Robards Played Tag with the Furies
by james w thomas
“I’ve always played disintegrated characters.”
Murray Burns A Thousand Clowns (1965)
“If most things aren’t funny, then they’re only exactly what they are; and then they’re like a long dental appointment interrupted occasionally by something exciting like waiting or falling asleep.”
Ben Bradlee All the Presidents’ Men (1976)
“Now hold it, hold it. We’re about to accuse Haldeman who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right.”
Jamie Tyrone Moon for the Misbegotten (1975)
“It was long ago. But it seems like tonight. There is no present or future–only the past happening over and over again – now. You can’t get away from it. Nuts!”
If the playwright Eugene O’Neill believed the Furies hounded him and put them in his plays, then Jason Robards, the quintessential O’Neill actor, in his own life played tag with them and laughed about it. Or maybe it was the Fates. Both had actor fathers who starred and toured in long-running plays that put the commercial before the artistic. Both Eugene and Jason had alcohol problems. O’Neill had three wives and Robards had four. Both survived – and triumphed. At least Robards died reasonably happy.
O’Neill was haunted by his alcoholic brother Jamie, whom he wrote into his plays by name in Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten and by character in The Iceman Cometh. Robards played all three, Jamie in Long Day’s Journey and Moon as well as Hickey in Iceman. In more O’Neill scripts, the actor played hustler Erie Smith in Hughie, social climber Cornelius Melody in A Touch of the Poet, and the warm-hearted father Nat Miller in Ah, Wilderness, the playwright’s only comedy.
Robards later said, “One of the most damaging things for me, I realize now, was playing a drunk in the play Long Day’s Journey into Night. In the play, the drunk’s father is a failed artist and his mother was a drug addict. It was only after years of analysis I realized I was acting out events in my own stage life.” He became the father, too, playing James Tyrone Sr. on Broadway in 1988 in repertory with Ah, Wilderness.
Jason Nelson Robards Jr. was born on 26 July 1922 in Chicago but grew up in Hollywood, the son of Hope Glanville and stage and screen actor Jason Robards Sr., of English, German, Swedish, Irish, and Welsh descent. His last name, a variant of Roberts, common in North Wales and England, comes from the given name Robert (Welsh variant Robat) meaning “bright fame” from the Old High German. There is, however, a great, great, great, great grandmother two centuries back named Letoisa Lloyd.
Eugene O’Neill, Nobel laureate in literature, is usually considered America’s greatest (if not most difficult) dramatist; Jason Robards, winner of the Tony, Academy, and Emmy awards, is in the American Theater Hall of Fame and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. In memory of Robards, the consummate O’Neill player, actor Kevin Spacey remarked, “He was the last of a breed of actors who dedicated themselves to a life in the theater. Without asking for the role, he was our elder statesman.”
O’Neill has three biographies by Barbara & Arthur Gelb,O’Neill (1962), O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (2000), and By Women Possessed (2016). Robards, who died of lung cancer in 2000, has no books so far but a marvelous article by Barbara Gelb in The New York Times Magazine, unfortunately, from January 1974. More needs to be written about the actor who starred as Murray Burns as well as James Tyrone Jr.