One spring evening in 1982, The Public Theater’s late, great Joe Papp caught a production of Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers at an Off-Off-Broadway theatre on 13th Street and spotted in the cast a young man he had hired eight months before to man the stockroom at The Public. The next day Papp called the young man to his office and fired him.
“He said to me, ‘I saw an actor onstage last night, and that’s what you should be doing. You’re becoming too secure working here. You need to get out and act.’ Then, in the most beautiful and gentle and fatherly fashion, he pushed me out. If he hadn’t done that, I might have stayed blissfully content in the basement of The Public, handing out pads and pencils. Four months after that, he and Gail were in the opening-night audience of my first Broadway play -- Ghosts, with Liv Ullmann -- at, by the way, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.”
The victim of this friendly firing -- the actor Papp had recognized at first glance and properly identified -- went on to confirm his mentor’s opinion with a Tony for Best Featured Actor of 1991 (for Lost in Yonkers) and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 1995 (for The Usual Suspects). Now, Kevin Spacey is back at the Brooks Atkinson, delivering a triumphant performance that pretty much cleaned the award racks in England (the London Evening Standard Award, the London Critics’ Circle Award and the Olivier): Hickey, the spellbinding traveling salesman of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh -- a gregarious Sun God to the barflies inhabiting Harry Hope’s dive in Hell’s Kitchen of 1912.
At the Olivier Awards, recalls Spacey, “Lady Olivier gave the award, and it was just incredible, partly because of what he meant to me and partly what that award means to me as an American. I know we in this country have given Tonys to British actors for a long time, but I don’t believe it happens a lot that Americans get honored in England so, on that level, it was extraordinary. Also, I hope in some measure it helps break down this wall between American Equity and British Equity that still exists. It’s very difficult for actors to go from one side of the Atlantic to the other.”
To that end, Spacey made an impassioned plea to American Equity to bring over some of the British cast. “My position is an artistic position,” he contends. “We were coming into America not having the kind of length of rehearsal that we had in London, so it would be extremely helpful to this production to have a few people who’d been there.” Five members of the original company made the transatlantic crossing, including Spacey in the center ring and Clarke Peters, a U.S. citizen who has lived in London since 1973 and plays Joe Mott, the defunct gambling house proprietor.
The other roles have been staffed with stateside star power, among them Tony Danza as Rocky, Robert Sean Leonard as Don Parritt, Paul Giamatti as Jimmy Tomorrow, Jeff Weiss as Ed Mosher, Katie Finneran as Cora, Michael Emerson as Willie Oban, Richard Riehle as Pat McGloin, Ed Dixon as Piet Wetjoen and Catherine Kellner as Margie.
Tim Pigott-Smith, best known to U.S. audiences via the PBS miniseries “The Jewel in the Crown,” is one of the non-natives permitted over -- to reprise his pivotal portrayal of Larry Slade, the revolutionary firebrand who’s flickering his last. Like the other two British guests in the cast, he’s been here before (playing Doctor Watson to John Wood’s Sherlock Holmes).
“Patrick Godfrey, who plays Captain Lewis, was here last in Nicholas Nickleby, and our Harry Hope, James Hazeldine, was here in another O’Neill play, Strange Interlude, with Glenda Jackson,” Pigott-Smith points out. “We’ve been on Broadway more than some of our American cast.”
If Spacey waged a vigorous defense for these three, he chalks it up to “this unfinished business” begun when he and his Iceman director, Howard Davies, initially crossed paths. “I first met Howard some 12 years ago when he was doing Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway,” remembers Spacey. “I came in as a young upstart just beginning my work in the theatre to audition to replace Alan Rickman when they were thinking about putting in an American cast here. Both Howard and the writer, Christopher Hampton, felt that in me they had found a replacement, and they wanted to cast me in this, but they were denied the opportunity to do this because I was not at that time a name. Through a couple of weeks of very diligent struggling, they were unsuccessful in being able to convince The Powers That Be that I was worth that risk so, instead of running, the production just shut down.”
The memory of Spacey’s audition stuck with Davies to such an extent that, after he consented to direct a revival of Iceman for London’s Almeida Theatre, the first two words out of his mouth were Kevin Spacey. “We thought it was very unlikely we’d actually get him because of his busy film schedule,” Davies confessed, “but we tried. That very day we put in a call to his personal manager, and two weeks later we got Kevin’s answer: yes.”
Spacey had been down this dark, booze-blurry road before and had always assumed that his next O’Neill would be A Moon for the Misbegotten, continuing the role of the alcoholic older brother he had played in a revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jack Lemmon, Bethel Leslie and Peter Gallagher -- a role that had been played with great distinction by Jason Robards Jr. -- and he feared he wasn’t ready to go up against Robards’s hallmark performance of Hickey. “It always seemed to me I’d have to be older, but I found out Jason was younger than I was. I am now 39, and Jason was 35 when he did it.”
When The Iceman Cometh again with Robards -- via the acclaimed 1985 revival -- Spacey happened to catch its closing night in Washington, D.C., where he was rehearsing The Seagull with Colleen Dewhurst and director Peter Sellars. “I had an opportunity not only to see him do Hickey but actually to meet him for the first time. It was great because I also knew that in about two-and-a-half months I was going to begin Long Day’s Journey. Someone must have pointed me out to him because he came over to me at the closing-night party, put his hand on my shoulder, looked down at me and said, ‘Be kind to him. He was very good to me.’ It was a very sweet moment.”