NewsFrank Langella on Becoming a Victor—Not a VictimRead the four-time Tony winner’s speech as he accepted Roundabout’s Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theatre.
March 06, 2017
Roundabout Theatre Company honored Frank Langella with the Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theatre at its annual spring gala February 27. The four-time Tony winner was presented with the award by Roundabout Artistic Director Todd Haimes and fellow Tony winner Bryan Cranston (the two worked together on the HBO adaptation of All the Way).
The Robards Award, named after the late Tony, Oscar, and Emmy winner, is given to those who have made a significant impact on both Roundabout Theatre Company and the theatre community as a whole.
I doubt there is an actor within the sound of my voice who has dreamed of this moment less than I have.
I mean no disrespect to the Roundabout or to any of you who have come here tonight to share part of this evening with me. After all, an accolade is preferable to a eulogy.
But this kind of honor comes with a curse. It forces you to review, reminisce and take stock of yourself. And in looking back over the last 55 years, all I am able to see are the things I have not achieved. The times I stumbled. The times I failed. And those have been legion.
In my youth, and well into middle-age, I was possessed of a willful, stubborn nature, insufferable arrogance, and flagrant narcissism.
Add to that, a relentless need to challenge all authority figures, a refusal to join in, and a fierce, I would almost say, a ferocious competitiveness. And I was of course always certain I was being underappreciated and misunderstood.
After all, I thought... I am special.
Somewhat in my defense I’d like to explain that I did not have the most auspicious beginnings. Right out of the box, so to speak, there were major obstacles.
Sometime close to midnight on New Year’s Eve 1937, my mother, standing out in the cold in Bayonne, New Jersey, enjoying the local festivities while waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square, began to feel dizzy and started losing the vision in her right eye. It became clear to my father, standing beside her, that it just might be me who was getting ready to drop instead.
So he rushed us over to Bayonne Hospital where I did indeed make my first entrance at 9:31 AM New Year’s Day 1938. Nine pounds, 10 ounces, profoundly near-sighted but otherwise a very healthy pre-ordained hypochondriac.
Bayonne had a New Year’s tradition. The first baby born on that day would receive a cornucopia of prizes: a crib, a baby carriage, a year’s worth of diapers, clothes, toys and its photograph on the front page of the Bayonne Times.
I was indeed that baby.
But the local midwife was incensed that she hadn’t been pulled out of her bed in the middle of the night to officiate at my birth (as she had my older brother’s two years earlier). She told the authorities she had delivered another child privately at home at approximately 3 AM that morning.
Since there was no way to disprove her claims, that child got all the prizes and all the attention. It was his picture that appeared the next day on the front page of the Bayonne Times.
Thereafter it became family lore that I had been cheated at birth, passed over, ignored, denied the attention that was rightfully mine. Not to mention nearly causing my mother to lose her sight.
Once home, my father wasted no time and exactly one year and twenty five days later, my baby sister was born and immediately plunked down into my crib.
So there I was… robbed at birth, a mother blinder, a middle child and forced to sleep with my sister. I had no choice. I had to become an actor.
I am going to spare you infancy, puberty, adolescence and my teenage years. I don’t want your pity.
I arrived in New York toward the end of the summer in 1960. A young man for whom it would take quite some time to come into himself. It was then that I began to create Frank Langella.
I bought a bowler hat, a three-piece suit, carried an umbrella with me to auditions, and affected an English accent I commandeered from John Gielgud records.
One agent looked me over skeptically and asked me where I had been born. When I told him Bayonne, New Jersey, he fell out of his chair.
I found a four-flight walk-up on 3rd Avenue and 61st Street. Six rooms with space heaters in the windows for the monthly rent of $70.84.
In 1963 I got my first job in New York at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on 3rd Street. I was paid $95 a week in cash delivered in a brown envelope every Friday night. My last appearance in New York was in 2016 playing “The Father” at MTC, for which I was paid $981.64 cents.
By my calculations, that is approximately a $16 per year raise over the course of the last 55 years. I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like that is.
There are quite a number of reasons why I should not be standing before you tonight. Chief among the reasons why I should, are these people:
George C. Scott, Jo Van Fleet, Colleen Dewhurst, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Eli Wallach, Maureen Stapleton, Angela Lansbury, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine and of course, Jason Robards.
Not a single one of them any less neurotic than I—any less tormented, needy, difficult, demanding, childish or driven. And a number sadly ended their lives victims of their own particular demons. But unwittingly and by example they saved my life.
They did not think of themselves nor did they call themselves “artists.” They were working actors and they became my beacons, my guides. They set the bar for me.
When eventually so many became my friends, they taught me, both through their weaknesses as well as their strengths, that actors must act in spite of their neurosis, not because of them.
And always, you do the work. You do the work.
And what a privilege this work has been for me. To speak on stage, thousands of nights, the words of Chekhov, Moliere, Strindberg, Racine, Shakespeare, Anouilh, Williams, Albee, Miller, Rattigan, Coward, Turgenev, Shaw, O’Neill and most recently Peter Morgan, Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller.
“Aspire to greatness when you get out there Frankie,” George C. Scott would tell me.
And I did. And I do. In the specter of the actor's only real enemy – Fear!
Fear is at the root of all arrogance, all unreasonable behavior, pettiness, ego, selfishness. It is why some drain the glass, why some pop a pill, why others make enemies and lose friends.
It is ever-present there in the eyes of every successful actor you’ve ever seen standing and staring incoherently into the lens of a camera while posing for a mug shot in a police station.
To climb past your own particular window of terror, as you go rung by rung up your own particular ladder, takes a lifetime. It has taken me mine. A lifetime to wrangle and subdue the angry baby that lives inside. A lifetime to battle the odds.
There are a lot of rungs to go. But, however many there are left to me, I will climb them, not as an artist, but as an Italian boy from New Jersey, a working actor, no longer misguidedly thinking he is something special.
What a relief it is to no longer think of yourself as a victim and become the victor. Just exchange two letters, and you can beat those odds.
Walt Whitman wrote:
“The past is a bucket of ashes. Live in the here and now. Keep moving. Forget the post-mortems. And remember, no one can get a jump on the future.”
Later this evening when my angry baby who now only occasionally wakes me up in the middle of the night, yearning once more for the impossible: unconditional love and total validation, I’ll handle him the best I can and go back to sleep. And when I wake tomorrow, I will be filled not so much with pride or satisfaction for the ashes that are my past, but remain in the here and now. I’ll do the work and, as I am this evening, be forever grateful.
Thank you for this honor.
Bryan Cranston, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, and More at the 2017 Roundabout Gala