Born July 26, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of actor Jason Robards Sr. (1892-1963) and his first wife. The family moved to New York when he was a toddler, then to Los Angeles. His parents’ divorce, which occurred while he was in grade school, is said to have affected his personality and world view greatly. He enlisted the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in 1940.
After leaving the Navy in 1946, Robards moved to New York City where he began working as an actor on radio, stage, and later TV where he was billed as Jason Robards Jr. He married first wife Eleanor Pitman in 1948 with whom he would have three children.
Robards’ big break came in the 1956 off-Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for which he won an Obie. Later that year, he co-starred in the Broadway production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in support of Fredric March and Florence Eldredge, for which he received the first of his eventual eight Tony nominations. He and Pitman would divorce in 1958 and he would marry second wife Rachel Taylor in 1959.
The actor’s first film was 1959’s The Journey in which he was third-billed behind Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. In 1960, he reprised his portrayal of Hickey in a TV film version of The Iceman Cometh. He and Taylor would divorce in 1961, the year he was introduced to Lauren Bacall by Katharine Hepburn. He and Bacall would marry later that year. Their son Sam would be born in December.
In 1962, Robards reprised his portrayal of the older son in the film version of Long Day’s Journey into Night for which he received the National Board of Review award for Best Actor. After the death of his father in 1963, Robards would drop “Jr.” from his billing. While still heavily in demand on film and stage, his film career continued throughout the 1960s with such works as A Big Hand for the Little Lady, A Thousand Clowns, Any Wednesday, Hour of the Gun, Once Upon a Time in the West and The Night They Raided Minsky’s.
Divorced from Bacall in 1969, he married fourth wife Lois O’Connor in 1970 with whom he would have two more children and remain married to until his death.
Robards reached the pinnacle of his career in the mid-1970s, receiving the second of six Emmy nominations for an acclaimed 1976 production of O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten and back-to-back Oscars for 1976’s All the President’s Men and 1977’s Julia. He would receive a third Oscar nomination for 1980’s Melvin and Howard in which he played Howard Hughes.
The actor continued to be in demand throughout the 1980s and 90s with roles in such films as Parenthood, Philadelphia, A Thousand Acres and Magnolia.
Jason Robards died on December 26, 2000. He was 78.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), directed by Sidney Lumet
Robards received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the alcoholic older son of a ham actor and drug-addicted mother in the original Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play. He was the only cast member to repeat his role in the film version with Katharine Hepburn as the mother, Ralph Richardson as the father and Dean Stockwell as the sickly younger son, patterned after O’Neill himself. All four won awards at the Venice Film Festival, but only Hepburn received an Oscar nomination, her ninth. Robards did, however, win the National Board of Review award for Best Actor.
A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965), directed by Fred Coe
This was another Broadway to Hollywood triumph for Robards who first played the non-conformist writer and guardian of his precocious 12-year-old nephew on stage opposite Sandy Dennis as the social worker investigating the child’s homelife. Barbara Harris replaced Dennis in the film which received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and a win for Martin Balsam as Robards’ responsible older brother. It is stolen, however, by then 16-year-old Barry Gordon as the 12-year-old with the wry delivery of a middle-aged man. The film also provides a pictorial treat of New York City as traversed by Robards and company.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), directed by Alan J. Pakula
Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Director, and winner of four including one for Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, this remains one of the most compelling films of all time. Even though everyone knows the outcomes of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the Watergate burglary, which led to the resignation of U.S. president, Richard Nixon, the film plays like a highly suspenseful murder mystery. Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein lead a fine supporting cast with Robards the icing on the cake as Bradlee.
JULIA (1977), directed by Fred Zinnemann
Robards became the fourth of five actors to win back-to-back Oscars with his portrayal of writer Dashiell Hammett opposite Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in this suspenseful film about Hellman’s dangerous journey to smuggle money into Nazi Germany to help her resistance fighter friend, Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave who also won an Oscar for her performance. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars overall including Best Picture, Director, Actress, and fSupporting Actor Maximilian Schell. The other back-to-back acting winners were Spencer Tracy, Luise Rainer, Katharine Hepburn and Tom Hanks.
MAGNOLIA (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Robards was nominated as part of the film’s ensemble for Best Cast at the annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards. The film, which co-starred Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall. Thomas Jane and Melinda Dillon among others, is about the search for love, forgiveness, and the meaning of life in California’s San Fernando Valley. It was nominated for three Oscars including one for Cruise as a shallow, albeit charismatic, motivational speaker. Robards’ character dies of lung cancer a year before the actor died of the same disease in real life.
JASON ROBARDS AND OSCAR
- All the President’s Men (1976) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
- Julia (1977) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
- Melvin and Howard (1980) – nominated – Supporting Actor