Clarence Darrow is one of the most famous lawyers in American history. His career spanned the latter part of the 19th Century and the first three decades of the 20th.
Among his clients were socialist union organizer Eugene V. Debs and thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Leob. Darrow defended the teachings of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution at the notorious Scopes Monkey Trial.
The Ohio-born, Chicago-based attorney’s remarkable life and career are dramatized in “Darrow” on PBS’ “American Playhouse” on Wednesday.
Kevin Spacey, best known as evangelist Jim Bakker in 1990’s NBC movie “Fall From Grace” and the colorful drug kingpin Mel Profitt on “Wiseguy” in 1988, stars in the title role.
Spacey is appearing on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Lost in Yonkers.” He will learn tonight if he won a Tony Award for the performance--he’s nominated for best featured actor.
The 31-year-old actor discussed “Darrow” with Susan King.
Were you familiar with Clarence Darrow and his cases?
Darrow was always a footnote to the labor movement in my history books. Perhaps people are beginning to realize how important he was in American history. When Life magazine did its 100 most influential people of the century, Darrow was included.
Mel Profitt and Jim Bakker were certainly challenging parts. But has “Darrow” been the most rewarding?
I would have to say it’s the most challenging part. In a large sense, it’s been the most rewarding for me personally. I think for a while in TV I got, not stuck by any measure because I’ve been very careful, but I became known for playing flamboyant roles. Just after I played Jim Bakker, I decided to go back to TV and do something entirely different. I did a little film (for ABC) with Fred Savage, “When You Remember Me,” which taught me a great deal. It wasn’t in my mind a very exciting or engaging performance. I realized you were only as good as the material you were working with.
So I had taken a couple of months off (from acting) and was rethinking about what I wanted to do next. That’s when Neil Simon’s play dropped into my lap. I thought the best thing in your life you need to do when you’re feeling the need to be rejuvenated is to get back up on stage. So I accepted the play and the second I followed my heart, “Darrow” dropped in my lap. I went off and read it and responded to the story. Darrow was an amazing part and I always wanted to play a lawyer. I thought if I am going to play a lawyer, this is the best one I could play.
How did you arrive at Darrow’s distinct voice and stooped posture?
Well, Darrow was born in Kinsman, Ohio. Ohio has a very flat twang, but Chicago itself would have had its influence on him. He himself said he knew he had given a great summation when he felt like he was sitting around a campfire talking to a group of old friends and not in a courtroom talking to a jury. I felt there had to be a kind of ease in his delivery.
In terms of his stoop (posture), he had about the worst posture and I wanted to capture that. So I start out very able-bodied and by the end of the piece, I’m pretty stooped. His stoop was almost as famous as his hair (laughs).
And by way, I feel very much in movies and TV that when makeup and hair stuff is bad, it’s really bad. It’s all you can look at. I think the women on this film who did hair and makeup were outstanding. You just accept it (the hair and makeup). All you have to do is see an Oliver Stone movie and see what it’s like to have a bad wig and a stupid mustache.
Movies are made out of sequence. Is that difficult for an actor, especially when a piece spans several decades like “Darrow”?
The interesting thing about shooting any film, particularly this one, is that you are dealing with aging, and not just in terms of makeup but dealing with it in terms of intelligence and wisdom and what someone learns in life. You want to try to bring a sense of that to the performance. I was concerned because we were shooting the Leopold and Loeb section before we shot the Los Angeles trial.
I knew there would be things I would learn and understand about Darrow and about the performance doing the L.A. sequence that I would not know when we shot the Leopold and Loeb sequence. But you kind of eye it about what you think that character will be, and as it turns out it was almost a blessing in disguise because Leopold and Loeb taught me about how Darrow felt and how he felt so deeply because of what he had been through. In retrospect, the sequence taught me how to play the other part. It’s odd that sometimes you think things are going to be a big problem and it turns out to the flip side of it.
“Darrow” airs on “American Playhouse” Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET and Friday at 9 p.m. on KPBS.