Robards, Jason Nelson, Jr.
ROBARDS, Jason Nelson, Jr.
(b. 26 July 1922 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 26 December 2000 in Bridgeport, Connecticut), actor who helped to establish the plays of Eugene O'Neill as masterpieces of American drama and in doing so established his own legacy as an "actor's actor."
Robards was the son of Jason Robards, Sr., a silent-screen movie star, and Hope Glanvilles. His father and mother divorced, and at the age of five, Robards went to live with his father and stepmother in Beverly Hills, where he attended Hollywood High School. He graduated in 1939 as a sports star, having rejected acting because of his father's failing career. In 1939, at the age of seventeen, he joined the U.S. Navy and was a radio operator at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Robards served in the South Pacific during World War II, took part in thirteen battles, and was honored with the Navy Cross in 1946 before his discharge with the rank of radioman first class.
Robards married four times. He married Eleanor Pitman in 1948; they had three children. In 1959 he married Rachel Taylor; they divorced in 1961. In 1961 he married the actress Lauren Bacall; they had one child, but divorced in 1969. In 1970 he married Lois O'Connor; they had two children, and divorced in 2000.
After reading some of Eugene O'Neill's plays during the war, and with his father's support, Robards enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. In 1956 the director Jose Quintero unexpectedly cast the thirty-four-year-old Robards in the leading part of Hickey in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Robards connected with the broken, disheartened, dark souls whom O'Neill portrayed with more passion than any actor had previously done. He struck the same resounding chord with his 1957 performance as Jamie Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. As a result of Robards's passionate portrayals of his characters, O'Neill was not only rediscovered, but also recognized as one of the greatest American dramatists. In 1959 Robards won a Tony award for his portrayal of a character based on F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted, written by Budd Schulberg.
During the 1960s Robards's reputation as an actor became as firmly established in films as it had been on the stage. He acted in more than ninety films and television productions during his lifetime, but noted that he only did these to pay the bills—his real love was the theater, appearing in front of a live audience.
Robards's first two marriages, to Eleanor Pitman and then to Rachel Taylor, ended in divorce as the 1950s came to a close. Riding the wave of the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, with its promise of youth, intellectualism, and social action, Robards was inspired by the Kennedy administration's message of hope, which encouraged each person to make a difference. He took that challenge to his audiences, demanding that they confront social injustice in both their public and private lives. By 1961 he had married Lauren Bacall, and he had found his calling by portraying brutal but honest characters.
Also in 1961, Robards played Dick Diver in the film Tender Is The Night, adapted from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that chronicles Fitzgerald's divorce from his wife, Zelda. Here Robards portrayed the character of one of America's most complex writers and brought his own angst and fragile self-confidence to the screen with perfect pitch. Again, Robards brought the importance of the self-examined life to the forefront of American culture.
In 1962 Robards recreated the part of Jamie Tyrone in the film version of Long Day's Journey Into Night. As a result of the collaboration of Jose Quintero and Robards, O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Ah Wilderness, Hughie, and A Touch of the Poet, which had been dismissed as dark and pessimistic during the 1940s and early 1950s, took on new meaning during the 1960s. With numerous social revolutions taking place, Robards's portrayal of O'Neill's characters brought home to the American public the playwright's message about the powerful dichotomies between love and hate, guilt and forgiveness. O'Neill, like other great modern existentialists, was concerned that traditional values lead to meaningless lives. Robards had witnessed his father's fall from famous silent-screen star to a forgotten man, and Robards himself was haunted by alcohol, though he never experienced the alcoholism that O'Neill's characters suffered. But Robards clearly understood the anger, frustration, and self-loathing of these characters. His portrayal of Jamie Tyrone was so convincing that one critic claimed, "Robards is Tyrone." O'Neill's message that the past affects the present reverberates throughout the film version, and some critics give credit to Robards for helping to establish Long Day's Journey Into Night as the greatest American play written in the twentieth century.
Through the character of Tyrone, Robards spoke about taking responsibility for the unfolding of events; in the end, people must be true to the better part of themselves. O'Neill's words, spoken through Robards, seemed to fore-shadow the American psyche after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, when, for many, the idealism of the Kennedy years was shattered along with the president's death. The sullen, drunken men in dark, seedy barrooms that Robards so often portrayed loomed over Americans like warnings.
Although Robards did such lighthearted films as A Thousand Clowns (1965), during the latter part of the 1960s, his films reflected the political upheavals that raged during the Vietnam War. The deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy seemed to jettison Robards into antiheroic roles in which he could vicariously challenge and strike out at the establishment. He starred as an antihero in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967), The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), and Once Upon a Tine in the West (1969), films that reflect an American psyche that was no longer content to be acquiescent. Americans were angry and vocal, and Robards's hardened characters gave voice to their anger.
Although Robards was very busy during the 1970s, his marriage to Bacall had ended in divorce, and he felt as if he were just "an actor waiting for the phone to ring." He made more than twenty films during this decade, and won two Academy Awards back to back for All the President's Men (1977) and Julia (1978), but Robards could not wait to return to the stage. When he did, he performed in plays by Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Harold Pinter; and returned to O'Neill in Hughie, A Touch of the Poet, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Ah, Wilderness, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He continued to act the part of the angry man in such films as Max Dugan Returns (1983), Sakharov (1984), The Long Hot Summer (1985), The Good Mother (1988), Philadelphia (1993), A Thousand Acres (1997), and Magnolia (1999).
Robards died of cancer in Bridgeport Hospital. He had the extraordinary gift of giving voice to the suffering who search for meaning. Some of Robards's greatest roles were created and recreated during the 1960s when Americans were trying to come to terms with the death of their president, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, as well as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Robards chose roles in which he starkly laid out for Americans, in his sharp, angry voice, what their lives would be like if they neglected and abused important family members and friends.
A discussion of Robards's lifelong association with O'Neill's work is in Michael Manheim, ed., Eugene O'Neill (1998). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 27 Dec. 2000).
Jane Frances Amler
"Robards, Jason Nelson, Jr.." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robards-jason-nelson-jr
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