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In the Judge's Chambers: A Conversation with Fritz Weaver


Fritz Weaver does not limp. His hand isn't cramped into an arthritic claw, either. This may surprise you after seeing Trying, in which Weaver so convincingly embodies 81-year-old Francis Biddle that it becomes one of those performances where an actor is not just portraying a character―he is that character.

As Biddle, who was attorney general during FDR's last term and a judge at the Nuremberg trials, Weaver has to be both crotchety and tender, a fuddy-duddy and a progressive thinker. Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass based Trying on her tenure as Biddle's secretary during the last year of his life. She found Weaver for the role through the agent they shared, though Weaver recalls, "She had in mind a different kind of looking person, because his appearance is not at all like mine." Nonetheless, Weaver looks the part of this Main Line Philadelphian, who was descended from English colonists and educated at Groton and Harvard.

Weaver has played many erudite, patrician types in his career, which began with The White Devil off-Broadway in 1954. He was nominated for a Tony for his 1955 Broadway debut in The Chalk Garden and won in 1970 for Child's Play, Robert Marasco's mystery set in a Catholic boys school. His television guest roles range from Studio One to Frasier, and he's appeared in more than 50 feature and made-for-TV movies. On stage, he's done Ibsen, O'Neill, Miller, Anouilh, Ayckbourn, Lanford Wilson, Lerner & Loewe, even Mel Brooks (the 1962 musical All American), and has been a premier American interpreter of Shakespeare.

And now, at age 78, Weaver is giving "the performance of a lifetime," as the Chicago Sun-Times raved when Trying originated in Chicago earlier this year. Replicating Biddle's physical ailments is only one aspect in his complex portrayal of a complex man. Though Biddle had become a Democrat out of concern for others' suffering during the Depression, he still cherished the mores of the privileged world in which he was raised. In the play, set in 1967-68, he disparages youth, technology, Betty Friedan and other harbingers of change, and groundlessly scolds his 25-year-old secretary, Sarah (played by Kati Brazda). Weaver's Biddle is no unremittent tyrant, though. There is much poignance as he struggles with failing health and memory and loses himself in sorrow over the deaths of his father and young son. And in moments of lucidity, he recites poetry and dictates his memoirs with eloquent conviction, as in the scene where he renounces his approval of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II: "Never again will I trust that mystic cliche, military necessity."

In an interview in his dressing room at the Promenade Theatre, Weaver spoke with BWW about the Biddle role and his half-century journey in theater and film.

How does it feel for the "performance of a lifetime" to come along 50 years into your career?

It's a blessing. I've played a lot of pretty big roles, but most actors when they get to my years are content to play grandpas and stuffy uncles. This is just a perfect thing to be doing at this age because I can use the age.

Do you feel more of an affinity with Judge Biddle than other characters you've portrayed?

Yes, I would have to say that was true. A lot of his qualities sit rather naturally on me, whereas some of the other things I've done it was an effort to make yourself into the other person, to find those areas in your person which are similar. I didn't have to look too hard this time.

How much do you really have in common with Judge Biddle?

It's difficult for me to put it into words because I'm afraid of demystifying it, but I would say there are quite a few [similarities between us]. Testiness, with age. He's very volatile in some ways. My mother is Italian and volatile, so maybe I have a little of the...rages of his. He's, as Joanna said, a "vigilant grammarian." I tend to be that way too; I go around correcting people's split infinitives. He has a powerful legal mind, and I don't have that, but his wife's influence on him brought him into the humanities.

Have you heard from people who really knew Biddle?

Several members of the Biddle family have been here―all ages―and they seem to accept that I was a representative of the family. They were very pleased. One of the nearest relatives to Francis Biddle said to Joanna, "This play is a gift to our grandchildren." They were very happy to have the old man's memory revived.

Did you read a biography of Francis Biddle before doing the show?

Yes, but I didn't have to. Joanna was there, and Sandy Shinner, who's a remarkable director. You can get bogged down in research. That's for scholars. Actors have to take something and flesh it out. You can over-research a role. I did that with Hamlet, actually. I read everything in the variorum. I had 12 different interpretations of each line, and the result was I didn't know which one to choose. You're better to let the play hit you and see what you do with it. Then you can consult other sources.

Many reviews describe Biddle with words like "crusty" and "curmudgeonly." Is that how you think of him?

I think the crustiness is not his real nature. Biddle was a genuinely good public servant, and really was a "traitor to his class" in his care about the poor. I think the crustiness is a function of the loss of his power, his mental power. How many people can be described as curmudgeons when they're young? It seems to go with the age.

