"Oh," says the cabdriver, suddenly interested. "This is Mr. Robards's house."

The reaction is understandable, for the big brick structure, no less than the career that purchased it, commands respect even in this hyper-affluent New England town. Jason Robards and his wife, Lois, have lived here for 26 years, and the six acres of ground, the beautiful lawns and trees, the broad oceanfront view, tell a story of solidity, prosperity and peace.

The place seems right for him. After a slow start, Robards's career turned into an American success story: uncompromising stage work over several decades, and regular, well-paid--and sometimes highly satisfying--appearances in the movies. (That career is being celebrated this weekend at the Kennedy Center Honors.)

But if the career is all of a piece, the life has not been. And Robards's tormented younger self would likely have snorted had anyone suggested years ago that he would survive his treacherous emotional waters to make a stretch of this expensive shoreline literally his own.

He's waiting at the open door as his guest pulls up, looking comfortable in gray slacks and a light yellow pullover, his friendly blue-gray eyes making contact over half-glasses. At 77, Robards appears not to prefer the past to the present and indeed seems comfortable either place, willingly considering an interviewer's every question. Maybe he's simply glad to be alive, having survived a horrendous health crisis this year that kept him in the hospital for six months.

"They took a tumor out that was about as big as my little fingernail," he says, making the problem sound roughly that size. "And they had no chemo, no radiation, clean, everything."

And then came a staph infection that almost killed him. "For almost three months," he says, "I was in a coma."

Robards remembers nothing about great stretches of his illness, which has left him thin but game--jocular even. "I finally said, 'I'm never going in a hospital again--I'm going to get a midwife,' " he says and then laughs, dismissing the whole episode for the moment. "Serve me in many ways."

All Kennedy Center honorees are distinctive, but surely Jason Robards is the only one to have made his New York debut playing the back end of a cow. It was 1947 and, having wrapped up a seven-year tour in the Navy, he had reversed an earlier, and very firm, decision: He now wanted to be an actor.

His father, Jason Robards Sr., had been a star of the early 20th-century theater and was playing Chicago in his greatest success, "Lightnin'," when young Jason was born there in the summer of 1922. The Robardses' marriage fell apart a few years afterward and, uncommonly for the times, Jason and his brother lived with their father.

Hollywood paid less attention to Broadway before the talkies came in, and it was only when he performed in Los Angeles that the father was "discovered" by the studios. The family settled in California, and Robards Sr. began a fitful, ultimately losing association with the movies. His elder son remembered.

"I didn't want to be an actor as a young guy because at the time I was growing up he was sliding downhill out in L.A.," he says, adding, "He had been a wonderful actor, by the way."

He ponders a moment. "I thought, the guy I loved the most in the world, who was my best friend, was hurting all the time. I didn't want to enter that. So I went into the service."

Robards was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed and, later, at Guadalcanal. He freely offers those facts but little else about his long stretch in the military.

"You make it or you don't," he says. "You can't say anything. You can't say anything. It's like a prison sentence. You say, 'I don't want to talk about that.' "

At one point he was stationed on a ship with a large library. In that library were a number of plays--Shakespeare, Shaw, O'Neill. "And there must have been some osmosis there, the old man must have seeped through, living with him," he allows. "And so I said I want to be an actor."

In those days he was Jason Robards Jr. But his father's eminence was largely forgotten on Broadway, and the name meant little. By the late '40s the older man was known, if at all, as an actor who had been in Hollywood since the silent era but had never quite made it.

When young Jason told him his plans, he was succinct. "It's heartbreak," he said. "It's heartbreak, kid."

Young Robards settled in New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A newlywed, he scraped by financially and joined a troupe that staged children's plays. "Jack and the Beanstalk" was his first.

"I was the stage manager," he remembers. "And I was in the first scene, where they sell the cow. And the guy says to me, the farmer, 'Well, I'm afraid we're going to have to sell you, Bossy.' They didn't trust me with the front end, I think. Didn't think I could act well enough." He pantomimes his entrance, the lumbering first steps of one of the 20th-century theater's great careers.

The road from "Jack and the Beanstalk" to the Kennedy Center Honors is unmarked. But for almost a decade after his debut, Jason Robards Jr. lived the life of most aspiring actors, then and now: occasional work, and a lot of odd jobs to supplement the family purse. The marriage produced three children, and his wife struggled with emotional problems, all of which added to the strain.

By 1956, he remembers, "I was about to give up. Thirty-four, 35, somewhere in there. Children. I did live television, but it wasn't anything to depend on. You'd get a job one week and you wouldn't have one for six."

