Jason Patric communes with his father’s spirit
— At a recent preview of the Broadway revival of “That Championship Season,” actor Jason Patric took a fall so convincingly that the audience gasped. The headlong tumble down the steps was part of his role as Tom Daley, the cynical sports star turned alcoholic failure who joins a 20-year reunion of his former basketball champs at the home of their coach. But the bruises are real enough.
“Most of my injuries happened during the first week of rehearsal,” recalls the 44-year-old actor. “So to protect me, all this padding was suggested. But it looked like I was wearing Depends. So I said, ‘This is not happening.’ I’m still healing, as they tend to get re-bruised.”
A thin layer of bandaging now protects spine and joints. And, indeed, there are no visible wounds as Patric sits in his overheated dressing room, bare-chested and wearing a pair of black jeans, showing off a trim, buffed body. But the psychic scars that this revival may be exposing in him are another matter altogether.
Patric says that he wanted to approach this production as “a new play,” as unburdened as his fellow actors, who include Brian Cox as Coach, Chris Noth as a philandering businessman, Jim Gaffigan as a bumbling mayor and Kiefer Sutherland as Tom’s dutiful brother, a junior high school principal.
But there is no escaping the oedipal currents roiling within and outside this revival.
Patric was 6 in 1972 when his father, Jason Miller, won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play for “That Championship Season.” The heat intensified when Miller, also an actor, was nominated for a 1973 Academy Award for his supporting performance as Father Damien Karras in “The Exorcist.” But just as the embittered characters of the play are trapped in the amber of winning the Pennsylvania high school basketball championship, Patric says that his father never escaped the expectations of his early success.
“My father had a lot of demons in him long before this play, and the fame and pressure just intensified them,” he says, speaking with the calm intensity that has marked his performances in indie films such as “Your Friends & Neighbors,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Narc.” “But what’s amazing is that, at only 32, my dad was able to write about these men approaching 40, not only their foibles and broken qualities but ultimately what they would become because they succumbed to their past glories.”
With a rueful laugh, Patric adds, “And he ended up doing the same thing when he became their age. It’s tragic but also perplexing. One would think that if you’re so prescient, you’d be able to avoid the traps that you’ve already sighted.”
Miller became something of an absent dad when fame struck, divorcing Patric’s mother at the height of his success. His acting career faltered, and, after co-founding a regional theater in Pennsylvania, he wrote only a few more plays, including “Barrymore’s Ghost,” about the tortured actor John Barrymore, who, like him, dissipated his talent with drink. Ironically, mirroring the demise of one of the characters’ fathers in “That Championship Season,” Miller dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 62 in a Scranton bar.
As a reaction to his father’s fate, Patric says that he chose a more “puritanical” path for his own career — one not oriented toward fame and money but focused on the work itself. It was a choice also informed by his Hollywood royalty status as the grandson of Jackie Gleason, his mother Linda’s father. Patric has little love for this comic legend. “My grandfather was probably one of the most famous men in America and rich, but he didn’t approve of his daughter marrying this nobody actor, so he cut her off, and they lived in utter poverty,” he recalls bitterly. “Then when ‘Championship’ comes along, he wants to play the coach in the film. That didn’t happen.”
Robert Mitchum played the coach in the 1982 film and Paul Sorvino in the 1999 television version. Miller himself wrote the screenplays for these movies, and directed the former. They were poorly received and Patric feels that his father’s missteps damaged the play’s legacy. When the possibility of a Broadway revival emerged, the actor saw in it the opportunity to not only reestablish the drama as “a great American classic,” as he put it, but also to redress the disappointment of his last Broadway outing, as Brick in the poorly received 2003 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
That Broadway debut came on the heels of an iconoclastic film career marked by critical acclaim and little commercial success. Given his lineage, acting was a natural vocation. Blessed with talent and square-jawed good looks, Patric might have had become a major film star after his career was launched with the 1987 vampire movie “The Lost Boys.” (Among his costars was Kiefer Sutherland.) But the young actor was determined to play only challenging roles — often taking the form of angry, deeply flawed men — whether or not they advanced his career. He famously turned down the Tom Cruise role in “The Firm.” An exception was “Speed 2" in 1997, but he used the cachet it brought him to promote the low-budget “Your Friends & Neighbors,” Neil LaBute’s 1998 caustic psychosexual study that featured Patric in a memorable, tightly coiled performance as a cruel misogynist.
“Maybe I was foolhardy — some people certainly think so — but I wanted to be connected spiritually to the roles I played rather than develop some kind of brand equity,” he says. “For a while I was popular because I said no a lot, and that always makes them go after you harder. But that lasts for a while until they start saying no to you. So then you ask yourself, ‘What do I do now?’”
It’s for this reason that the timing of this revival — which Patric describes as a “strange, beautiful gift” — is especially fortuitous. As the executor of his father’s literary estate, Patric held the reins when director Gregory Mosher, fresh off of his triumphant production of “A View From the Bridge,” approached him for the rights last year. “Gregory and I were on the same page from the get-go,” says Patric. “Fully committed, passionate, caring and disciplined.”
Says Mosher, “The thing about Jason is that he is not self-centered. The issues that concern him in his life and his work are often so outside himself, and that’s a wonderful thing to bring into the rehearsal room and a great way to live your life. It’s not just whatever is inside you but what is the play about and what is the world about.”
One person who had admired the integrity of Patric’s career was Kiefer Sutherland who, after the success of “24,” had sought him out for advice. Patric brought Sutherland, Noth and Cox to Mosher’s attention, and Gaffigan completed the quintet. The ensemble spars in a Walspurgisnacht of regret and recrimination under the watchful eye of a large portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, which looms over Coach’s living room. But there is another ghost present in the room — literally.
“I do have his ashes up there,” says Patric, referring to the silver urn which lies in a cupboard on the set. “I thought the old man should be up there with us.”
Patric’s character, Tom, is finally able to exorcise the pain of his past. Has the experience of being in “That Championship Season” allowed Patric himself to reach some sort of catharsis? Would “forgiveness” be too large of a word?
“Have I forgiven him?” says Patric thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I feel in some ways, when I’m doing this, I’m in communion with him, opening up to that vulnerability, that wound. I wouldn’t want it to be as facile as, when this is done, all is forgiven. It’s more of a communion with the old man.”
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