There may be no limit to the number of roles Jason Robards was born to play, from the grizzled Hickey of "The Iceman Cometh" to the daydreaming Murray of "A Thousand Clowns" to a bombastic editor to, only last night, the cursed and blessed Leland Hayward of "Haywire."
Tonight, Robards is splendid, imposing and grand as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a fascinating three-hour NBC-TV play, "FDR, The Last Year," at 8 on Channel 4. Stanley R. Greenberg adapted the script from Jim Bishop's book, and the play was directed with both firmness and delicacy by Anthony Page.
This really is a TV play, not a TV movie, shot on tape in Toronto with a remarkable cast that includes Eileen Heckart as Eleanor Roosevelt and Kim as Fdr's very close friend, Lucy Mercer Rutherford. The production, from the "Holocaust" team of Herbert Brodkin and Robert Berger, is beautiful television and real television.
And most gratifying of all, the whole thing is not sour revisionist history or a glorified gossip column but instead powerful drama that is refreshingly adn emphatically affirmative. Greenberg's script is superior to the overly sentimentalized "Sunrise at Campobello" and to those drippy sensitivity greeting card productions of "Eleanor and Franklin."
Robards may not be physically well-matched to the larger-than-life character he is playing here, but time and again he suggests and invokes FDR in both sly and substantial ways. It is not merely a satisfactory facsimile but a rich, warm, bravura theatrical feat.
It's the kind of performance you hardly seen anymore in a play about the kind of president they don't make anymore.
The play opens in March 1944, and closes on April 12, 1945, when FDR is fatally stricken as he sits for a portrait painter who repeatedly tells him to keep his chin up -- literally. During the three hours we see FDR at his best and fleetingly at his worst, cruelly ignoring the idealistic and meddlesome Eleanor, except for spats about world affairs and the perennially needy; receiving Gromyko in his bathrobe; bragging of upcoming meetings with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta that "I can handle them all"; mocking Republicans for attacking "my little dog Fala"; defending Henry Wallace as his running mate against the politicos who want Harry truman with a thunderous, "I want Wallace!"
The balance between public and private life is extremely judicious, but the private moments are the most stirring to watch.
Franklin kisses Lucy in the front seat of a shiny green Pontiac. Franklin lies almost helpless in pain on the floor of a Pullman car but minutes later has made it into his wheelchair and is flashing his blindingly stalwart smile to a waiting crowd. Franklin tells a joke, good or bad, and interrupts his own laughter with exclamations of "I love it, I love it!"
Robards makes all these moments indelibly vivid.When the camera faces him head-on for a Fireside Chit Chat, it's like suddenly being in the presence of a Great Leader again.
At measured intervals, actors playing the friends and associates of FDR step out of character and speak directly to the audience. This is a skillful way of compressing exposition and setting scenes and it rarely seems mannered or awkward, except perhaps when Eleanor hangs up the phone and tells the audience that she never spoke to FDR again.
In a cast of this size and magnitude, it is difficult to cite all the highlights. However, Nehemiah Persoff's turn as Joseph Stalin is probably not one of them. On the other hand, Edward Binns as "Pa" Watson, Augusta Dabney as Grace Tulley, Kathryn Walker as Anna Roosevelt and Ted Ross (of "The Wiz") as Prettyman, FDR's aide and confidant, are all exceptional.
Sylvia Sidney and Jan Miner ("Madge the Manicurist" to devout TV viewers) contribute decorative cameos as two gabby cousins. Heckart has the wrong voice for Eleanor, but she overcomes this quickly with pure heart and brass. What a cast this is.
Finally, in the last hour, Avon Long has one short speech to the camera as Bun Wright, FDR's favorite fiddler, that is one more glory for an extraordinary production, and director Page has the uncommon sense to pan over to Long's face as the reality of FDR's death becomes irrefutable.
The momentousness of FDR's last year in the world scheme is communicated not through interpolated newsreels but instead through FDR's own words and actions. One is left with the impression that he died not knowing quite what terrors lay ahead, even though we hear him talk of covertly diverting millions to the production of the first atom bomb.
"FDR" makes neither excuses for rationalizations for mistakes, misjudgments or FDR's apparent extra-marital dalliance. Now and then it might be accused of a sophisticated form of hero worship -- maybe even of a not so sophisticated form. But it makes up for that in bringing back a time in which there were still heros around worth worshiping.