In Memoriam: Jason Robards

December 27, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer's 1984 conversation with actor Jason Robards.

JIM LEHRER: The year is 1912, and we are in Harry Hope’s Saloon, a New York bar. That is where the entire four hours of “The Iceman Cometh” occurs. Larry Slade, one of the characters, describes it.

LARRY SLADE: Bedrock Barn — End of the Line Café… Don’t you notice a beautiful calm in the atmosphere? ( Laughter ) That’s because it’s the last harbor. We will dearly keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams, without their yesterdays and tomorrows.

JIM LEHRER: Ironically, this play about lost hopes and pipe dreams represented a kind of redemption for Jason Robards. In 1956 he was a 33-year-old struggling, discouraged actor hungry for a part. That is when he heard about tryouts for a revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” which had a short, unsuccessful first run in 1946.

JIM LEHRER: How important has “Iceman Cometh” been to you and your career?

JASON ROBARDS: I was ready to give up and go do… be a radio… I had a job to run a station in Torrington, Connecticut. I thought I would be a program director, and I thought, well I’ll just leave and cut out all this acting baloney — because 11 years of starving is no good for me.

ACTOR: And another little drink…

ACTORS: Oh, Danny Boy.

JIM LEHRER: The role Robards won is that of Hickey, the traveling salesman, who periodically returns to Harry Hope’s to tell tales, and buy drinks for his derelict friends.

JIM LEHRER: Is playing Hickey difficult as an actor? Is it difficult?

JASON ROBARDS: Yeah, it is, because you know what I always feel I’m not part of the play. I love to be in with those guys doing all that hours of having fun and telling dreams and stories. I don’t get to do it in… he did do it, Hickey, we find in the play, that he did do that before, but not this time, he doesn’t. He goes off and he… he has a, he thinks he has found a Jerry Falwell or something. I don’t know.

JASON ROBARDS AS “HICKEY”: Here is a point to get, after you get rid of the damn guilt that makes you lie to yourself, you’re something you’re not. And the remorse that nags at you and makes you hide behind lousy pipe dreams about tomorrow, you’ll be in a today where there is no yesterday or tomorrow that worries you. You won’t care a damn what you are any more. And I wouldn’t say this, unless I knew, brothers and sisters, this fast is real. It is a fact. I know because I’ve got it.

JIM LEHRER: Hickey finds few converts and by the final act, the peace he has gained is elusive. This is revealed in his final speech in which he tells how he gained his peace by killing his wife, Evelyn.

JASON ROBARDS AS “HICKEY”: Christ, can you imagine the guilty scum, if she had only once admitted once that she didn’t believe any more in her pipe dream that someday I would behave. But she never once, Evelyn was stubborn as hell once she’d made her mind up. You couldn’t shake her faith and it had to come true tomorrow. Well, the same old story over and over, for years and years it kept piling up and inside her, inside me.

JASON ROBARDS AS “HICKEY”: God, can you picture all I made her suffer?

JIM LEHRER: Here is how he played the scene in 1960 in a television production of “The Iceman Cometh.”

JASON ROBARDS AS “HICKEY”: If she only hadn’t have been so damn good. If she had been the kind of a wife I was a husband. God, I’d even pray sometimes she… I would say to her, “go on, why don’t you.” I wouldn’t mind. Serve me right. I’d forgive you. Oh, only I would pretend I was kidding, like I used to kid her about being in the hay with the iceman. She would have been so hurt if I said it seriously, she’d thought I’d stopped loving her.

JIM LEHRER: Despite the fact critics might unfavorably compare Robards’ earlier Hickey with his current one, Robards says he wasn’t afraid to tackle the role almost 30 years after he did it the first time.

JIM LEHRER: When you set out to do it this time, did you consciously think, oh, no, wait a minute everybody in the world is going to compare, everybody that was around at least and saw it, is going to compare this Hickey with the Hickey of 1956, and I’ve got to do it differently, or what did you do about all that?

JASON ROBARDS: No, I didn’t think about. I didn’t do it for comparison or anything. I did it in hopes that I had more understanding of what the part was about, and I hoped to grow in it — not in comparison. I mean I can’t compare a 33-year-old young Turk. Also some of the things don’t register as well when you say a long marriage and he is fooling around with broads somewhere. I mean a 33-year-old guy, you say of course, what is so bad about that? We all do it until we grow up a little bit.

JASON ROBARDS AS “HICKEY”: I had to kill her. Then I saw it was the only possible way to bring her peace and free her from the misery of loving me, and I saw immense peace for me too knowing she was at peace and I felt as if a ton of guilt had been lifted off my mind. ( Laughs ) I remember I looked down at the bed and suddenly I had to laugh. I couldn’t help it that I knew Evelyn would forgive me, and I remember I heard myself speaking to her as if it was something I always wanted to say. Well, you know what you can do with your pipedream now, you can…

JIM LEHRER: The power Robards brings to Hickey is drawn from what Robards describes as a special bond he shares with the play’s author, Eugene O’Neill.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see any parallels at all between your life and your interest in the theater and O’Neill’s?

JASON ROBARDS: I do; I didn’t at first. It took me a number of years to wake up to that, to the fact that we did have some parallels. At first I thought it was all coincidence, you know; then I thought, you know, it can’t be because my father was an actor who in a way, sold himself out like the old man did — O’Neill’s dad who took one vehicle and never learned a new part, and never worked hard again and just for money, for the…and ruined his career as a fine actor as he says in “Long Day’s Journey.” My father was a fine actor, did the same thing in “The Land of the Living Dead” out there in LA, and he went out there and went right into Beverly depths, straight down and really ruined himself and his health and everything else, and it was very sad growing up with that. Also I went to sea for a number of years, had alcohol, a lot of alcohol problems, I… marriages, unable to feel the… unable to love someone really, and wanting to desperately be part of a family because your own family is so shaky, you desperately want to be part of it. I always wanted it. I married all my life. I kept getting married. My father said to me once, “Why don’t you give yourself the weekend off” after I was planning on getting married on — a divorce on Saturday and married on Sunday again.

JIM LEHRER: Eugene O’Neill never saw the problems which haunted him, and he died a sad and broken man. Robards beat his problem with alcohol, and has been happily married for 19 years now. It is obvious to all who know him, talk to him or even see him that he has found the peace O’Neill and Hickey never did.

GWEN IFILL: Although he made his acting reputation interpreting O’Neill, Robards earned a Tony Award in 1959 playing a fictional version of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the play, “The Disenchanted.” He also won two Oscars.