But such is the nature of stage veteran Fritz Weaver's multifarious resume. A musical here, some Shakespeare biggies there (Hamlet, King Lear); a Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut 50 years ago (The Chalk Garden), a win mid-career (Child's Play); significant flops (1963's Lorenzo—four performances) as well as hits (Absurd Person Singular); and the inevitable Love Letters.
For Trying, Joanna Glass' memory play of working with FDR's attorney general during his final years, Weaver has received some of the best reviews of his life, first in Chicago, then Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre. Weaver, employing his trademark stentorian basso voice, discussed his roles current and past with Playbill On-Line.
Playbill On-Line: How did Trying come to you?
Fritz Weaver: Joanna [Glass] brought it to me. We had been friends. We had both been clients of the same agent once. I guess she decided that this play might rest easily on my shoulders. I don't know what reasoning she used, but I find it a very congenial role to play.
PBOL: Do you have any memories of Francis Biddle, remember reading about him in the news?
FW: I do. In my family, politics was discussed at the dinner table, always. I was very young, but I remember Roosevelt, The New Deal, and Francis Biddle were often mentioned. I knew who he was. I did not know what he looked like, until I was shown a picture of him, and I realized I had not been picked because of my resemblance to him.
PBOL: Has the play been a good fit?
FW: I liked it more and more as I got into it. I started to recognize the curmudgeon in myself in him. His love of the arts, of American history and his place in it all seemed wonderful to me. PBOL: Has anyone who had known Biddle come backstage after a show?
FW: Schuyler Chapin [former commissioner of New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs] is part of the Biddle clan. He came to it through Biddle's wife, who's a Chapin. Schuyler was a nephew of Katherine Chapin and came to live with them. He was sitting in the audience saying "That's my friend up there playing the man who raised me." He couldn't quite get these facts together in his head. But we have been visited by a gaggle of Biddles, all ages.
PBOL: Is it a sobering experience to play a man who's close to your age, who dies at the end of the play?
FW: You know, I don't find that. I recognize that he was fairly hopeless when he died. He didn't have any kind of comforting religious feeling. He couldn't let go. He couldn't face the fact of his declining powers. I'm not disquieted, no. I'm getting up to the head of the line, as they say, but that's not been one of my difficulties.
PBOL: Would you call this one of the most rewarding roles of your career?
FW: I certainly would. To me, it's endlessly rich, and there are areas I'm still exploring. I honestly think we have a better play now than we did at the opening in Chicago.
PBOL: What other parts on your resume would you count among the most cherished of your career?
FW: I loved the whiskey priest I played in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory many years ago at the old Phoenix. And I've enjoyed all the Shakespeare I've done.
PBOL: You've done quite a bit. You starred in Hamlet, directed by John Houseman.
FW: I felt, then, that I wasn't well-enough trained for it. I was almost loath to do it. I was in my late 20s. And that's not too young to play the part. But in terms of the kind of training that a British actor at that age has already had, I didn't have that. I even said to John Houseman, "I don't feel ready." And he said, "Oh, I love it. That's the most Hamlet-like utterance I've ever heard."
PBOL: You're one of the few American actors I've interviewed that has played King Lear.
FW: I did that in the early 1990s at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. Michael Kahn was the director. It was a wonderful company. It was about the most exhausting part I've played. But that was a function of age too. I was no longer in my 20s. It's even harder than they say. It demands not only everything you've got, but more! They always said to me that it's helpful if you've played it when young, because you know where the resting places are. I found the end of the play wonderful to play. The old lunatic at the beginning—I never could quite understand why he was doing that to his beloved daughter. But the end of the play, where he becomes this tower of suffering.....
PBOL: You worked with producer David Merrick and his great rival Alexander Cohen.
FW: Alex I worked with more. With Alex, I did plays that folded in three days. That was often his way, and I felt badly about it every time. He was a great gentleman. A gentleman driven by passion of what he's doing. He was infatuated with the theatre. He had that adventurous spirit you have to have.
PBOL: You have a couple interesting musical credits. You played Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street.
FW: A singing Sherlock Holmes, if you can imagine. It was speak-singing, like Rex Harrison. It was sharp, cunning stuff. Holmes is a classic figure. Basil Rathbone was at the opening night and afterwards we were posed together. We were both looking at the camera and he suddenly reached over and said, "No, no, my boy! Profiles!" So we turned our faces and looked at each other.
PBOL: The other musical credit is 1962's All American, which is interesting in that it has a book by Mel Brooks, way before The Producers.
FW: Yes, he was already making a local name for himself, going around parties with Carl Reiner. This was the first thing he had done. The show didn't do well, and the reason it didn't do well is nobody trusted that insane humor of his. Particularly a great director by the name of Josh Logan. He didn't know what to make of it. I loved it, because it was immediately anarchic humor. It just goes where it goes. But it gradually got whittled down.
PBOL: What was he like back then?
FW: He was manic. Just endlessly funny and entertaining. You couldn't quite believe the stuff that would just bubble up from him at a moment's notice. One time Logan asked him to pretend to be a football announcer—there was a big football game in the show enacted through ballet. He took up a microphone and did 15 minutes of hilarious commentary on it. So much so that Josh Logan said, "I hope somebody took that down. We're going to use some of it."