By Joseph Hurley
Jason Robards, the actor most closely identified with the plays of Eugene O’Neill, died of cancer the day after Christmas at his home in Connecticut, attended by his fourth wife, the former Lois O’Brien, to whom he had been married for 30 years. Robards was 78.
On Oct. 16 of last year, a few days after undergoing brain surgery, the actor stood in a light rain at the Northeast corner of Broadway and 43rd Street and unveiled a plaque commemorating the birthplace of playwright O’Neill, the Irish-American dramatist who is still widely regarded as the finest writer for the theater this country has yet produced.
Barrett House, the "family hotel" where O’Neill came into the world in 1888, was razed in 1940, but the spirit of O’Neill, joined now by the memory of Jason Robards, endures in the heart of the city’s theatrical district, where both men did so much rich and resonant work.
Following the dedication of the O’Neill plaque, the actor joined O’Neill’s producers Theodore Mann and Paul Libin, plus the writer’s biographers, Arthur and Barbara Gelb, for a lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, where Robards took the floor and told an invited audience that he felt he owed his career, and, indeed, his life, to O’Neill.
The actor drew parallels between his own background and that of the playwright. Both were born into theatrical families, and both had fathers who were actors. Both had mothers who were, in one sense or another, absent, O’Neill’s because of morphine addiction, and Robards’s because of his parents’ estrangement.
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Both men were drawn to the sea, and both spent a solid portion of their teenage years on ships, O’Neill on commercial vessels plying the waters adjacent to Central America, and Robards in the U.S. Navy. The actor was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed American ships at anchor at Ford Island.
It was in his Navy days that Robards began reading the plays of Eugene O’Neill, starting with "Strange Interlude," in which he never appeared, and began considering the possibility of a career as a performer. It was something in which he had never previously been interested, despite the fact that his father had had an acting career of sorts, primarily in minor roles in movies.
Robards’s first really significant exposure to O’Neill as an actor came in the late 1950s, when producer Mann and the late director Jose Quintero cast him as Theodore Hickey, the charismatic salesman in "The Iceman Cometh."
The "Iceman" production came along at a moment when Robards, with no money and with small children to support, was considering giving up the theater, a decision which was abandoned when O’Neill’s play, performed in the round, with the audience only a few feet distant from the denizens of Harry Hope’s Last Chance Saloon, became perhaps the biggest hit off-Broadway, then in its infancy, had ever known.
Subsequently, Robards created the role of James Tyrone, Jr., in the first production of O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night," and later played the part on film when Sidney Lumet directed the movie version with Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson as his parents and Dean Stockwell as his younger brother, Edmund, a self-portrait of the writer.
Years later, Robards took on the part of the actor James Tyrone, with Zoe Caldwell as the drug-addicted Mary Cavan Tyrone. In the years between, Robards, again directed by Quintero, played opposite Colleen Dewhurst, in a hit production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten," scored a considerable success with Erie Smith, another of O’Neill’s salesman characters, in the lengthy one-act play "Hughie," and played Cornelius Melody in a hit revival of the author’s "A Touch of the Poet," also starring Geraldine Fitzgerald and Milo O’Shea.
Late in his career, Robards teamed again with actress Dewhurst in yet another production of "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," performed in alternation with the writer’s only comedy, "Ah, Wilderness!" In both plays, Robards and Dewhurst played husband and wife to great acclaim.