“O'Neill demands your best all the time - no, no less - and the best you have. And it doesn't matter if it's as good as somebody else or worse than somebody else, none of that matters. It only matters that you give him your best. And then it works.”—Actor Jason Robards, Jr., describing the demands on actors’ stamina, skill and courage by playwright Eugene O’Neill, interview for “Eugene O’Neill: A Documentary Film,” in The American Experience series (2006)
Shakespeare had Richard Burbage; George Bernard Shaw, Rex Harrison. In the second half of the 20th century, Eugene O’Neill’s finest interpreter was Jason Robards Jr., born on this date in 1922. The actor might have been best known to mass audiences for his consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscars (All the President’s Men, 1976; Julia, 1977), but his heart belonged to the stage—and no playwright claimed his allegiance more thoroughly than the only American dramatist ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Part of his affinity for O’Neill might have stemmed from a common gene for self-destruction, one the actor shared with another Irish-American literary genius, F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Robards starred onstage in an adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted, in a role based on Fitzgerald’s ill-starred attem;pt at screenwriting in Hollywood, as well as the 1961 screen adaptation of Tender is the Night.)
But Robards discovered other similarities between O’Neill’s life and his own. Both, for instance, had fathers who abandoned relatively risky but emotionally satisfying stage work for roles that spelled easier money (James O’Neill, in the role that made him rich but typecast him, The Count of Monte Cristo; James Robards Sr., in silent films). Both went to sea in their early 20s.
And both knew all too much about substance abuse and the guilt of survival. O’Neill witnessed in his family the scourge of alcohol (in brother James Jr.) and morphine (in the case of his mother), and his own despair led to a suicide attempt at the New York dive Jimmy the Priest’s in 1912 (the same year in which The Iceman Cometh is set). A legendary hellraiser even among his fellow actors, Robards got into a car accident that required massive plastic surgery. The shock of the incident may have helped him at last stave off the alcoholism he had battled for more than two decades.
Above technical skill, O’Neill—from the moment Robards played the career-making role of Hickey in the off-Broadway 1956 revival of The Iceman Cometh—required from the actor unflinching courage, the ability to stare into a psychological abyss and endure it all. Every night, he would have to dredge up a lifetime’s worth of regret about family loss and dysfunction. Robards would go on to do so with masterful effect in such other towering O’Neill dramas as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Moon for the Misbegotten, A Touch of the Poet, and Hughie.
(1975 photo of Robards at the Lago Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by Roy Erickson; State Library and Archives of Florida)