Jason Robards (1922-2000) was one of the most distinguished American actors of the twentieth century, making his mark in both theater and film. The son of an actor, Robards first made a name for himself in the late 1950s with impressive performances in the plays of Eugene O'Neill. He went on to win two Academy Awards for best supporting actor and a Tony Award for best actor, one of eight Tony Awards for which he was nominated.
Robards was born in Chicago on July 26, 1922, son of Jason Nelson, an actor, and Hope Maxine (Glanville) Robards. When he was only 5, his parents divorced, and young Robards moved with his father and brother to Los Angeles. Growing up he showed little interest in following in his father's footsteps, focusing instead on a possible career in sports. He was a star athlete at Hollywood High School, playing baseball, basketball, football, and track. Academically, he was a B+ student whose favorite subjects were civics, drama, French, and Spanish. He graduated in 1939.
Shortly after graduating from Hollywood High, Robards enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was trained as a radio operator. Stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, he narrowly survived the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. For most of World War II, he served in the Pacific Theater, seeing action in a total of 13 sea battles, and was later awarded the Navy Cross. It was during his years in the Navy that Robards first began to show an interest in the theater, borrowing the plays of Eugene O'Neill from the ship's library and toying with the idea of a career as an actor.
Bitten by the Acting Bug
After his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Robards returned home and confided to his father his growing interest in acting. The senior Robards urged his son to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) in New York, which he himself had attended and now recommended to his son as an excellent place to learn the actor's craft. Although Robards's stay at AADA lasted only eight months, it was at the academy that he first met actress Colleen Dewhurst, who would play opposite him in a number of O'Neill plays in years to come. His first professional appearance was as the rear end of a cow in the Children's World Theatre production of Jack and the Beanstalk, hardly the most auspicious start to an acting career. Next up, Robards won a walk-on role in a D'Oyly Carte production of The Mikado on Broadway. A year later he enjoyed somewhat more substantive roles in the D'Oyly Carte productions of Iolanthe and The Yeoman of the Guard.
Things began to look up a bit for Robards in the early 1950s. In 1951 he landed a job as an understudy and assistant stage manager for the Broadway production of Stalag 17. After its Broadway run, Robards joined the national touring company of the play. His first big break, however, came in 1953 when director Jose Quintero cast him in the leading role in Victor Wolfson's American Gothic, which opened off Broadway at the Circle in the Square. That experience helped to pave the way for the role that would first win the actor broad recognition and critical acclaim. When director Quintero was casting his upcoming production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh early in 1956, he remembered Robards from their prior collaboration and cast him in the relatively minor role of Jimmy the Priest. As the production began to come together, Quintero continued to search for just the right actor to play Hickey, the lead role. Robards pleaded with Quintero to give him a stab at the part. Hickey, as written by O'Neill, is a short, rotund figure in his 50s, which could hardly have been more different than the tall, lean Robards, who was then 34. Despite his initial misgivings, Quintero allowed the actor to read for the part and was so impressed at Robards's ability to transform himself into O'Neill's tragic hero that he quickly signed him for the part.
Won Best Actor Award
Thus began for Robards and Quintero a successful partnership in the interpretation of O'Neill's work. Playwright O'Neill, who had died in November 1953, had requested that one of his plays—A Long Day's Journey into Night—not be produced until 25 years after his death. So impressed with Robards' interpretation of Hickey was O'Neill's widow that she gave Quintero and Robards the green light to bring Long Day's Journey to Broadway only three years after O'Neill's death. The play, written by O'Neill between 1939 and 1941, is autobiographical in theme, painting a painful portrait of the tortured relationships within the Tyrone family. Its Broadway debut in the fall of 1956 won for O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, his third for drama, and for Robards the 1957 New York Drama Critics Award for best actor.
New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson said that with Quintero's production of Long Day's Journey into Night, "the American theater acquires size and stature." Of Robards' contribution, Atkinson wrote: "As the evil brother, Jason Robards Jr., who played Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, gives another remarkable performance that has tremendous force and truth in the last act." Even more effusive in his praise of Robards was Walter Kerr, critic for the New York Herald-Tribune: "Mr. Robards lurches into the final scene with his hands, his mouth, and his mind wildly out of control, cracks himself in two as he pours out every tasteless truth that is in him, and subsides at last into the boozy sleep of the damned. The passage is magnificent."
After his stunning success in two back-to-back O'Neill vehicles, Robards sought to prove to the world—and perhaps to himself as well—that he could act convincingly in works by other playwrights. He followed up with his successful run as Jamie Tyrone in Long Day's Journey with two Shakespearean roles in the summer of 1958. He first played Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, after which he took the role of Polixenes in The Winter's Tale. Returning to contemporary drama in the fall of 1958, he opened on Broadway opposite Rosemary Harris in Budd Schulberg's and Harvey Breit's The Disenchanted, a thinly disguised tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Robards played the role of Manley Halliday (the Fitzgerald character) so convincingly that he picked up the Tony Award in 1959 as best actor. Joining Robards in the cast of The Disenchanted was his father, making his first appearance on Broadway since 1922, the year of his actor son's birth.
