The name Jason Robards conjures up images of the hard-living, hard-drinking characters of Eugene O'Neill -- Hickey, the traveling salesman, in "The Iceman Cometh" or Jamie Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Moon for the Misbegotten."
But what has him excited these days is "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," Israel Horovitz's new play, which is being billed as "touchingly funny" -- and which begins a pre-Broadway run at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday.
Is this casting against type?
Not at all, insists the 69-year-old actor, who says he has always seen himself as "very comic. All I did my first few years as an actor were light comedies."
Granted, Mr. Robards also happens to hold the rather unconventional view that "there's an awful lot of good laughs in O'Neill." But there is bona fide proof of his comic prowess in such portrayals as nonconformist Murray Burns in "A Thousand Clowns" on stage and screen, and Grandpa Vanderhof in the 1983 Broadway revival of "You Can't Take It With You."
What's more, Jose Quintero, who has directed Mr. Robards in a number of O'Neill productions, has written, "I believe that all great actors and actresses fundamentally have to be great clowns. . . . Jason I recognized as an actor and a clown at our first meeting."
And Zoe Caldwell, director of "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," agrees. "Jason is marvelous in comedy," she insists.
In the new two-person play, Mr. Robards portrays Jacob Brackish, an octo- genarian retired from teaching high school English and music appreciation in his hometown of Gloucester, Mass. "The kids all thought he was one of the toughest son of a guns who ever lived," he explains with a chuckle.
Before the play begins, Brackish suffers what the actor calls a jTC "spell," and finds it necessary to hire a housekeeper; she turns out to be a relatively young and undereducated woman played by Judith Ivey.
Speaking over the phone from his home in Southport, Conn., Mr. Robards recalls the first time he read the script with his co-star: "It made us laugh and broke our hearts and made us understand a little bit more about love and life and the human condition."
At the same time, he remembers feeling "very deep anguish and joy and sadness and understanding and growth. It's all those words. It drew out my insides."
Anguish is one of the qualities most closely associated with the stage persona created by Mr. Robards, who is widely regarded as the leading interpreter of O'Neill. He first achieved theatrical acclaim for his role in "The Iceman Cometh" in 1956; later that year he made his Broadway debut in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; his last previous Baltimore appearance was in another O'Neill play, "A Touch of the Poet," in 1977.
Mr. Robards identified with O'Neill so strongly that for a number of years he was working on a book about the relation between his life and the playwright's. "I finally decided the book would only sell to psychiatrists and out-of-work actors," he jokes.
In her autobiography, Lauren Bacall, his third wife, writes that when he was performing in an O'Neill play, he became the character off-stage as well. That may have contributed to the actor's alcoholism and, in turn, to the near-fatal accident in 1972 when his Mercedes skidded into the side of a California mountain. Doctors reportedly brought him back from the dead after that accident, and they also rebuilt his shattered face.
Mr. Robards subsequently stopped drinking. "I have a feeling that I was ready to change anyway, as I look back on it," he says. "I don't mean that I did it on purpose. When you're in an accident that way you must be heading for something. . . . The change was there, and I faced a lot of demons afterward that I had never faced." He also attributes much of his new life to his fourth wife, Lois, to whom he has been married for more than 20 years.
The way he quit drinking was that he "just stopped. . . . The only thing it ever did for me was to blot out things I didn't want to face. Once I started to face them, I didn't need it anymore."
Since giving up alcohol, Mr. Robards has worked actively to raise funds and public awareness for organizations including the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, and the Hazelden Foundation. He has also been involved in a program at the Mayo Clinic called Insight, aimed at helping doctors work with patients. At the Minnesota hospital, he has performed excerpts from "The Iceman Cometh" to illustrate alcoholism; with actress Elaine Stritch he has done A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters" as a study in communication; and, with his son Sam he has presented parts of "Long Day's Journey" as an example of the impact of drugs on a family.
Sam, his son by Miss Bacall, isn't the only one of Mr. Robards' six children to choose acting as a profession. His oldest son, Jason Nelson Robards 3d, called Jady, is an actor in Chicago, and he played a small role with his father in the revival of "You Can't Take It With You."
Acting could be described as a legacy in this family. Mr. Robards' father, Jason Sr., was also a stage and screen actor. In fact, Jason Jr. was born in Chicago when his father was appearing in a touring production of "Lightnin'."
As a young man growing up in Hollywood, Mr. Robards watched his father deteriorate from film industry pressures, and he determined never to become an actor. "When you see someone you're very close to and you love very much not doing well and sort of falling apart, you say, if a business can do that to somebody, I don't want to be in it," he says now.
"But that was fleeting," he continues. After seven years in the Navy during World War II, he decided to give acting a try after all and enrolled in his father's old school, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He even had some of the same teachers, one of whom told him, "You're a bigger idiot than your father was."
Two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy award later, he has unquestionably proven that teacher wrong. He spent part of this past summer in New Orleans shooting his latest movie, "Storyville," with James Spader. And he has a new TV movie scheduled to be broadcast Nov. 17 on the Disney Channel called "Mark Twain and Me."
Although he clearly prefers stage work -- last season he reluctantly withdrew from a production of "King Lear" in Boston after he found himself facing "cash shortages" -- Mr. Robards seems to have little trouble finding TV and movie work when the need arises.
He first worked with his current co-star, Miss Ivey, six years ago in a TV production of "The Long Hot Summer," in which she played his daughter. But, he cautions, "A movie is an entirely different thing. When you're shooting a film you don't get to investigate. [You're told:] 'Go out and do this scene quickly because we've got to get out of here.' . . . We worked together well, but under those circumstances you don't know someone."
He has unqualified praise for Miss Ivey in "Park Your Car in Harvard Yard," describing her performance as "magic" and insisting that her initial reading of the script "dragged me in the play more than anything."
For that matter, he sounds enthusiastic about the entire production. However, less than three weeks into rehearsals, he admits candidly, "I'm in that period where you die a little every day. Then you get a new life, then you die a little. I always do that, though, in a play. [I wonder] why do I do this play? There are so many easier ways to go. Maybe I have hope in the theater."
'Park Your Car in Harvard Yard'
'Park Your Car in Harvard Yard'
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Oct. 27.
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.