. Airplanes were always going overhead. We're stopping constantly. But when it comes to me finally, and I get up to do the speech, all of a sudden, an eerie silence where there was all this commotion. A wind comes up, a very slight breeze. I start. There were 15,000 people at the actual event. We've got a few hundred extras. I hear two birds way over there, so I seem to be reaching the tree line. I finish and look around, and tears are streaming down a couple of guys. I see people standing like this." He pantomimes eyes being wiped and sobs muffled.

"We did it about 11 times," he said. "Every time, it went totally quiet… . Something happened while that speech was being performed. I don't know what. A similar thing happened once before, when I was doing a speech for 'F.D.R.'"

Mr. Robards said he was always a Civil War buff.

Someone asked who was the most difficult real-life character to portray. Mr. Robards rejected the suggestion it was Mr. Bradlee. "Ben and I are the same age, had the same sort of background in some respects. I didn't have his sort of schooling, but we went through the same kind of things in the Navy. And this and that. I wanted to be a newspaperman at one time. It all sort of fell in."

He decided that a long-lost turn as President Grant might have been the toughest assignment, but not because of the man. "The script was no good," Mr. Robards said. "Once the script is good, nothing's tough. Howard Hughes was so wonderfully written, for example, that it seemed effortless."


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