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|Also Known As:||Jason Robards Jr.,Jason Robards [Jr.]||Died:|
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The foremost male interpreter of the works of playwright Eugene O'Neill since the mid-1950s, Jason Robards owes his career to the celebrated 1956 Circle in the Square revival of the playwright's "The Iceman Cometh", directed by Jose Quintero, which thrust the versatile actor from obscurity into the limelight. The parallels between his own life and O'Neill's are striking and surely resonated for his Broadway debut as Jamie Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1957), the most autobiographical of the playwright's oeuvre. O'Neill's father had been a talented actor who wasted his talent (but made his fortune) in years of easy repetition as the star of "The Count of Monte Cristo". Likewise, Robards' father was a wonderful Broadway actor, who in his son's words "sold out," moved to Hollywood and "went down the tubes out there." Robards tapped into the essence of O'Neill, perfectly essaying the highly intelligent, often sensitive but frequently stubborn men, sometimes defeated by their own penchant for sadness while prone to angry outbursts, prejudice and alcoholism.
Robards got to act with his father in Budd Schulberg's "The Disenchanted" (1958), earning a Tony Award as Manley Halliday, a thinly-disguised portrait of a drunken F Scott Fitzgerald. He then made his feature debut as a Hungarian freedom fighter in "The Journey" (1959), but no matter how much film and TV work he took (and it was prodigious), he always returned to the stage until ill health forced him from the boards in the late 90s. His remarkable accomplishments in the theater include stagings of O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (1973), "A Touch of the Poet" (1977) and "Ah, Wilderness!" (1988), frequently opposite another O'Neill specialist Colleen Dewhurst, and he also recreated his role as Hickey in a 1985 Broadway revival of "Iceman", not to mention portraying the elder Tyrone in 1975 and 1988 productions of "Long Day's Journey Into Night". He has played in everything from Shakespeare ("Macbeth" 1959) to Pinter ("No Man's Land" 1994, Moonlight" 1995) and received an impressive eight Tony nominations, beginning with his 1957 supporting nod for "Long Day's Journey Into Night", followed by seven nominations for his leading turns, the last in 1978 for "A Touch of the Poet".
Robards' screen career gained steam when he reprised his stage role for Sidney Lumet's splendid adaptation of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962). He received top-billing for the first time as society dropout Murray Burns in "A Thousand Clowns" (1965), one of his favorite parts which he had also originated on Broadway, and his excellent turn as George S Kaufman in the film of Moss Hart's autobiography, "Act One" (1963), unveiled his uncanny talent for inhabiting the bodies of historical figures like a second skin. Even a partial listing of his real-life impersonations seems almost endless: Abraham Lincoln ("Abe Lincoln in Illinois", NBC 1964; "The Perfect Tribute", ABC 1991), Al Capone ("The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" 1967), supportive Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee ("All the President's Men" 1976, for which he won a Best Supporting Oscar), novelist Dashiell Hammett ("Julia" 1977, which garnered a second Supporting Actor Oscar), Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("FDR--The Last Year", NBC 1980), Howard Hughes ("Melvin and Howard" 1980, his third Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor), physicist-turned-activist Andrei Sakharov ("Sakharov", HBO 1984), and Mark Twain ("Mark Twain & Me", The Disney Channel 1991).
Although not above a little scenery chewing now and then, Robards for the most part remained grounded in a pensive, wide-ranging realism. Particularly adept at the tragic soulfulness that enabled him to excel in O'Neill's plays, he showed his lighter touch as the likable lecher in "Any Wednesday" (1966) and the charming, titular desert rat in Sam Peckinpah's Damon Runyanesque oater "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970). He relished every moment as one of the trio of heavies stalking through Sergio Leone's memorable "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1969), and he created the stern, widowed father in "The House Without a Christmas Tree" (CBS, 1972), a special about a Nebraska family during the 40s, which inspired three CBS sequels ("The Thanksgiving Treasure" 1973, "The Easter Promise" 1975, "Addie and the King of Hearts" 1976). This TV role was a perfect example of a type he would play more and more as he aged, the crusty outsider whose cranky nature belies a complex mixture of wisdom and weakness.
Robards was wonderful in the Neil Simon-scripted "Max Dugan Returns" (1983) as the father who abandoned Marsha Mason when she was nine and blows back into her life now dying of a heart ailment and carrying a suitcase full of cash left over form a checkered career in Las Vegas, determined to finally do right by her. In a similar vein, Ron Howard's "Parenthood" (1989) cast him as the acidic family patriarch (and formerly neglectful parent) who gets a second chance at fatherhood late in life when his ne'er-do-well, 27-year-old son (Tom Hulce) returns with his own illegitimate child. Outstanding in his Emmy-nominated role as the historically-based Richard Monckton (Richard Nixon) in his miniseries debut, "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" (ABC, 1977), Robards finally won an Emmy on his fifth try as Henry Drummond (based on real-life attorney Clarence Darrow) in NBC's adaptation of "Inherit the Wind" (1988). As for Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" (1993), it called for pure, cold-hearted villainy from him as the head of a law firm that dismisses a colleague (Tom Hanks) with AIDS.
With age came parts as appealing grandfathers in "Heidi" (The Disney Channel, 1993) and "My Antonia" (USA Network, 1995), which put Robards' grizzled quality to good effect. Infirmity may have short-circuited his stage career, but there was less taxing work for him in movies like Demme's "Beloved" (1998), Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" (1999) and "Going Home" (CBS, 2000), the latter two featuring him as increasingly helpless characters. There was also his instantly recognizable voice, which he lent so memorably as Union General Ulysses S Grant to Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War" (PBS, 1990). Long in demand as a narrator of TV documentaries and specials like "Polar Bear Alert" (1982), "The Unknown Soldier" (1985), "Thomas Hart Benton" (1989), "Pearl Harbor" (1991), "When Doctors Get Cancer" (1994) and the PBS series, "On the Waterways" (1991), he continued in this capacity on such projects as "TR, the Story of Theodore Roosevelt" (PBS, 1996), "Truman" (PBS, 1997) and "U.S.S. Indianapolis: Tragedy at Sea" (Discovery Channel, 1998). All the voluminous film and TV work aside, Robards' legacy remains his interpretation of the tormented O'Neill characters, the likes of which may not be seen again.
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