On Jason Robards, Pere et Fils

Very late in his life, I got to meet one of my favorite actors Jason Robards Jr (1922-2000) and for once I wasn’t tongue-tied, I knew just what to say to put us both at ease. For on the previous evening, I had watched D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), in which his father Jason Robards Sr. (1893-1963) had played William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner. Robards was delighted that someone remembered his dad, and probably even more delighted that someone pretty young knew who he was. Most people in our time don’t even know that there WAS a Jason Robards, Sr., let alone that he was a star of stage and screen prior to his son. (The younger one dropped the “Junior” midway through his own career, further covering the tracks.)

Jason Robards Sr had studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and had only had a couple of Broadway credits (Lightnin’ [1918], and Spite Corner [1922]) when he began to make good in silent films. Robards went directly to good parts in major motion pictures. His first was The Gilded Lily (1921) with Mae Murray, a Famous Players-Lasky film. Classic comedy fans will be interested to know that he was in The Cohens and the Kellys (1926) with Charlie Murray. All told, Robards was in a couple of dozen silents prior to the coming of sound. When sound came in, he was generally a supporting player often in lesser-known B movies. Though he’s in some 200 films, very few are well remembered today. One of them is the aforementioned Abraham Lincoln. Other movies he appears include Caught Plastered (1931) with Wheeler and WoolseySalvation Nell (1931), The Docks of San Francisco (1932), The Mad Empress (1939), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), Return of the Bad Men (1948), and the Elvis movie Wild in the Country (1961). Most of his work during his last decade was on television.

The younger Robards came to acting fairly late in life. His father’s career had been in decline during his own teenage years and young adulthood (undoubtedly turning him off), and besides, those years coincided with World War II, in which the younger Robards saw heavy Naval action in the Pacific. It wasn’t until after the war, when he was in his late ’20s that he began to pursue acting as a vocation. Like his dad, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

It took Robards a decade to get his first widespread notice, playing Hickey in Jose Quintero’s off-Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh in 1956, and James Tyrone Jr in the Broadway premier of Long Days Journey into Night (1956-58). Throughout his career, Robards was to always be closely identified with Eugene O’Neill. He was also in the 1960 film of Iceman and 1962 film of Long Day’s Journey, as well as Hughie (Broadway premier 1964, TV version 1984), A Moon for the Misbegotten (stage version 1973, TV version 1975 — see image above); and stage revivals of A Touch of the Poet (1977), Iceman (1985), Long Day’s Journey (1988), and Ah, Wilderness! (1988).

Robards was also in the original Broadway productions of Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic (1960), Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964), Joseph Heller’s We Bombed in New Haven (1968) and A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters (1989). He also starred in Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns (Broadway premiere, 1962; film version, 1965). He also interpreted many other major playwrights in revivals. He was in a TV version Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1959); Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1964); Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl (Broadway 1972, TV movie 1974); and Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1994). He played George S. Kaufman in the film of Moss Hart’s Act One in 1963 and Grandpa in a Broadway revival of Kaufman’s You Cant Take it With You (1983-84). And he was in Inherit the Wind on TV in 1988. And he was in film and TV adaptations of works by important novelists and poets: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls on Playhouse 90 (1959); Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1962);  Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1969); and a 1985 remake of The Long Hot Summer, based on the writing of Faulkner. 

So Robards was an actor closely identified with interpreting important writers. But for the most part I imagine the masses neither knew nor cared about that. Instead, they recognized the gravelly voiced, long-faced, authoritative thespian in character roles from a huge number of well-known Hollywood films and TV productions: A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Divorce American Style (1967), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Hour of the Gun (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Night They Raided Minskys (1968), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Julius Caesar (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), All the President’s Men (1976), Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), Julia (1977), Comes a Horseman (1978), Raise the Titanic (1980), Melvin and Howard (1980), Max Dugan Returns (1983), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), The Day After (1983), The Atlanta Child Murders (1985), Parenthood (1989), Quick Change (1990), Philadelphia (1993), and P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). And I left TONS out. Oh — and let’s not forget his voiceover as General Grant in the Burns’ Bros. 1990 Civil War documentary!

And, like his father, he left behind a human legacy. His sons Jason and Sam became actors. In fact that was how I met Jason Robards, Jr. I was coming into the cabaret space at HERE Arts Space for a performance of my play House of Trash…and there — alone in the little black box theatre — was Jason Robards! We later deduced that he had been there to see one of his sons in something and had hung back to congratulate him. Lucky me, for he died later that year.