Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

A thousand clowns’ journey into night (1922-2000)

Jason Robards Jr. appeared in a heck of a lot of movies. They weren’t always good, but he was.

Sometimes he was the lead, but much of the time he had a smaller role. He often seemed to play historical figures, both living dead, such as Al Capone (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), Ben Bradlee (All the President’s Men), Dashiell Hammett (Julia), Howard Hughes (Melvin and Howard) and Mark Twain (Mark Twain and Me). Other times he was merely a generic authority figure, like the general in Tora! Tora! Tora! or the governor in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or the senior law firm partner who fires an ailing Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. No matter the role, however, he brought something extra, a bit of class that made the part seem more important than perhaps it was. This was true all the way down to his uncredited cameo in the Oprah Winfrey vehicle Beloved and his deathbed turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

I suspect that fans of Robards’s work fall into two distinct categories. One would consist of those who followed his stage career, which was highlighted by star turns in Eugene O’Neill plays in the 1950s and 1960s, and his signature performance as the dipsomaniac James Tyrone Jr. in Sidney Lumet’s 1962 screen adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The other category would be made up of those people who will forever remember Robards as the inveterate non-conformist erstwhile television writer Murray Burns in the 1965 Herb Gardner-penned comedy/drama A Thousand Clowns. Arguably, the latter is the movie that guarantees Robards’s place in screen history.

But for me personally, I will always remember him most fondly for his role as the desperado Cheyenne, who might be a bad guy or might be a good guy, in one of my favorite movies of all time, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. No matter how many times I see this film, I am still strangely moved every time Robards asks Claudia Cardinale, “Did you make coffee?” He single-handedly gave the film heart and humanity, which could easily have been missing since the rest of the cast (Henry Fonda in an unlikely role as a chilling villain, Cardinale exuding pride and defiance, Charles Bronson wearing his one facial expression) was uniformly cold. His character’s final exit in that flick was typically graceful and unselfish, not unlike Robards’s acting in general.

He brought that feeling of humanity to most of his roles, such as his poignant portrayal of a lonely and disheveled Howard Hughes opposite Paul Le Mat in 1980’s Melvin and Howard. His forlorn rendition of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” as the duo travel down the highway is the highlight of the film. Similarly, he elevated the run-of-the-mill 1983 Neil Simon comedy Max Dugan Returns with his sympathetic portrayal of a wayward and incorrigible father and grandfather to Marsha Mason and Matthew Broderick.

The past few years it seemed as though you never knew where this great actor’s distinctive face with its twinkling eyes would pop up. He often seemed to show up unexpectedly, usually (but not always) in the final reel, as a welcome surprise, like in the above mentioned Beloved, the 1995 submarine flick Crimson Tide and the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State. It is sad to think that we won’t be having that pleasure in the future.

-S.L., 28 December 2000

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