Growing up in the shadow of famous parents would be a challenge for most people. But when your father is Jason Robards Jr., a multiple Oscar winner and one of the giants of the American stage, your mother is Lauren Bacall, a Tony winner and certified Hollywood icon, and your grandfather is Jason Robards Sr., a prolific star of early American cinema, you can certainly be forgiven for suffering through periods of self-doubt and rebelliousness at the prospect of following in those daunting footsteps.
Sam Robards, who's co-starring in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of the Alan Ayckbourn farce Absurd Person Singular at the Biltmore Theatre, admits to bearing the weight of expectations when he first began acting. He also acknowledges falling on his face more than a few times during his youth. "You hear about a lot of kids who haven't fared well because their parents were famous. But I'm incredibly grateful for the life I've had and wouldn't change it for anything. And I'm proud of my parents," says the 43-year-old Robards. "The flip side, though, is that if you decide to follow your parents into the business, you don't really have the opportunity to fail on your own terms."
Relaxing in the lobby of the MTC studios in midtown Manhattan before rehearsal, the ruggedly handsome Robards, dressed casually in shorts and a black T-shirt, comes across as a man's man — the kind of guy you can easily picture climbing mountainous terrain or riding horseback across a vast plain. His resume, too, reflects the ups and downs of someone who's less Hollywood royalty and more workaday actor. He's toiled in supporting roles in films like Steven Spielberg's "AI: Artificial Intelligence," "American Beauty" and "Bounce." Like his forebears, he's performed in countless plays Off-Broadway and at regional theatres. And he's also worked in TV, including a recurring role as White House reporter Greg Brock on "The West Wing" last season.
One of his career highlights came in 2002 when he made his Broadway debut as the immigrant car mechanic Gustav Eberson in the revival of Arthur Miller's The Man Who Had All the Luck. His winning portrayal was hailed by critics and audiences for its self-effacing warmth and earned him a Tony Award nomination. The honor came as a pleasant surprise to Robards. "I'd never even been on Broadway before. But it really meant something to me because that was the first play that my dad hadn't seen me in," says Robards, whose father died in 2000. "Not that I did it for him, but I was mindful of him when I would work. And I was mindful of the fact that there's a long history of working on the stage in my family." Despite a Hollywood and Broadway pedigree, Robards insists that he never felt any pressure to follow in his parents' footsteps. He also asserts that nepotism can only get an actor so far. "Their name might help you get your foot in the door, but it's still your foot," he says. "You've got to be able to go in and perform on cue."
On the other hand, the family name could also be seen as a handicap. Robards admits that he battled through his fair share of self-destructive behavior while struggling with the expectations and pressures of being a "star baby." After getting "booted out" of college following his freshman year, Robards was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. On his father's advice he enrolled in the 14-week program at the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Theater Institute. "I figured, I'm 19, why not give it a rip and see what happens? I didn't want to wake up when I was 40 and go, 'Oh, I should have been an actor.'" Later he trained at HB Studios under Morris Carnovsky and the legendary Uta Hagen, who once taught his father. And he soon found that he enjoyed the craft. "You get to be someone else and do and say things that you'd never be permitted to do and say," he explains.
His latest role as the self-centered, philandering Geoffrey in Absurd Person Singular marks his second time in an Ayckbourn farce. The first, Taking Steps, which he performed at the York Theatre more than 15 years ago, was the first time he remembers walking out onstage and feeling completely relaxed and comfortable, without any bad nervous energy.
This play, he says, is more technically challenging. Set in the kitchens of three different couples on successive Christmases, it is similar to Ayckbourn's other bourgeois-skewering farces. But the pace is faster, with characters rushing in and out of doors and lots of outrageous behavior that gets blithely overlooked by the clueless party guests. And like much of the playwright's other work, there's a dark underbelly. "The demands that Ayckbourn places on an actor are great," says Robards. "You can get there, but the challenge is that you have to raise your game, which I love. I don't want to sit back and do what's easy or do the same kind of role over and over. Unless, of course, I'm being paid incredibly well." Spoken like a regular guy.