Frank Langella, All in One Lifetime: From Shakespeare, 21, to Lear, 85

By Harry Haun
18 Jan 2014

Langella in A Cry of Players
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

But they persisted, and he finally agreed to have a go at that Everest of roles which all actors worth their salt and sawdust feel compelled to climb while they still have the strength to carry their lifeless but often lead-like Cordelias on stage. "I'm still too young for Lear," he pointed out. "Lear is 85. He says he's 'fourscore and upwards' so he's probably about 84 or 85, and I'm eight or nine years younger than him." The fact that he doesn't carry his Cordelia is based entirely on artistic grounds: "I drag her. I didn't want to carry her on in the traditional way. I'm trying, if I can, to break some of the clichés."

The notoriously difficult-to-please English critics threw caution to the wind and hats in the air last fall praising Langella's performance, which they said was full of old-school barnstorming. For someone who loves language and relishes words, it was a feast.

Six-foot-four of crumbling regal-bearing, which he wore in his Tony-winning/Oscar-nominated role of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, works well for Lear, too.

"I actually think that Nixon has been a good primer for this. I didn't think about it before, but, if I look back at the roles I've played — even as a young man — I was always attracted to epic, tragic characters. Always. I'm not a regular guy. I never have been. Ever since I was young, I was always attracted in movies to Cagney on the top of the building saying 'Top of the world, Ma' or Robinson dying in the gutter saying, 'Is this the end of Rico?' Those characters always thrilled me. They're the ones I wanted to be."

Langella takes great pride and care in trying to sum up his characterizations into a single look, which then becomes poster art for his plays. His troubled Sir Thomas More, which was used to promote his 2008 revival of A Man For All Seasons, echoed an expression he found of Jimmy Carter in a photography book. His Lear, looking blackly into the abyss, followed 50 or 60 full body shots of him in the mud or him strolling in a vast open forest.

"I didn't like any of them," he admitted. "I thought they were pretentious — not real, not commercial, somehow not emotionally right — so I said, 'Just pick up the camera, and I'm just going to sit there and think of nothing and go into a very dark place.' The guy took it. It went click, and he turned it around and said, 'That's it.' We all did — five of us in the room — everybody went, 'That's it!'"