STAGE TO SCREENS: Tony Award Winner Frank Langella, Star of "Robot & Frank"

By Christopher Wallenberg
25 Aug 2012

Cover art for "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them"

You mentioned the "distractions" from the real reasons to be alive. Is that something that you've learned as you've gotten older — to try to shed those distractions or not become so all-consumed by them?
Langella: No, I think they go away from you. It isn't that you shed them. If you're smart, then you let go of them. You let go of wanting to hold onto them when you feel them disappearing. All those things that you thought you needed to get you through a day. In everybody's case it's different: A lot of booze, a lot of smoking, a lot of sex, a lot of money, a lot of fame. All the things you think are worth pursuing, as you get older you realize they really are useless — and pointless. You just come to value, more and more every day, good health and human contact. And Frank of course is someone who's got a wall up against all of it. There's that wonderful scene in the movie where Jimmy [Marsden] berates him and says, you know, "You could talk anybody into anything. But you never were there as a father. You don't care. And here I am, busting my balls to help you, and you just don't care." What I like about this movie, more than any other element, is its total lack of any kind of mushy sentimentality — either related to the children or related to the robot. Frank remains resolutely what he is — right until the end of the picture.

Your scandalous, dishy new memoir "Dropped Names," which was released in the spring, caused quite the stir as well as some admiring reviews. What compelled you to write it?
Langella: Some of what we're talking about. A friend of mine died, and I had lost contact with her in the last decade of her life. Ms. Jill Clayburgh. I didn't know how sick she was. I was traveling with a companion, and she showed me the obituary, and she's a fair amount younger than Jill and didn't know who Jill was. And I was taken by the fact that she didn't know who Jill was. So I sat down and wrote my memories of Jill. It was the first thing I wrote. And then I just thought, wait a minute, in the 50 or so years since I was about 15, there are so many fascinating people who have come and gone in my life — and now are literally gone. So why don't I just write down my impressions of them? And then it got to be a hundred or more pages. 110, I think. And then I carefully took it down to 65. It happened very quickly. And now all my writer friends who want to kill me. I started writing it in December or November of 2010. So it was a very quick. I mean, I wrote and rewrote and wrote and rewrote all that time. But these stories just poured out.


Langella in Broadway's Man and Boy.
photo by Joan Marcus

Were you concerned about any backlash from writing such a revealing and dishy book?
Langella: A little. But there hasn't been any. I was worried about maybe family members of certain people, and I was prepared to say, "Look, as I say in my book in the preface, this is my experience of that person." I'm not ever saying, "This is what they were." I'm saying, "This is my feeling about them." But there hasn't been one negative letter or email or phone call. If anything, there have been remarkable gestures and reactions. Lily Rabe [Clayburgh's daughter] wrote me a beautiful letter about Jill. And Dominick Dunne's son listened personally as I read the story about his father, which wasn't always flattering. But no, there hasn't been anybody [writing or calling me up] irate or angry or [saying] "how could you?" Not one person.

Despite the fact that it's a celebrity memoir with some scandalous tidbits and provocations, the book was widely admired for its eloquence and unvarnished honesty. One review said "There is so much happy sexuality in this book that reading it is like being flirted with for a whole party by the hottest person in the room." And Charles Isherwood in the New York Times praised it for "insight into [your] own fears and foibles that is often absent from the memoirs of celebrities" as well as its "overriding note of compassion and fellow feeling." What was your intent in writing it and what was the overarching theme that you wanted to communicate?
Langella: I didn't have a theme other than they were all dead. But I suppose if you look at the book — and I'm now re-reading it in order to correct the typos for the paperback [edition] — it's really about the remarkable schism between the famous face that walks into a room and what's going on in the soul of the person. All of the different qualities and the complexity of being alive. As I say in the final chapter, in the Afterward, "If you stick to your soul, it will stick to you." So many people in my profession don't stick to their soul. And they end either tragically or sadly. And it takes a lifetime to understand that simple phrase. But I think if there is a theme in the book, it's the idea that being famous is really not a very important goal. It's like money, wealth, sex, you know, physical pleasure, honors, awards, titles, all those things — they just come and go.

On "Charlie Rose," you talk about that a little bit — the idea that life is about the journey. You quoted what Ortega said in "The Revolt of the Masses": That the best place to be is in the water and trying to get to shore and never getting there, because that means you're alive.
Langella: Right. Because once you're there on shore, what else is there? It's better to stay in the water and just swim. Just swim and always look in the distance for a place to land — but don't land. One of the things I say is: I don't think there's any comfort in the safe landing. People are always saying "It's time to settle down." That's just nonsense. Keep flying. Always keep flying. It's better.