One day, heading off for a $30 radio job, he learned that the brilliant young director Jose Quintero was planning an off-Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." It was a huge moment: His favorite playwright's reputation was in serious decline, and his plays were very seldom being staged. "I dropped everything," Robards remembers.

After badgering a skeptical Quintero into giving him an audition, Robards landed the part of Hickey, the seductive killer at the center of "Iceman."

The production opened on May 8, 1956, and overnight Quintero and Robards were Names in the Theater. So impressed was O'Neill's widow that she gave the "Iceman" team the rights to "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which had never been produced. Robards took the role of James Tyrone Jr., the alcoholic elder son, and the searing family tragedy opened on Broadway that fall to tremendous acclaim. In the space of six months, Eugene O'Neill was again being referred to as America's greatest playwright, and Jason Robards had made himself a star. He received the first of his eight Tony nominations.

There followed a rangy succession of stage roles perhaps unequaled by any other American actor of the period: a writer based on F. Scott Fitzgerald in "The Disenchanted" (1958), with Jason Sr. prominent in the cast; a charming ne'er-do-well in Lillian Hellman's "Toys in the Attic" (1960); an iconoclastic uncle trying to raise his nephew in "A Thousand Clowns" (1962); a lawyer who comes to feel he's serving his own success in Arthur Miller's autobiographical "After the Fall" (1964), among others.

Hollywood began taking notice in the late '50s, and the actor was--and remains to this day--warily receptive. His earliest movies were undistinguished, but in 1962 Sidney Lumet chose him to repeat his stage role in the film version of "Long Day's Journey." The harrowing picture won raves ("Whatever it is, it's great," wrote Pauline Kael) and the four leads--Robards, Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell--received an ensemble acting award at the Cannes Film Festival.

His first marriage ended in divorce, and there was a second that he says was so brief that he chooses not to talk about it. In 1961 he began a 10-year union with Lauren Bacall, which produced a son, Sam, now an actor himself. It was a famous mismatch, although the two speak fondly of each other today.

In 1965 he scored a hit with a popular movie adaptation of "A Thousand Clowns." Since then he's made numerous film and TV appearances, winning Oscars for "All the President's Men" and "Julia" and an Emmy for "Inherit the Wind." His other big-screen titles include "Melvin and Howard," "Philadelphia" and "A Thousand Acres."

Clearly, he's done distinguished work before the cameras.

"Some," he says quickly. "Not much."

He's made more than 60 movies, but still can't quite warm to the medium. "Because you know why, you're not dealing with the audience like you are on the stage. Where you feel a sense of accomplishment as an interpreter of the playwright. That's the basis of everything."

He's a connoisseur of playwrights and during the last three decades has frequently revived works by the majors: Clifford Odets's "The Country Girl" (1972), with Maureen Stapleton; O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," with Colleen Dewhurst, a major success in 1973; O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet" (1977); Kaufman and Hart's "You Can't Take It With You" (1983); and an acclaimed second go-round with "Iceman" (1985).

Robards remains in considerable demand. His most recent stage excursion was "Molly Sweeney" three years ago, but he's been on-screen regularly in the meantime. His latest movie is "Magnolia," in the role of Tom Cruise's dying father, which will open in Washington next month. It was filmed during his recent illness, and he was on oxygen when he played the part. And he's signed to appear next year in "The Sisters," a film adaptation of "The Three Sisters."

All of which pales, at least in the telling, next to "Ten Unknowns," a new play by Jon Robin Baitz that's scheduled to open next fall at Lincoln Center. Robards is to portray a gifted but obscure painter who has disappeared into Mexico, and his excitement is evident.

But then the man is a creature of the stage.

"That's what it is," he says. "That's why I'm here." He gestures vaguely in the direction of Times Square. "Right over there, that's where it is. Yeah. Right there."

Robards's character in "The Disenchanted" commits suicide, leaving a note that says, "A second chance--that was our delusion. A first chance--that's all we have." The lines have the stab of truth. Perhaps to his own amazement, they have not proved true for Jason Robards.

For a long time it appeared that he wasn't just O'Neill's greatest interpreter but a living, hurting, self-ruining character who could have been created by him.

From the start of his career, Robards had a particular affinity for characters who didn't like themselves--his tormented James Tyrone in both "Long Day's Journey" and "Moon for the Misbegotten" prominent among them.

"Yes, it's true," he says. "I don't know what that was. Psychiatrically, it's probably a lot of reasons. My childhood, my mother. . . . The odd thing was, when I grew up, for my father . . . to have custody of the children. He was the one. No matter what he did or how he--to hurt himself or whatever--he was the constant.

