BWW Interview: In His New Memoir, Tony Roberts Asks DO YOU KNOW ME? After 55 Years On Stage and Screen
The final chapter of Tony Roberts' very enjoyable and informative memoir, DO YOU KNOW ME?, begins with a stranger interrupting his quiet afternoon on a Central Park bench to abruptly say, "I've seen you in something, but I can't place it. What have I seen you in?"
This could be a complicated question for an actor who has been in the public eye for the better part of six decades. Maybe she caught one of his twenty-three Broadway appearances. Has she been to a recent screening of ANNIE HALL, or one of the five other Woody Allen movies he's starred in? With the number of channels showing reruns these days there are countless opportunities to watch him at any stage of his career.
Since making his 1962 Broadway debut as a replacement in the boulevard comedy TAKE HER, SHE'S MINE (produced by Harold Prince and directed by George Abbott), Tony Robert's career has been free from scandal and tabloid headlines. He's just been a fine actor doing good work with whatever his current assignment requires.
"I think it's a book that people who want to be actors will be able to learn something from, both in a practical way and in terms of technique," he says. "It's more about an actor's career than it is about my personal life."
Instead of gossip and shocking surprises, he details early acting classes, learning the business end of show business, working with geniuses, keeping it fresh during long runs, doing the occasional piece of schlock and dealing with the challenges of working on stage eight times a week during one's senior years.
Roberts was dating fellow actor and Northwestern classmate Penny Fuller when they both arrived in New York in the early 60s. "We were part of a group of people who held acting classes for ourselves and did scenes for each other just to keep ourselves fresh while we were looking for work."
As it turned out, her big Broadway break wound up leading to his own big break.
"Penny landed the role of Elizabeth Ashley's replacement in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK opposite Robert Redford. It was a big hit and when Redford was to leave for his two week vacation after seven months, his understudy was going to fill in. Penny suggested to Saint Subber, the producer, that her boyfriend at the time, who was me, would be a good understudy to the understudy during that time."
"Saint Subber was alone in the theatre when I auditioned and he asked me to turn on the lights on stage because he couldn't see me clearly. I very innocently went backstage to the light board and pulled a few switches at his command. The lights came on, I did my audition and when it was over I was greeted by three stagehands in the alley who put me up against a wall and said, 'Don't you ever touch a switch on the light board again or you'll be dead!'"
The plot thickened when, just before Redford was about to begin his time off, Roberts went to meet the company at a Thursday afternoon game with the Broadway Show Softball League.
"The guy I was understudying got up at the plate and hit a single, but he tried to stretch it into a double, slid into second base, and then was holding onto his ankle in great pain. His broken ankle was my big break. I played Redford's role for two weeks and when he left the cast sometime later I replaced him."
As one who has been working steadily on Broadway ever since, Roberts has seen many changes in the industry and has strong opinions about American theatre's evolution.
"I was lucky enough to get in on the last years of the Golden Age of Broadway. In that era there was a lot more going on that seemed to have high quality about it and great conviction. That's partly because the producers of that time had their own money and the money of their regular investors in the game. So much of what is produced today is non-profit with a subscription-based audience. Whether a play hits the bullseye or not, it's still going to have a full house of subscribers. And I think, in many ways, that has not been as wonderful for the theatre as when there are economics at stake for everybody involved, because in the long run it gets better. It gets better in rehearsals and previews out of town because there's something at stake financially, and that's what I think made the Broadway Golden Age so golden."
One of those invested producers, the legendary David Merrick, gave Roberts' an enormous career boost by casting him in five leading Broadway roles during the period between 1966 and 1972, in Woody Allen's DON'T DRINK THE WATER, the musical HOW NOW, DOW JONES?, as Jerry Orbach's replacement in PROMISES, PROMISES, Allen's PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM and finally, the musical version of SOME LIKE IT HOT, re-titled SUGAR.
"He was friendly and kind to me but I didn't ever feel like I got to know him. I don't think he let many people know him at all. He was a very shy man who divided his personal life from his business persona. Occasionally he would hang his coat in my dressing room, sit down for a moment and engage me in conversation, but it was usually about his troubles with another show. He showed me a lot of respect and I was very happy that he liked me."
Merrick was known for being actively involved with the creative aspects of his productions and Roberts concurs. "He was involved with the creative aspects of all the productions I did for him. He always had his antenna up and would have a shadow group of creators nobody knew about that he was bankrolling to write alternate scenes or songs. If the reviews weren't so hot in Boston or Philadelphia, he would suddenly have a whole other musical prepared to replace what wasn't working."
"Somebody once said to me, 'Musicals are made on the road.' That's because the producers and the creators would stand in the back of the audience during performances and see where the dull spots were and they would take immediate action to fix it. It was a matter of a work in progress that changed daily and nightly; new songs, new orchestrations, new dances, new cast members until it was a solidly entertaining two and a half hours of theatre. Nowadays you don't do that, or you do it under different circumstances. The promotion has gotten so sophisticated that things that open to dreadful reviews are still selling out for a million dollars of business a week. It used to be that something had to land and make its point before it started selling tickets. Now it sells tickets before it's received. So the quality of the shows being put on today doesn't match the quality of the shows in the 60s."
Roberts' most recent Broadway appearance was in the 2009 revival of Kaufman and Ferber's THE ROYAL FAMILY, less than a year after being hospitalized with a head injury after taking a fall. At age 70, it was the first time in his career he felt uneasy with his ability to remember lines. Then, during a preview performance, he collapsed on stage with a seizure. After a brief hospitalization he returned to the theatre for opening night and, for the first time in his career, began using an earpiece for prompting.
"I used it as a cautionary mode because they asked me to wear it. I don't think it was necessary to use it more than a half a dozen times during the eight week run. There was a guy in the balcony with a script and a microphone who knew my rhythms and if I looked stuck he would pick it up in a millisecond and speak the line into his microphone."
But, as he discovered, using the earpiece changed his performance.
"In real life your thought translates into language and your behavior is in a sense the result of what you hear yourself saying. But when you're acting in a play you know what line you're going to say before you say it; it lodges in your prefrontal cortex and lands, as Julie Andrews used to say, right on your forehead when you need it. Yes, you're listening to the other actors speak to you but there's a little flashing sign that comes up in your mind when it's your line, so you're in a sense already inauthentic to reality. But if you don't know what the next line is, or you don't have to think of it because it's suddenly going to be heard in your ear, there's a veracity to your behavior; a truth to it that's hard to achieve when you're doing it in the usual way."
While some actors have been criticized for using earpieces, Roberts feels much differently.
"It's marvelous that someone who's elderly and still has all their other talents and techniques can still find a way to thrill us or make us laugh because of this invention."
After 55 years in the business, Tony Roberts isn't done thrilling us or making us laugh.
Tony Roberts will be reading from DO YOU KNOW ME?, followed by a book signing, at the Drama Book Shop on Tuesday, December 15 from 5-7pm. Visit dramabookshop.com/event/tony-roberts.