Jason Robards Dies; Made Mark in Films and on Stage


Two-time Academy Award winner Jason Robards, who had a distinguished acting career on stage, screen and television, died Tuesday after a long struggle with cancer.

He was 78 and died at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn.

A winner of back-to-back Oscars as best supporting actor in the 1970s for his portrayals of Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men” and detective novelist Dashiell Hammett in “Julia,” Robards was a character actor more often than a leading man in the movies for more than 40 years.


It was on stage, however, that he scaled the heights. He was widely regarded as his generation’s leading interpreter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. No one who saw his Hickey in “The Iceman Cometh”--in his futile mission to jolt the denizens of a New York waterfront saloon out of their self-deceiving dreams--is likely to forget it.

He was equally memorable as the alcoholic writer based on F. Scott Fitzgerald in the play of Budd Schulberg’s “The Disenchanted,” which won him a 1959 Tony Award.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, on Tuesday called the actor “a total mensch.”

“The stage was where his heart was. That’s what he wanted to do,” Davidson said. “In 1967, I asked him what would it take to get him to commit to a year performing repertory at the Mark Taper Forum. He said he’d be happy with $500 a week if he knew he had it for a full year.”

The Music Center’s Taper never had the resources for a full year of repertory, so it didn’t happen. But Robards did do O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten” next door at the Ahmanson Theatre in 1974 and appeared in a revival of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood in 1986. Of the latter appearance, a Times critic wrote, “It is a performance to put with one’s memories of [Laurence] Olivier.”

“O’Neill’s work had a total connection to [Robards’] soul,” Davidson said. “He understood the angst of both being human and being an artist, but he was a pretty good comedian, too, in O’Neill’s ‘Ah, Wilderness.’ ”

Just before becoming a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1999, Robards remarked in an interview, “That’s what I’m being honored for--the O’Neill concentration of my whole professional life--and I couldn’t be more thrilled or prouder.”

(One of his fellow recipients at the Kennedy Center, comedian/pianist Victor Borge, died Saturday.)

At Ease in Both Comedy and Drama

Lanky and lantern-jawed, Robards was in fact at ease in comedy as well as drama, but was truly electrifying in expressing a man’s inner torment. He admitted to bouts of depression and to having been a heavy drinker at times in his life, although he said he stopped drinking after a near-fatal car accident in 1972.

In interviews and on location, Robards was unpretentious, direct and easygoing.

While making Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970) on location, he liked to say that his overriding concern was “to catch some Zs.”

Having attained Broadway stardom in the 1950s, Robards was wary when Hollywood came calling.

Although born in Chicago, he had grown up in Hollywood, where he witnessed the declining career of his father, Jason Robards Sr. The elder Robards had appeared in 170 films, but as the 1930s wore on, he was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, his son recalled. (Robards Sr. appeared in a key role with his son in 1958’s “The Disenchanted.”)

Robards graduated from Hollywood High School in 1939 (and 22 years later co-starred with a classmate, Lana Turner, in his second film, “By Love Possessed”). At Hollywood High, Robards was an all-around athlete with some thought of turning professional; at that time he had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps.

After graduation, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an apprentice seaman. While serving in the Pacific during World War II, he read some of O’Neill’s plays and started to change his mind about acting.

He enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in 1946 at his father’s urging, and in 1953 director Jose Quintero cast him in a leading role in “American Gothic” at the Circle-in-the-Square Theater off Broadway.

Quintero, who died last year, gave Robards his big break when he cast him in his 1956 revival of “The Iceman Cometh.”

“I’d been acting for years,” Robards recalled last year on the occasion of receiving the Kennedy Center honor, “but it hadn’t amounted to much of anything. Jose took a chance on me, and everything opened up. And everybody had said, ‘Don’t do it; nobody will come to see O’Neill.’ I wish Jose were around for this. He should be getting this award.” Quintero once described Robards as an artist “in complete command.”

Quintero’s and Robards’ other O’Neill collaborations were “Hughie” (1964), “A Touch of the Poet” (1977-78) and a revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1988 opposite his “A Moon for the Misbegotten” co-star, the late Colleen Dewhurst. Their 1956 production of “The Iceman Cometh,” in its first revival since its 1946 debut, ran for 500 performances and became the first non-musical production to achieve that distinction off Broadway.

‘I Don’t Do a Lot of Analysis’

In a 1993 interview, Robards spoke about his approach to acting: “All I know is I don’t do a lot of analysis. I know those words have to move me. I rely on the author. I don’t want actors reasoning with me about ‘motivation’ and all that bull. All I want ‘em to do is learn the . . . lines and don’t bump into each other. All I know about acting is that I just have to keep on doing it.”

Among the most memorable of the 50-plus films in which Robards appeared are “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962), “A Thousand Clowns” (1965), “Divorce American Style” (1967), “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (1968), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), “Isadora” (1968), “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973), “All the President’s Men” (1976), “Julia” (1977), “Melvin and Howard” (1980), “The Good Mother” (1988), “Philadelphia” (1993), “The Paper” (1994) and “Magnolia” (1999), in which he played Tom Cruise’s dying father.

He also appeared in numerous TV movies, including “The Day After,” “The Long Hot Summer,” “The Atlanta Child Murders,” “Chernobyl: The Final Warning,” “The Enemy Within” and “My Antonia.” He received an Emmy nomination for the 1977 miniseries “Washington: Behind Closed Doors.”

Despite his Hollywood success, film work was never Robards’ love. “Because you know why? You’re not dealing with the audience like you are on the stage,” he told the Washington Post last year, “where you feel a sense of accomplishment as an interpreter of the playwright. That’s the basis of everything.”

Robards was married four times, one of them to actress Lauren Bacall, with whom he had a son, Sam Robards.

At the time of his death the actor had been married for more than 30 years to his wife Lois, having settled with her in Fairfield, Conn., to live what he called “a quiet life on the water.”

Funeral arrangements were pending.


Times theater writer Don Shirley contributed to this story.


Major Films of Jason Robards

The Journey, 1959

By Love Possessed, 1961

Tender Is the Night, 1962

Long Day’s Journey Into

Night, 1962

Act One, 1963

A Thousand Clowns, 1965

A Big Hand for the Little Lady, 1966

Any Wednesday, 1966

Divorce American Style, 1967

The St. Valentine’s Day

Massacre, 1967

Hour of the Gun, 1967

The Night They Raided

Minsky’s, 1968

Once Upon a Time in the

West, 1968

Isadora, 1968

Julius Caesar, 1970

The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 1970

Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970

Fools, 1970

Johnny Got His Gun, 1971

Jud, 1971

Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1971

The War Between Men and

Women, 1972

Death of a Stranger, 1973

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973

Mr. Sycamore, 1975

A Boy and His Dog, 1975

All the President’s Men, 1976

Julia, 1977

Comes a Horseman, 1978

Hurricane, 1979

Raise the Titanic!, 1980

Melvin and Howard, 1980

Caboblanco, 1981

The Legend of the Lone

Ranger, 1981

Burden of Dreams

(documentary), 1982

Max Dugan Returns, 1983

Something Wicked This

Way Comes, 1983

Square Dance, 1987

Bright Lights, Big City, 1988

The Good Mother, 1988

Dream a Little Dream, 1989

Reunion, 1989

Parenthood, 1989

Black Rainbow, 1989

Quick Change, 1990

Storyville, 1992

The Adventures of Huck Finn, 1993

Philadelphia, 1993

The Trial, 1993

Crimson Tide (unbilled

cameo), 1994

Little Big League, 1994

The Paper, 1994

A Thousand Acres, 1997

Magnolia, 1999

Source: Associated Press