Made His Film Debut
In 1959 Robards returned briefly to Shakespeare, playing the title role in a production of Macbeth at the Metropolitan Boston Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. More importantly, 1959 saw the actor's film debut in The Journey, released by MGM. Then it was back to Broadway where he won critical praise for his roles as Julian Berniers in Toys in the Attic in 1960, William Baker in Big Fish, Little Fish in 1961, and Murray Burns in A Thousand Clowns in 1962.
After a two-year absence, Robards returned to the screen in 1961 in two roles, playing Julius Penrose in By Love Possessed and Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. In 1962 Robards recreated his role as Jamie Tyrone in the film version of A Long Day's Journey into Night, starring with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Dean Stockwell. The critics were duly impressed, and it seemed certain that Robards had carved a niche for himself in Hollywood. In 1964, Robards played George S. Kaufman in the film version of Moss Hart's Act One, which he followed with in 1965 with a reprisal of his role as Murray Burns in the motion picture version of A Thousand Clowns. He also managed to stay active on Broadway, appearing in 1964 and 1965 in four different roles: Quentin in Arthur Miller's After the Fall, Seymour Rosenthal in But for Whom Charlie, Erie Smith in Hughie, and Vicar of St. Peter's in The Devils.
While Robards' career continued to flourish, his personal life was quite another matter. For much of his adult life he was plagued with debilitating bouts of depression, some of which he later suggested may have had its roots in the breakup of his family when he was only 5 years old. Although he lived with his father and stepmother after his parents' divorce, he saw his mother frequently but spent much of his early life hoping that the family could be reunited. Even more damaging than the depression was Robards's struggle with alcohol. He remained a heavy drinker until 1972 when he was almost killed in an alcohol-related automobile accident. No less complicated was Robards's love life. In all he was married four times. He married Eleanor Pitman in 1948. The couple had three children—Jason III, Sarah Louise, and David—before divorcing in 1952. In 1959 Robards married Rachel Taylor. They had no children and divorced in 1961, shortly after which he married Lauren Bacall, with whom he had a son, Sam. Robards and Bacall split in 1969. The following year he married Lois O'Connor, with whom he remained until his death in 2000. They had two children, Shannon and Jake.
Work in Films Increased
Robards remained active in the theater for most of his life, but the late 1960s brought a sharp increase in his work in film. In 1966 he appeared in Any Wednesday and A Big Hand for the Little Lady. The following year he played Al Capone in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Doc Holliday in Hour of the Gun, and Nelson Downes in Divorce American Style. Between 1968 and 1976 he appeared in 16 films, but the best was yet to come for Robards. His portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976's All the President's Men won for Robards an Academy Award as best supporting actor. He repeated that feat only a year later when he picked up the Oscar for his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett in Julia.
On the stage, the 1970s brought a return to the plays of Eugene O'Neill for Robards. In 1973 he portrayed James Tyrone Jr. in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Eisenhower Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Morosco in New York City. The following year he took the play to Los Angeles, appearing at the Ahmanson Theatre. In 1975, he played Erie Smith in O'Neill's Hughie at the Zellerbach Theatre in Los Angeles and at the Lake Forest Theatre in Illinois in 1976. In 1975 Robards also played the role of James Tyrone Sr. in A Long Day's Journey into Night at the Eisenhower and the following year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The actor next portrayed Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City. He wrapped up the decade with an appearance in O'Neill and Carlotta, a drama about the tortured relationship between Eugene O'Neill and his third and last wife, Carlotta Monterey.
In addition to his many appearances on stage and in film, Robards found time for an amazing amount of work in television. He appeared in more than 20 made-for-TV movies, including four—The House without a Christmas Tree, The Thanksgiving Treasure, The Easter Promise, and Addie and the King of Hearts—in which he played the same character, James Mills. He either appeared in or lent his voice to ten miniseries, including The Atlanta Child Murders, The Long Hot Summer, An Inconvenient Woman, and Heidi. In the mid-to late 1950s, Robards also appeared in a number of television dramas, including productions that appeared on Studio One, Playhouse 90, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Philco Television Playhouse.
Robards remained active in film until just before his death in 2000. Ironically, his final film, released in 1999, was Magnolia, in which he portrayed Earl Patridge, bedridden and dying of cancer, with which the actor himself was then waging a losing battle. Although Magnolia was not a major commercial success, Robards' work in the film was widely praised by critics.
Contemporary Theatre, Film and Television, Gale Group, 2000.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 3: Actors, Directors, and Designers, St. James Press, 1996.
Newsmakers, Gale Group, 2001.
New York Herald Tribune, November 8, 1956.
New York Times, November 8, 1956.
"Biographies: Jason Robards," Videoflicks.com, http://www.videoflicks.com/biographies/A101/1013198.htm (January 21, 2002).
"Jason Robards Jr.," Jason Robards, JAT Entertainment Group, http://www.jatentertainment.com/robards/index.htm (January 21, 2002).