If it's Barefoot in the Park, and it's on Broadway, it must be Tony Roberts.
You may know Roberts as Woody Allen's sidekick in "Annie Hall" or as a theatre and movie veteran whose Broadway credits include The Tale of the Allergist's Wife and Victor/Victoria. But you may not know that in the mid-1960's he spent more than a year in the original Broadway production of Barefoot, taking over the role originated by Robert Redford — Paul Bratter, a newlywed lawyer moving with his carefree wife into a top-floor Manhattan walk-up.
Now Roberts is back in Barefoot — in the first Broadway revival of the classic Neil Simon comedy — this time as Victor Velasco, the newlyweds' eccentric and worldly neighbor, starring with Jill Clayburgh, Amanda Peet and Patrick Wilson at the Cort Theatre. The director is Scott Elliott.
"Back in the 60's," Roberts says, "my girlfriend was a fine actress named Penny Fuller, who replaced Elizabeth Ashley as Redford's wife. Redford wanted to take a two-week vacation, and his standby, Gene Rupert, was to fill in." They needed a new standby, and Fuller recommended Roberts. "I rehearsed the part, but never thought I would go on," he says. "One day, I went to watch the company's softball team play in Central Park. I was in the stands when Rupert tried to stretch a single into a double and broke his ankle. His broken ankle was my big break."
Roberts went on for those two weeks, and later, when Redford's replacement, Robert Reed, left, Roberts got the role. "Penny Fuller was in it with me for almost a year," he says. "During that time we became engaged — and broke up. The audience never knew." (He and Fuller remain great friends, he says.)
While he was in the show, several actors portrayed Velasco, including Kurt Kasznar (the original) and Jules Munshin. "And then it was Charles Boyer in the movie — so I don't have a very good idea of who to steal from," Roberts says with a laugh.
A Manhattan native, Roberts was born into a show-business family. He is the son of Ken Roberts, a radio and television announcer, and Norma Roberts, who was a cartoonist with Max Fleischer of Betty Boop fame.
"At an early age, I had an affinity for and a great love of acting," he says — a love that included the lead role in the eighth-grade graduation play at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side.
"Acting seems to have been what I could do," he says, "the area I could compete in. I wasn't very athletic as a boy — I was overweight — and I was able to shine in events that allowed me to get up and show off." That eighth-grade play, by the way, "was a radio play by Arthur Miller called Grandpa and the Statue. I played Grandpa. It's a patriotic play about a man who visits the Statue of Liberty." Roberts went on to the High School of Music and Art and studied theatre at Northwestern.
"My cousin was Everett Sloane, and my father's best friend was Paul Stewart" — both Sloane and Stewart were in Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre and appeared with Welles in the film classic "Citizen Kane."
"I grew up hearing what a terrible profession it was," Roberts says with another laugh, "and how I would be smart if I didn't go into it. So I was prepared for it to be difficult, and I went at it very aggressively. And eventually it paid off."