Menu Bar

Jason Jamie Robards Tyrone

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 theater miracle.

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 actor.

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!"

Hickey's complicated 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 him.

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 unreliable."

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 of explanation?

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 explanation."

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 from him."

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 says.

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 the morning."

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 life."

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 suicide?"

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 drinking companion."

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 says.

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 together."

Curtain down. Curtain up.

Ironically, the movie version of The Iceman Cometh, released at the end of October [1973], 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 raves.

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 feminine guile.

"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 Lear."

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 seasons.


© Copyright 1999-2007