Jason Robards, one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, died on December 26, 2000, at the age of 78. He was known for his intense and introspective performances, especially in the works of playwright Eugene O’Neill. He won two Academy Awards, a Tony Award, a Primetime Emmy Award, and the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor. He is one of 24 performers to have achieved the Triple Crown of Acting.
Early Life and Career
Jason Robards was born on July 26, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of actor Jason Robards Sr. and Hope Maxine Robards (née Glanville). He was of German, English, Welsh, Irish, and Swedish descent. The family moved to New York City when Jason Jr. was still a toddler, and then moved to Los Angeles when he was six years old.
Robards had a troubled childhood, as his parents divorced when he was young and his father’s acting career declined after the advent of sound film. He excelled in sports at Hollywood High School, but decided to enlist in the United States Navy upon his graduation in 1940. He served as a radioman on several ships during World War II, and witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tassafaronga.
After the war, Robards pursued an acting career, following in his father’s footsteps. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and made his Broadway debut in 1956 in The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. He received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Hickey, a charismatic salesman who tries to convince a group of alcoholics to abandon their illusions. He reprised the role in a 1960 television adaptation and a 1985 film version.
Robards became known as an interpreter of O’Neill’s works, playing complex and tormented characters such as James Tyrone Jr. in Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), Jamie Tyrone in A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957), and Theodore Hickman in Hughie (1964). He won a Tony Award for his performance in The Disenchanted (1958), a play based on the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Film Success and Awards
Robards made his film debut in 1959, playing a Hungarian freedom fighter in The Journey. He went on to appear in more than 50 films, often portraying historical figures or fictional characters inspired by real people. Some of his notable roles include:
- Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post who oversaw the investigation of the Watergate scandal, in All the President’s Men (1976). He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
- Dashiell Hammett, the novelist and detective who helped his friend Lillian Hellman write her memoirs and fight against McCarthyism, in Julia (1977). He won another Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
- Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire and aviation pioneer who suffered from mental illness and paranoia, in Melvin and Howard (1980). He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
- Cheyenne, an aging outlaw who befriends a harmonica-playing gunman seeking revenge against a ruthless tycoon, in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). He received a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor for this role.
- Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who led the country through the Civil War and abolished slavery, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1964) and The Perfect Tribute (1991). He received a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for the latter role.
Robards also appeared in films such as A Thousand Clowns (1965), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Divorce American Style (1967), Johnny Got His Gun (1971), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Comes a Horseman (1978), Philadelphia (1993), A Thousand Acres (1997), and Magnolia (1999).
Personal Life and Death
Robards was married four times and had six children. His first wife was Eleanor Pittman, whom he married in 1948 and divorced in 1958. They had three children: Jason Robards III, an actor; Sarah Robards; and Shannon Robards.
His second wife was Rachel Taylor, whom he married in 1959 and divorced in 1961. They had one son: Sam Robards, also an actor.
His third wife was Lauren Bacall, whom he married in 1961 and divorced in 1969. They had two children: Stephen Humphrey Bogart, an author; and Leslie Bogart.
His fourth wife was Lois O’Connor, whom he married in 1970 and remained with until his death. They had no children.
Robards was a heavy drinker for most of his life, which affected his health and his relationships. He was involved in a near-fatal car accident in 1972, which left him with severe facial injuries and required several surgeries. He quit drinking in 1975 and became a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism.
Robards was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000 and underwent chemotherapy. He died on December 26, 2000, at Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut. He was buried at Oak Lawn Cemetery in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Legacy and Honors
Robards is widely regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation and one of the finest interpreters of Eugene O’Neill’s works. He received numerous awards and honors for his achievements, including:
- Two Academy Awards, three Academy Award nominations, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- A Tony Award, four Tony Award nominations, and induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
- A Primetime Emmy Award, two Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
- A Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor and a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Actor.
- A Golden Globe Award, two Golden Globe Award nominations, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement.
- The National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the United States government.
- The Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest recognition for influencing American culture through the arts.
Robards has been praised by critics and fellow actors for his depth, range, and authenticity. According to The New York Times , he “brought a new dimension of realism to the American stage”. According to The Guardian , he “was one of those rare actors who could make any part seem as if it had been written for him”. According to The Independent , he “was an actor of tremendous range and versatility admired by his peers as one of the greatest of his generation”.
Jason Robards cause of death was lung cancer, but his legacy lives on through his remarkable performances and his influence on generations of actors. He was a master of his craft and a legend of the stage and screen.