Jason Robards: An Example, a Mentor, an Actor Above All
By KEVIN SPACEY
It was a cinch for me to make good. I had the knack. — Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh”
JASON ROBARDS and I were both born on July 26 — he in 1922; I in 1959. It was just the beginning of our connection to each other, which goes way beyond the mere coincidence of a shared birth date. He was the first actor to play Jamie Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” on Broadway 45 years ago. I was the second actor to play Jamie on Broadway 15 years ago. He gave enduring life to the character of Hickey in O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh” in 1956. I took on the role of Hickey in “Iceman” in 1998.
I first met Jason in Washington in the fall of 1985, two months before I was to begin “Long Day’s Journey.” I was about to start rehearsals in “The Seagull” at the Kennedy Center. It seems only appropriate that the woman playing my mother in that production, and who played so many great performances with Jason, Colleen Dewhurst, would introduce us. The occasion was the closing-night party for the pre-Broadway run of “Iceman.” Jason was playing Hickey again in José Quintero’s revival of the O’Neill classic, which had brought them both fame and bound their fates so many years before. I would sneak into the presidential box of the Eisenhower Theater to watch the master, night after night. For a master Hickey he was. I must have seen a dozen performances.
Colleen knew of my admiration for Jason and she told me that she was taking me to the closing party specifically to meet him. I told her that I would be too embarrassed. She told me to shut my mouth and mind my own business. When Colleen Dewhurst told you to shut up, you shut up. So we went. The reception was in the ballroom of the Bristol Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House. I sat with Colleen through hors d’oeuvres I did not taste, for my eyes were glued to the great man across the room. I could not help watching Jason. And I sensed that he knew who I was. He kept turning in his seat, looking back toward our table. Our eyes occasionally met. Someone must have pointed me out to him, I thought. I suspected a certain devilish woman whom I called Mother Earth. But then, that was Colleen: bringing people together.
As the evening wound down, Jason got up, said his goodnights and moved through the ballroom on his way out, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, all the while heading in our direction. I sat frozen in my chair as I sensed him coming up behind us. I felt the hair on my neck rise. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and Jason was staring down at me with that miraculous face of his. He smiled and said: “Be good to him. He was very good to me.” I knew instantly that he was talking about Jamie. I knew he was wishing me well in the part. In that moment I felt a kinship with Jason that never wavered.
I am still greatly sad at his passing. I have felt relief that he is at last free of the long and difficult struggle he waged over his health. But I can’t ignore my selfish desire that he stick around forever. I want to hear that distinctive voice telling me his opinions: on the news, politics, the state of the theater, movies, the Screen Actors’ strike. At 78, he was still driven by concern for his fellow actors. He remained interested and curious about almost everything. He could be a great talker, that’s true. But he was an even better listener. And he listened to no one with a more open heart than the voice of a playwright.
It is curious that he never met the playwright who made him famous. But I can imagine a few drunken nights they might have shared together. The first play he read of O’Neill’s was “Strange Interlude” aboard ship during his stint in the Navy. How fitting that O’Neill and Robards would meet at sea.
What was it about Jason? To pursue the meaning of a man’s existence has always seemed to me absurd. The most beautiful experiences we can have are the mysterious. Yet everyone has certain measurements by which they judge a man’s endeavors. Mine are those of an actor.
Actors loved Jason Robards because we know what it takes. Every actor strives to achieve what Jason accomplished so effortlessly, or seemingly so. He worked hard, make no mistake, but he was such a superb technician that he managed to make us forget that he was working at all. I think Jason was also in on his own joke. He had no patience for the self-analysis that some indulged in. He was interested in the psychology of acting. His view of acting was just do it. Learn it. Serve it. Jason didn’t spend his time trying to figure it all out. He was too busy working. Not taking it all too seriously.
It is this prevailing attitude — which is conducive to a view of life — that gives humor its place. I think this is one of the major reasons that Jason, while an accomplished dramatic actor, was also able to develop his keen comic ability. He could be very funny: watch “A Thousand Clowns.” And that laugh of his; contagious, crackling and rapid- fire.
Seeing Jason on stage and screen, you marveled when he reached for a moment and grabbed it. Watch the scope of his anguish in “Long Day’s Journey” opposite Katharine Hepburn; his authority and intelligence as Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men”; his moving romantic turn as Dashiell Hammett with Jane Fonda in “Julia”; and his amazing transformation as Howard Hughes in “Melvin and Howard.” We are also fortunate to have on film and tape Jason’s work onstage in “The Iceman Cometh” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” two of his most searing performances.
Actors know a great performance when they see one because inside every actor is a great performance. A thousand things come between most actors and their dreams. There are only a handful, like Jason, who are given the chance, and have the courage, to give audiences the best and the worst of themselves. Again and again. So actors live through a performer like Jason Robards. He was brave. He adored the craft of acting; he clung to it and honored it. Actors can tell the difference between those who respect the written word and serve the material and those who set out to serve themselves. Jason fought to be the best because, in some measure, he recognized what he meant to the acting community — how we responded to his work and career.
HIS passing is significant because, with few exceptions, he is the last of a breed of actors of his stature who dedicated themselves to a life in the theater. We never had to witness his systematic corruption by success. He had an unerring sense of the right thing to do: he acted in the interest of the profession and, without asking for the role, he was our elder statesman. He held the bar high for others, but even higher for himself. Because of that, every actor wants a career like that of Jason Robards.
Without the friendship of those of like mind, the struggle for the eternally unattainable in the arts would seem empty. Actors bond together; that’s our nature. But with Jason it was more than that. I could say he was more than a mentor. He became something of another father to me.
A year ago, Jason and I were back in Washington. I was presenting the tribute to him for the Kennedy Center Honors. I felt privileged to be able to pay homage to his work in such a public way. Just before last Thanksgiving, a month before he died, he drove into Manhattan to return the favor. At the Plaza Hotel he presented me with an award from the Actor’s Fund for my work in the theater. He said things that night that I wish I could have heard my own father say. My father didn’t live long enough to see me play Hickey in “Iceman.” But Jason came. Eight years ago my father died the day before Christmas. Jason, the day after.
For those who still believe in the magic of storytelling, Jason Robards’s passionate commitment to the art of acting will burn so bright that the lights of the American theater will never go out.