Robards's long journey with O'Neill. Latest role brings busy career around full circle

He usually plays mean guys - guys with a lot of power and a temper to match. Or some guy who's rich, or maybe not, but definitely has a flywheel loose somewhere. You can tick them off: Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the film ``All the President's Men''; billionaire Howard Hughes (with all that hair) in ``Melvin and Howard''; detective writer Dashiell Hammett in ``Julia.'' In person, it really is as craggy as on screen - that face. And those eyes - they freeze at a moment's notice. And that voice - well, you wouldn't want to call it ``honeyed gravel'' to his face. But then comes the laugh, smoke spilling over boulders; it starts somewhere deep inside the trim, nattily dressed frame of one of America's great character actors. Tonys, Emmys, Oscars - Robards has them all, and most of them for playing mean guys better than almost anybody else.

Now, Robards is portraying another hard-bitten rogue - this time, in a role rich in theater history. He opened Tuesday on Broadway as James Tyrone, the bitter itinerant actor, in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' the Pulitzer-winning play that helped launch Robards's career, as Tyrone's son, Jamey, three decades ago.

In fact, Robards got his big breaks back in the '50s on stage, portraying O'Neill's protagonists - angry, articulate, and lyrical: Hickey, the grim reaper salesman in the 1956 revival of O'Neill's ``The Iceman Cometh,'' and then later that same year, Jamey, the alcoholic wastrel in ``Long Day's Journey.''

Throughout his career, Robards has performed in nearly all of O'Neill's major works, including the 1973 revival of ``A Moon for the Misbegotten,'' with Colleen Dewhurst as co-star and longtime O'Neill interpreter Jos'e Quintero as director. In 1985, Robards reprised his role of Hickey. And now, in the centennial year of the playwright's birth, Robards is doing not only ``Long Day's Journey,'' with Dewhurst and Quintero, but a companion production of O'Neill's only comedy, ``Ah, Wilderness!''

How the O'Neill revival started

``Is that what you wanted to talk about,'' Robards barked in an interview during the pre-Broadway run of ``Long Day's Journey'' at the Yale Repertory Theatre, ``all that quintessential O'Neill stuff? Oh, I think all that O'Neill business came about because of the `Iceman' we did 32 years ago,'' he continued. ``People were saying, `The guy's dead; you're going to go broke with that thing.' Well, we did it. And out of it, Mrs. O'Neill gave us the rights to `Long Day's Journey.' By the time I got out of that show, a whole O'Neill revival had started.

``But we didn't really do it; it was just timing,'' Robards demurs.

No, it was more than timing. It was a turning point in American theater. The 1956 revival of ``The Iceman Cometh,'' coming just three years after O'Neill's death, set the stage for Robards's and Quintero's careers and for a reassessment of O'Neill. The bleak and demanding ``Iceman'' had unsuccessfully premi`ered 10 years earlier. O'Neill's widow, Carlotta, was so moved by the successful revival that she granted Quintero the rights to the then-never-produced ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' which was immediately hailed as a landmark.

An aversion to the stage

Robards's connection to O'Neill goes back even further, however, to Robards's Navy years, when this son of an actor was determined not to work in the theater - that is, until he inadvertently read O'Neill's ``Strange Interlude.'' ``I was in the ship's library,'' Robards remembers, ``and I saw `Strange Interlude,' which I thought was some hot book. ... It got me to thinking, `What am I going to do ... when the war's over?' I hadn't been interested in acting, because of all the hard times my dad had had in the industry.''

The parallels between the lives of Robards and O'Neill have long been noted: Both had difficult relationships with their respective actor fathers; both suffered bouts of alcoholism and had up-and-down careers. ``I don't know if I can explain that,'' said Robards with a shrug of his expensive-looking tweed jacket, which covers several decades of hard drinking and hard living, which were put behind him only about 10 years ago. There is a pause before he goes on talking.

After an eight-month stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts - ``I learned how to get on and get off the stage, you know, those valuable things'' - Robards knocked around in Off Broadway productions for several years until Quintero tapped him for ``Iceman.''

``It was during the interval before the fourth act, and the lights went down, and the whole audience was on its feet applauding - critics, everybody,'' says Robards about that opening. ``I was in my dressing room and heard it, and I said, `...They think the play's over!' So I ran to the back of the auditorium to find Jos'e Quintero. And he laughed and said, `It's a ... symphony.' It was the first time we realized we were knocking 'em dead.''

Since then, the Hickey role has been indelibly linked with Robards. But the actor is intrigued now by the differences between that almost mythical evangelical role and the two father figures he is playing for the centennial.

``These [plays] are family things, different from `Hughie' and `Iceman' and `Stately Mansions.' ... ``A lot depends on ... how you feel with the cast. And we [he, Dewhurst, and Quintero] have worked together so much, I just feel at ease. We even look like a family.''

Why he stayed with acting

Suddenly Robards adds, ``You know, O'Neill fools you. It happened with the 1973 revival of `Moon for the Misbegotten.' We read it, and we said, `What are we doing? This is Freudian soap.' ... But it isn't. It's behavior, and you put it up there with the right actors, and - boom! - it's right out of life.''

After playing most of O'Neill's protagonists, has Robards come full circle with America's preeminent dramatist?

``I feel the I guy - I do,'' says Robards slowly, dropping his tough-guy persona. ``Doing `Iceman,' the guy gave me a hand. I was ready to quit [the theater]. I was a father with two kids, and we were starving. I'd been doing it for 11 years, and after a while there's no point in going on anymore, kidding yourself you're going to be a great actor.

``But `Iceman' said, `Believe in yourself; trust yourself.' And I did, and everything in my life changed.''

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