It was his voice and his chin, his skeletal fingers and his anguished eyes, that made Jason Robards, who died on Christmas Day, such a riveting actor. His long, hangdog, slept-in face—when he was thin it could make this average-height man seem tall as Lincoln—told a tale of weariness even in the most raucous comedies. The eyes, bagged like levees in floodtide, added woe to the weariness, the sleepless grief of a perpetual wanderer. The grief was there even when they sparkled; in O’Neill’s plays, of which he was the definitive performer, it found its natural habitat. And then there was the voice, weary in its own careworn, soothing way, its stubbly mixture of good tone and whisper wrapping around the audience with the easy, reassuring fit of an old smoking jacket, its occasional cracks making it all the more cherished.
Robards entered most Americans’ consciousness through Sidney Lumet’s 1960 TV film of The Iceman Cometh, re-creating the 1956 performance that had made him a star of the New York stage, and won him one of the first Obies ever awarded. From that Off-Broadway performance, he and its director, José Quintero, had moved immediately to Broadway with the world premiere of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, after which he had won his sole Tony Award playing a dissipated writer in The Disenchanted. It launched him on a string of plays about dissipators, self-destructors, and passive-aggressors: Toys in the Attic, A Thousand Clowns, After the Fall. He never needed to play for pathos; the quiet gravity with which he infused every role evoked it for him. He had the wisdom never to italicize, and the power never to need to do so.
Naturally, he was at his sublime best in O’Neill, where the pain is so evenly distributed that italics are gratuitous, playing those backsliding, unadult figures whose names all sound like diminutives—Hickey, Jamie, Erie. From his televised Hickey, I remember only the anguished eyes—such open suffering was rare on ’50s TV. His ravaged Jamie in the 1973 Moon for the Misbegotten was even more astonishing. Here, one felt, was not an actor playing a role, but O’Neill’s essence embodied: the tragic potential inherent in every father’s son. Understandably, his best movie roles were real people (George S. Kaufman, Ben Bradlee, Dashiell Hammett): Under the camera’s eye, his inner reality was too intense to look anything but false in fictive clothing; onstage he could embody, hand in hand with O’Neill, the higher reality of the myth. Without his graven voice and sorrowing eyes, the Apollonian mask will seem empty for a time.