Recognized around the world as the definitive interpreter of the works of Eugene O'Neill throughout his long and esteemed career, Jason Robards has been hailed as one of this country's finest stage actors and acclaimed for his outstanding work in film and on television. Ellis Rabb, who directed Robards in a 1980s revival of the classic American comedy You Can't Take It with You, put into words what Robards demonstrates every time he steps onto a stage or in front of a camera: "Robards can do anything, from O'Neill to light comedy to Shakespeare, a range we seldom see in this country."
In addition to O'Neill, his stage performances span works by many of the major playwrights who define 20th-century theater: Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, Brian Friels, Kaufman and Hart, and Harold Pinter. One of his early stage appearances, in Jose Quintero's 1956 Circle in the Square revival of The Iceman Cometh, won Robards an Obie Award and restored O'Neill's crumbling reputation as perhaps this country's finest dramatist. A Tony Award followed in 1959 for The Disenchanted. Two decades later he won back-to-back Academy Awards for motion picture portrayals of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in 1976's All the President's Men and novelist Dashiell Hammett in 1977's Julia. The top acting prize awarded by the Cannes Film Festival is his, as is an Emmy Award for his role in "Inherit the Wind."
Born in 1922, in Chicago, Robards was the son of a well-known actor of the 1920s and early '30s, Jason Robards, Sr. After graduating from Hollywood High School, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and became a radioman stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw seven years of service. After the war, on his father's advice he enrolled in his father's alma mater, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
For a decade Robards squeaked by with jobs on radio and live television. His Broadway debut came in 1951 in the concentration-camp drama Stalag 17 and then five years later he was cast in the landmark Iceman Cometh in 1956. The following season he played Jamie in the American premiere of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and that now legendary relationship between actor and playwright blossomed with productions of Hughie, A Moon for the Misbegotten, A Touch of the Poet, and revivals of Long Day's Journey into Night, this time playing the father, and The Iceman Cometh, in which Robards recreated his first major role, Hickey, 30 years later and astonished a whole new generation of theatergoers.
Among his most memorable films are Tender Is the Night, A Thousand Clowns, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Isadora, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Night They Raided Minsky's, Parenthood, Philadelphia, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. His rendering of Howard Hughes in Melvin and Howard earned him an Oscar nomination.
On television he has been seen in several acclaimed specials, including "The Atlanta Child Murders," "Sakharov," "FDR: The Last Year," "Washington Behind Closed Doors," and "The Day After."
But it is as an American stage actor that Robards has few equals. He has been directed by everyone from José Quintero to John Gielgud. He has played in virtually every playhouse on Broadway: they are his beloved homes. In them he has made not only the works of O'Neill, but also such classic plays as Toys in the Attic, After the Fall, We Bombed in New Haven, The Devils, A Thousand Clowns, Love Letters, A Month of Sundays, The Country Girl, No Man's Land, and Moonlight, part of our nation's culture that we will always treasure.
Jose Quintero, his brilliant O'Neill collaborator, put it simply: "He is an artist in complete command."