It’s been ten years since veteran actor Barnard Hughes has graced Broadway, but now he’s back and among familiar faces. Waiting in the Wings, the American premiere of the 1960 Noel Coward play in which he stars, is filled with Hughes' colleagues and friends, including Rosemary Harris, Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Murphy, Simon Jones, Bette Henritze, Elizabeth Wilson and, last but now least, Hughes’ wife and frequent stage partner, Helen Stenborg. With Wings, Hughes marks his seventh decade in the business -- a career which has included memorable turns (mainly at the Public Theatre) as Dogberry, Polonius and Falstaff, as well as the original productions of Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss, and the title role in Hugh Leonard’s Da, Hughes’ signature, Tony-winning performance.
Playbill On-Line: So, what's is like being on a stage surrounded by all those ferocious actresses. Do you and Simon Jones stay together and hide in the corner?
Barnard Hughes: [Laughs] Yes, I guess we do! It’s just a delight, really. We’ve all known each other for years. It’s like a class reunion, I guess. We’re all glad to be about walking and talking and gainfully employed. Liz Wilson and I had been in about 14 or 15 different productions. And, of course, Helen [Stenborg], my wife, and I are old compatriots. Rosemary Murphy I’ve known for years. Betty Henritze, I’ve done two or three things with her. We’re all from the same period, or close to it. I guess I’m the senior member. I’m diplomatic enough not to enquire around, but I probably hold the record for longevity.
PBOL: We haven't seen you on the stage in a decade, since Prelude to a Kiss. Why the long absence?
BH: Well, I’ve been out in California, and I’ve been thinking that I’d retired and was almost getting used to it, but not quite. It wasn’t for a lack of offers. It’s just that I thought it was time sit down for a while. But when [producer] Alex [Cohen] called me, I was surprised how eager I was to jump.
PBOL: Did you ever meet Noel Coward?
BH: I never did. I never heard anything bad about him. I always heard he was a generous, thoughtful man, beside being clever and witty and all those other things. I always heard he was a decent chap. I’ve been Tonight at 8:30. I did, in summerstock, Blithe Spirit.
PBOL: Your main relationship in the play is with someone offstage, whom we never see. Does that make your job as an actor easier or more difficult?
BH: Yes, Martha Carrington is upstairs and in bed, 100 years old. I’m her eager -- not a suitor, but an admirer of the first water. I have an image of her. I think that Coward, from what he says about her, it make me think he was thinking of Gertrude Lawrence. He writes so affectionately. He says, “There was no one like her, and there never will be again. All London was at her feet.” I’ve always thought he was referring to Gertrude when he referred to Martha. PBOL: You're currently in the movie "Cradle Will Rock," about the famous controversial 1937 staging of Marc Blitzstein's opera, which the government tried to shut down. You were on Broadway around that time. Do you remember the incident?
BH: I remember the incident. I didn’t see it or march or anything like that. But, some of the characters in the movie I knew. I knew actor Hiram Sherman and worked with him. And John Adair is another character in the movie I knew and worked with. I knew nothing about the man I played, Frank Marvel. Tim Robbins was a delight to work with. I got a call about the movie and I said, “Send me a script.” And they said, “There is no script. Your part isn’t written yet.” And I said, “Well, I hate to commit myself to something I don’t know anything about.” That very night, we went to see Cabaret, and at the next table were Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, and we got to talking. I really enjoyed meeting them. The next day I got a call from Tim and he said, “Now that you’ve seen us, will you take a chance.” I said, “Sure.”
PBOL: Are there any roles you haven't played you'd still like to play?
BH: I’d love to play Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII. And years ago, I did a series of plays with Joe Papp. One day we met and he said, “You know, we’re going to do Lear. I offered that part to James Earl Jones years ago, so I have to honor that commitment.” But I have the feeling I was in the running for it. And I would have loved to have played Gloster somewhere along the way. That’s a really wonderful part for a mature actor. But I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had some real plums fall in my lap: Da, Prelude to a Kiss. I can’t say I haven’t had opportunities -- I have. One that I loved -- it didn’t last very long -- was Angels Fall by Lanford Wilson. I kept thinking, anytime, anywhere, anybody wants to do that play, I’ll be there.
PBOL: In Da, you starred with Brian Murray. Did you see Murray when he played your role in an Irish Repertory Theatre revival of Da a few years back?
BH: I did.
PBOL: Was that a strange experience?
BH: [Laughs] It was a happier experience than I expected it to be. I remember telling [Pulitzer Prize-winning author, then Irish Rep hanger on] Frank McCourt -- I was sitting in the last row -- “I’m sitting where I can make a fast exit if he gets too good.”
--By Robert Simonson