Jason Robards would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. One of the all-time greats, as well as one of my personal favorites, Robards was an eight-time Tony nominee (the most for any male actor in history), one of twenty-four people to ever earn the prestigious Triple Crown of Acting (more on that later), and one of just five actors to win back-to-back Academy Awards.
Jason Nelson Robards Jr. was born in Chicago on July 26, 1922. Jason Sr.’s acting career took the family to New York City and later to Los Angeles. Jason Jr. attended Hollywood High School, where he excelled in athletics. After high school, Robards enlisted in the United States Navy. He was a radioman 3rd class on the USS Northampton, which was about 100 miles off the coast of Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Robards saw combat in the Pacific theater; the Northampton was sunk by Japanese torpedoes during the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942. Robards survived the sinking by treading water for hours.
While Robards was still in the Navy, he found a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude in the ship’s library (he would go on to appear in the stage and screen versions of several O’Neill works). After completing his military service, Robards attended the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Upon graduating in 1948, Robards quickly found success on the stage. He earned his first Tony nomination in 1957 for his featured performance in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Two years later, Robards won his only Tony on his second nomination, for The Disenchanted; between 1960 and 1978, he received six more Tony nominations.
In 1959, Robards made his feature film debut in The Journey. Three years later, he starred in the film adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which he won the Best Actor prize from both the Cannes Film Festival and the National Board of Review. In 1965, Robards earned mainstream success – and a Golden Globe nomination – for his performance in A Thousand Clowns. Over the next ten years, Robards starred in some of the most iconic films of the time, including Once Upon a Time in the West, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and A Boy and His Dog. He received back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscars for his turns as Ben Bradlee and Dashiell Hammett in 1976’s All the President’s Men and 1977’s Julia, respectively; he earned his third and final Oscar nomination in 1980 for his role as Howard Hughes in Jonathan Demme’s delightful Melvin and Howard.
Robards continued to work steadily throughout the 80s, starring in feature films like Max Dugan Returns and Parenthood (a personal favorite) and in television movies such as The Day After and Inherit the Wind. For the latter, Robards won a Primetime Emmy for his performance as Clarence Darrow’s stand-in Henry Drummond, completing the aforementioned Triple Crown. So what is the Triple Crown of Acting? It consists of an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy – the industry’s three most prestigious awards. As of 2022, only twenty-four people have earned the Triple Crown, including legends like Ingrid Bergman, Rita Moreno, Maggie Smith, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand, and Viola Davis (I might explore the list in detail in a later post).
Robards stayed busy in the 90s, appearing in movies like Philadelphia, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State (another personal favorite). His final role, filmed after his lung cancer diagnosis, was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 follow-up to Boogie Nights, Magnolia. Robards died on December 26, 2000; he was 78 years old. Robards left behind six children from his four marriages, including actors Jason III and Sam.
In honor of Robards’ 100th birthday, here are some of his most memorable roles, along with a few personal favorites.
- A Thousand Clowns
The film that made Robards a star, A Thousand Clowns is the story of unemployed comedy writer Murray Burns, who must stifle his nonconformist worldview in order to maintain legal custody of his nephew Nick. Based on the Tony-winning play by Herb Gardner (Robards and Barry Gordon, who plays Nick, both originated their roles on Broadway), A Thousand Clowns was nominated for four Oscars (it won one, Best Supporting Actor for Martin Balsam, who plays Murray’s more conventional brother Arnold) and while Robards himself was not nominated, he did receive a Golden Globe nod (he lost to Cat Ballou‘s Lee Marvin).
- Once Upon a Time in the West
The fact that Robards plays a character named Manuel “Cheyenne” Gutiérrez is obviously problematic, but he still entertains in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Robards stars opposite Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in this 1968 epic, generally considered one of the greatest westerns of all time (the iconic score by Ennio Morricone doesn’t hurt either).
- Tora! Tora! Tora!
This 1970 dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reunited Robards with his A Thousand Clowns co-star Martin Balsam. Robards portrayed General Walter Short, the commander of the US Army Forces in Hawaii at the time who took much of the blame for the security failure. The film was a box office disappointment but was nominated for five Academy Awards.
