THEATER : He Knows How to Handle Evil : Andrew J. Robinson has gone from ‘Dirty Harry’ villain to directing a revival of Pinter’s mean-spirited ‘The Homecoming.’
As an actor, Andrew J. Robinson knows a lot about evil. He bore into it headfirst as the psycho-scumbag in the original “Dirty Harry,” and later as killer Jack Abbott in the Mark Taper Forum production of “In the Belly of the Beast.” He’s back again now in those emotionally murky waters, directing a critically acclaimed revival of “The Homecoming” (at the Matrix Theatre), Harold Pinter’s scabrous tale of a middle-aged man who brings his British wife back from America into his family’s London homestead.
“It’s a tough, mean play,” acknowledges Robinson, 53, a founding member of the in-house Matrix Theatre Company. “And that’s what’s so difficult about doing it. You have to go to that dark side in yourself, remember the choices you made in your life that you’re not proud of--but you have to cop to. I think the success of this production is based on the consensus we’ve achieved as a company: coming up with the stories below the surface, bringing to the playing experience our human experience.”
Complicating matters, perhaps, is the fact that Robinson (whose TV credits include the recurring role of Garak in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and the title role in the ABC movie “Liberace”) has double-cast the piece--meaning he has 12 actors creating 12 different characterizations for six roles.
“I’m a big proponent of double-casting,” stresses the actor, who was doubled in Matrix productions of “Habeas Corpus” and “The Tavern” and directed a well-received double-cast revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” last summer. (A reprise staging of “Endgame” will open March 14.) Beyond practical concerns--the company is made up of professional actors who need the flexibility to pursue TV and film work--Robinson enjoys the aesthetic of the expanded creative process.
“Everyone comes to every rehearsal,” he says proudly. “Sometimes it’s like a tag team. In the middle of a scene, the actors switch: ‘Now you go up there.’ Or we do shadowing; one actor is onstage, the other is there almost as a doppelganger.”
Robinson acknowledges it’s not always an easy fit. “A lot of the actors had some resistance at first: ‘It’s my role, my choices, my answers!’ But as people give up that propriety, they begin working on the role together, leveraging the play for information: how to play a moment, find a subtext, even a simple blocking.”
Potentially daunting for Robinson was that, before “Endgame,” he had not directed professionally for 15 years. But returning, he says, was like getting back on the proverbial bicycle.
“Except,” he says cheerfully, “that working with people of this caliber, it was a streamlined, top-of-the-line bicycle. I like to work as a director as I do an actor--as a collaborator. So one of the tools I picked up was [saying] ‘I don’t know.’ I found such power, such trust that I wasn’t going to pretend [or] answer something when I didn’t know.” Still, he admits being intimidated--and regularly challenged. “These people are doing this for no money, for the love of the craft. They’re not going to fart around.”
The New York-born Robinson was 3 when his father was killed in World War II. (Since directing “Endgame,” he’s been using his middle initial “J.” as a tribute to his maternal grandfather Jordt, whom, he says, “was the main male influence in my early life.”)
“It was basically a terrible childhood,” the actor says, gently referring to his late, much-married mother who battled alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. At 10, he made his acting debut as a shepherd in a school Christmas play. “I was pretty pumped; people were watching me.”
Later, he attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art as a Fulbright scholar, and after graduation spent the next few years in repertory in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia.
In 1971, Robinson was tapped for the bad-guy role in “Dirty Harry.” (He was the sniveling recipient of Clint Eastwood’s famous, climactic gun-wielding taunt: “You could ask yourself a question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”) “With that film, I gained my career and lost my career,” the actor says with a sigh. “I felt very proud of my work, but it ended up being such a scurrilous, despicable character that people didn’t want to know from me. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Robinson retreated to New York (where he and director Joel Zwick had run a theater company in the late ‘60s) and didn’t return to L.A. until 1978, when TV roles started coming in. Yet he quickly grew disenchanted with the quality of work being offered him, and in 1980, after a particularly “horrendous” experience on TV’s “The A-Team,” he essentially quit the business, selling his L.A. home and moving to Idyllwild, Calif.
There, he and his wife, Irene, (they’ll be married 26 years in March, and between them have three children and two grandchildren) ran an integrated arts program for children and teenagers. “My last few productions directing adults were not very exciting,” he says dryly. “So I stayed with children for many years.”
Then in 1984 came an acting project he couldn’t resist: Taper, Too’s landmark production of “In the Belly of the Beast,” the hellish memoirs of incarcerated murderer/writer Jack Abbott.
“It was a hair-raising experience,” he says bluntly. “Doing that play really took its toll. ‘Homecoming’ has a thread of evil, but ‘Belly’ is about evil.” In spite of its physical and psychic rigors, the show was a godsend for Robinson: He later played it at the Taper, toured to Australia and New York and won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance.
Most importantly, it took Robinson’s career--and the way he was perceived by the industry--to a new level. “It brought me back to L.A., and back to the business on my own terms,” he says simply. “I have no apologies. This is the work I want to do, what I want to take to my grave.”
“THE HOMECOMING,” Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. Dates: Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends March 3. Price: $20. Phone: (213) 852-1445.