Jason Robards was an actor’s actor.
”No actor excited other actors as much as Jason,” said director Jonathan Demme.
He was a two-time Academy Award recipient, and Emmy winner, a Tony Award winner and earned every other acting award imaginable.
“He was the last of a breed of actors who dedicated themselves to a life in the theater,” said Kevin Spacey.
Robards had an incredible career, he was both a celebrated stage actor and in demand film actor. He often played grouchy, noisy characters, where he could use his deep voice to climb the ladder of emotion. Conversely, he could dial it down and allow a softer, dignified voice to add dramatic pause or to accentuate his facial expressions. He had many tools in his actor toolbox.
He played everything; outlaws and Presidents, doctors and journalists, generals and billionaires, grandfathers and men at the end of their string. He was Mark Twain, Al Capone, FDR, Ulysses S. Grant, Abe Lincoln, George S. Kaufman, Howard Hughes and Brutus.
In 1983, he was on location in Lawrence, Kansas, for the television film, The Day After. Yours truly served as an extra in several scenes in the film, blink, and you’ll miss me. He was the big star on the set.
One of his most famous screen roles as was Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men. Years later, Tom Hanks played Bradlee in The Post, but Robards set the standard. Robards had a distinguished but haggard look and a gruffness that conveyed authority but also importance to the subject at hand.
Another important role was as the bandit Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West. You might not think of Robards in an action film, but he was quite effective as the leader of a gang, who partners with the anti-hero Charles Bronson to help the widow Jill. Robards shoots, rides and in general is a menacing character. As a bandit, he is not all bad. He shows the complexity of man who can distinguish between a a good thing and a good thing that will enact revenge on an enemy. His scenes with the Claudia Cardinale character show a wisdom and sensitivity that contrast with his badness.
Robards also played Doc Holiday in Hour of the Gun, another version of the gunfight at the O.K Coral. He played writer Dashiell Hammett in Julia. He starred in a television mini-series about a fictionalize Watergate scandal, as President Monkton. In the early 1970s, he portrayed an emotionally scarred father who refused allow his daughter to have a Christmas tree. In Parenthood, he played Steve Martin’s weary father, blinded with love for his children and unable to live the sage advice he freely offers on parenting.
Robards moved from a leading actor to a superb character actor, who could steal the film with only a few scenes.
And then of course there was Cable Hogue, an unusual role for a very mature Robards.
Privately, he had a sometimes tumultuous life. Married four times and he struggled mightily with alcohol. Actors are known to shadowbox with their demons. Robards apparently did, and he seemed to use his own struggles to deepen the characters in his performances.
He was a man of the theater, although he did work in television in his early career, but did not make his film debut until age 37. He remarked that he only made films for the money so he could concentrate on the theater.
In 1999, he played a man dying of lung cancer in Magnolia. The next year he would die of the same disease.