"It was almost as if what happened in 'Long Day's Journey'--the mother absent. . . . So it hit me that I knew that. I don't know why. I mean, I didn't examine it. The words and the situations brought out a great longing I always had for--for my mother."

Robards's mother visited from time to time after the divorce, and she lived to be 97, dying just three years ago. But for the young Jason, something had been lost that couldn't be replaced. As he recalls this early deprivation, searching for words, he begins referring to himself in the second person.

"In a strange way, when the person you love the most--your mother's very--you're a young kid and she's gone--my brother too suffered under it--he was younger, a little guy, and . . ."

A quick intake of breath: "So, that must be in there, if you see what I'm trying to say. That I, especially in 'Long Day's Journey,' was longing for her in some sense."

Almost 20 years later, in "Moon," he played the same character at a later point in life. James Tyrone's mother has died, and he has accompanied her body back east on a train.

"He says something about her, he says--when he looked in the coffin . . . 'It was like someone I loved that I remember meeting long ago.' Very sad. I don't know if that's the exact line. But you know, when I was doing the rehearsals, I don't know what happened--I'd just say this line and I'd burst into tears. Just that line. And Jose'd say, 'You can't cry there. Wait, save it--somewhere else.' " He laughs, suddenly amused, or perhaps just trying to lighten the mood. "And it had much more impact without hamming it up."

There is a brief pause. "You know, you blame yourself for these things, when your parent goes. It's a, it's a death. You know." He looks up. "I should be a hell of a one to talk, because--well, my kids thank God are [all right]."

There was a time, and not a short one, when Robards felt less reason to be thankful. "When I came out of the Navy," he says of his seven-year stint, "I was a 17-year-old boy. I went in at 17, came out at 17. You have no life. You have no exchange. First girl you kiss you marry." He laughs. "Kiss, I'm talking about. . . . And how does one 17-year-old boy handle it? I mean, I was 24, but it was an unbelievable. . . . That was the hardest, toughest time. Two kids, and my wife got ill. . . . She came back and forth, back and forth, and I had no idea what the hell was going on. And it got worse."

Again with the second person: "You realize you don't know anything and you can't help anybody and you're going all the wrong ways."

So he drank. "You use alcohol not to have a good time but to say, 'I don't want to deal with that,' " he says. "Instead of having a few drinks and being convivial, singing a few songs. I would do that, but the real reason was to say, 'No, I don't want to face these problems.' And once I faced the problems, I didn't have any problems."

It sounds simple in the retelling, and indeed Robards insists it wasn't difficult to stop drinking, which he did after a near-fatal 1972 car crash. After so many years, there's humor in the memories of boozing.

"I'd get sick and throw up," he says. "I couldn't take quantity. O'Toole and those guys could drink. Unbelievable! I'd have about five drinks and"--he pantomimes a falling-down drunk--"they'd say, 'This guy's a pansy--get him home!' "

Then he repeats the most important part: "Finally, I quit avoiding things I had to face, and it was very easy to stop."

The subject is prizes. And for the first time, Jason Robards appears impatient.

"There's too much self-congratulatory--I hate all this stuff," he says. "I don't like award dinners. If they want to give me something, they can mail it to me."

He has received a lot of prizes. In a study on the main floor a number of them are clustered on shelf tops and across the mantel. It's a fairly dazzling array: the Emmy, the Tony, a pretty crystal job from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. On either end of the mantel, like sentries, stand the two Oscars.

All this hardware, the health scare, and now the Kennedy Center Honors. There will be a salute at the Opera House tonight that, if Robards is lucky, will amount to an idealized first draft of his legacy.

Which will take many forms. Robards and Lois have two children together: Their daughter, Shannon, is a newlywed who works as a film editor. Their son, Jake, recently graduated from Georgetown with a degree in government and a minor in French, ready to begin a new kind of Robards career.

And then it happened: The family bloodline reasserted itself, and one more young Robards was writing a long letter to his parents to tell them that he just had to be an actor. Reading Jake's words, Jason Robards couldn't help but remember the day more than 50 years ago when he told the same thing to his own father. Nor will he ever forget the old man's bleakly tender allusion to the pain that awaited him. But then, his own story has turned out differently from his dad's.

Jake was awaiting a response. And here he was, setting himself up for a lifetime of uncertainty and rejection and disappointment.

Even successful actors endure all that, and of course a lot of actors aren't successful. It doesn't always work out. What's a father supposed to say?

"I could only encourage him," Robards reports, smiling. "My dad told me when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, 'It's heartbreak.' "

He pauses for just a second, and the smile broadens. "But I didn't tell that to Jake."

After all, sometimes it works out just fine.