- All the President’s Men
One of my all-time favorite movies, All the President’s Men is a marvel from start to finish: from William Goldman’s brilliant Oscar-winning script to Alan J. Pakula’s taut direction to the dazzling performances. All the President’s Men was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four; Robards earned his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of no-nonsense Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
The following year, Robards played another historical figure, legendary mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, in Fred Zinneman’s Julia. Based on a chapter from Lillian Hellmann’s 1973 book Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, Julia generated a fair amount of controversy (loooooooong story short, psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed the story was based on her life and no one has been able to corroborate the existence of another person who could be Hellmann’s supposed childhood friend). Nonetheless, Julia received eleven Academy Award nominations – the most for any film that year – and won three Oscars: Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress for Vanessa Redgrave, and Best Supporting Actor for Robards. With this win, Robards became part of an exclusive group: actors with back-to-back Academy Awards. Only four other actors have accomplished this feat in Oscar history (for the record: Luise Rainer, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Tom Hanks).
By the way, if you’re a history nerd like me, I recommend this video that breaks down the Julia controversy in more detail:
- Melvin and Howard
Robards earned his third and final Oscar nomination for his portrayal of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (whose middle name was Robard, if you can believe that) in Jonathan Demme’s delightful Melvin and Howard. He lost to Ordinary People‘s Timothy Hutton (fun fact: Hutton, who was twenty at the time, is the youngest Best Supporting Actor winner ever), but Robards make the most of his brief screen time to deliver another iconic performance.
- Max Dugan Returns
This 1983 dramedy was the last of five movie collaborations between writer Neil Simon and director Herbert Ross, as well as Simon’s final film with Marsha Mason (the pair divorced that year). Robards plays the titular character, the long-lost dad to Nora (Mason). Max is looking to unload some money he embezzled by lavishing Nora and her teenage son Michael with gifts. Things get complicated when Nora begins dating a police detective. Max Dugan Returns is not the best of the Simon-Ross-Mason oeuvre – that’d be 1977’s The Goodbye Girl – but Robards is inarguably the highlight of the movie.
- The Day After
One of the most terrifying films of the Gen-X era is this 1983 made-for-television movie, which traumatized us with graphic depictions of a nuclear apocalypse. An estimated 100 million people watched The Day After (it still sits in the top 20 most-watched broadcasts of all time), which starred Robards as Dr. Russell Oakes. The Day After received a whopping twelve nominations at the 36th Primetime Emmy Awards.
- Inherit the Wind
Inherit the Wind, the beloved 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, used the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial as a parable for the dangers of McCarthyism. This 1988 made-for-television update starred Robards as Henry Drummond (the fictional counterpart to Scopes’ defense attorney – and leading member of the ACLU – Clarence Darrow) and earned him the Emmy Award that completed his Triple Crown.
Parenthood is another personal favorite, a poignant comedy about the peaks and pitfalls of parenthood with a brilliant cast including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, and Tom Hulce. Robards plays Frank, the emotionally distant patriarch of the Buckman clan. When the youngest Buckman (Hulce) – Frank’s obvious favorite child – comes back to town with a kid in tow and thousands in gambling debts, Frank finds himself with some difficult decisions to make. This scene is one of the film’s best, with director Ron Howard getting out of the way and letting these two legends do their thing.
- Enemy of the State
Enemy of the State is one of my all-time guiltless pleasures, a shamelessly entertaining political thriller anchored by terrific performances from Will Smith, Gene Hackman, and Regina King. Robards, in an uncredited cameo, plays Congressman Phillip Hammersley, whose assassination at the direction of a power-hungry NSA official (Jon Voight) kicks off the film’s plot.
Robards, his body already ravaged by cancer, made his final film appearance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Robards plays cancer-stricken Earl Partridge, who is being cared for by a nurse named Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The scenes with Robards and Hoffman are my favorite in the film, made all the more bittersweet now that both actors have passed away. After Robards’ death, Hoffman wrote a touching tribute for Entertainment Weekly.