Americans have always venerated the great classical British actors, opening our doors and our hearts to Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Ian McKellen and many more.
We've been less quick to recognize our own American school of acting, or to appreciate its classic practitioners, none more prominent among them than Jason Robards.
Robards had the tough, unflinching approach of the true American classic, less polished than the impeccably trained British model. He could dig deep into a role, but his wasn't the way of the Method, the Russian-born school that in untutored hands could degenerate into navel-gazing.
As the flinty individualists who were his trademark characters, Robards -- who died yesterday at 78 after a long battle with cancer -- manifested a rigorous, edgy power that was as American as the rocks of New England.
Born July 22, 1922, in Chicago, Jason Robards Jr. came by his talent naturally: His father was a noted stage and silent-film star. After serving in the Navy during World War II -- and surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor -- the younger Robards attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before making his Broadway debut in "Stalag 17" (1951).
The young actor quickly became one of Broadway's most dependable dramatic actors, but he didn't emerge as a star until 1956, when he won an Obie Award for his work in a legendary revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." The same year he won the New York Drama Critics Award for his performance in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Along with director Jose Quintero and actress Colleen Dewhurst, Robards formed a virtual O'Neill repertory company, appearing in revivals of the plays for the next several decades. Among his other O'Neill stage credits were "Hughie" (1964), "A Moon for the Misbegotten" (1973) and "A Touch of the Poet" (1977), as well as a television version of "The Iceman Cometh" (1961) and the film version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962), which earned him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Robards was first seen on the big screen in the spy drama "The Journey" (1959), the same year in which he won a Tony Award for "The Disenchanted."
But it wasn't until the early 1960s that he caught Hollywood's eye. He starred in an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" (1962), and then dazzled critics as young Jamie Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey into Night" and as playwright George S. Kaufman in "Act One" (1963). In 1976 he won a best supporting actor Oscar as Benjamin Bradlee, the craggy Washington Post editor overseeing reporters Woodward and Bernstein in "All the President's Men." The next year he won again, this time for his subtle, insightful performance as mystery writer Dashiell Hammett in "Julia" (1977).
In later years, however, Robards found fewer meaty roles, with "Melvin and Howard" (1980), in which he was again Oscar-nominated as the deranged Howard Hughes, and "Inherit the Wind" (1988), a television movie that earned him an Emmy, as the primary exceptions.
Always, however, Robards embodied the old school of theatrical professionalism, an embodiment of integrity in an age of glitz.
"He is an artist in complete command," Quintero said, while Ellis Rabb, who directed Robards in "You Can't Take It With You" (1983), seconded the motion.
"Robards can do anything," Rabb said, "from O'Neill to light comedy to Shakespeare, a range we seldom see in this country."
Or, he might have added, anywhere else.