The thing is, he comes prepared for defeat. And he finds it, in little things. But he also is trying very hard―as the title says, "trying"―trying to make it work one last time. He flounders, he fails, he's trying all the time. I think that's the countervailing force there.

Some of the people who've written me, they say, "I'm not a political animal. What fascinates me about this man is his fear of getting involved, of hearing any personal relationships." Which is a measure of his insecurity. And also his vulnerability: He's afraid he's going to get sucked into them and he's going to lose focus.

There are some very moving moments in the play. Which is your favorite?

It's like you'd say, "What's your favorite letter in the alphabet?" They're all dear to me. Henry James said that: "What's your favorite wave in the ocean?" It's all of a piece.

Okay, then I'll tell you my favorite moment: Judge Biddle's tearful "Thank you" to Sarah after she mentions in the midst of their bickering that she'd gone to the library and read a biography of him.

He thinks the young would not know who he was. He had hired the older women because he thought they would know who he was. He thought this one wouldn't. It turns out that she knows all about his life. He comes to be very fond of her, very dependent on her, in fact hands it over to her. I think as you get toward the end you get more near his real nature. So I would say maybe [my favorite is] the last scene. But I love all the scenes. It's a progression.

Was it your decision to take your curtain call with Kati, despite your stature and more demanding role?

I thought it should be [together], because it's a relationship kind of a story. We do it together; I couldn't do it without her. There was a murmur or two from the front; they wanted us to take individual bows. But I don't like that anyway in the theater: "Who'd you like best?" I like the European companies, like the Comédie Française, where the company always takes a call together. I was in a play once where the other actor was working twice as hard as I was but I had a more sympathetic part, and every night for a year came forward a storm of applause for me. And I thought, "That's not right. He's doing the work. I'm getting the sympathy."

Politically, what does Judge Biddle's story have to say to America in 2004?

There are two lines that have a sharp reaction: "Any man who goes to his grave without regrets is a man who has failed to comprehend his life" and "military necessity." People in the audience see the connection. I can hear it―gasp!―like this sometimes out there. It was a wonderful ride before the election: They were so certain we were going to win. There was joy in it; now it's mixed. Before the election, the crowd went wild on lines like "I've come to right a wrong; that's why God created Democrats." I've noticed a slight falling-off since the election―a feeling of, well, the Democrats are not going to get a chance to right wrongs. And we're not. Four years, we're not going to have a thing to say about anything, because we've been overridden in all three branches. We can stand up and scream and it won't make the slightest difference because they got the votes. But they're going to screw up. Just give them time. Bob Herbert in the Times called Bush's cabinet "an echo chamber," and this is a marvelous phrase. All he's going to hear is his own voice coming back at him. That's all he's heard anyway really, because he doesn't read papers. But they're going to come a-cropper. This endless war, this terrible deficit... It's better that they should have to clean it up than Kerry.

What other roles of yours have been especially memorable for you?

Child's Play I remember as being personal to me―that character was more like my own father. Also, a play 50 years ago at the old Phoenix Theatre downtown: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. A wonderful character: the "whisky priest," walking that fine line...sin and going to hell... This little girl [the priest's illegitimate daughter] was the reason he was going to go to hell, he had violated his priestly orders. But the little girl had taught him all he knew about love, so there was tension between these two things.

What about all the Shakespeare you've done?

Hamlet, of course, is the most rewarding, but I was too young for it [Weaver played the role at Stratford, Conn., in 1958]. Not too young―I was unprepared for it. I said, "I'm not ready, I'm not ready." John Houseman kept saying, "That's perfect. That's so Hamlet-like: a world I never made." They talked me into it. I'd liked to have done it two or three years later, when I knew more about the physical requirements of it: control, balletic, an athlete's strength. It just takes brute strength, like a champion athlete. I wasn't ready for it. But I loved doing it. I had an interpretation, and I still wake up early in the morning and think about moments in it and I think, "Now I know how to do that." I said this to Olivier once, when I did a TV show with him. He agreed. He said that he was draining a ditch on his farm in England and he was up to his waist in mucky water, and suddenly he knew how to do the scene where he leaped into the grave with Ophelia. "...Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand... This is I, Hamlet the Dane"! He said he suddenly knew that was the first time in the play, probably in Hamlet's life, when he had been that assertive, and he said he thought he was remembering his father at that moment. And he said, "Now I'd love to do it, 'cause I'd Raise the Roof with that." There's just lots of things like that. I was driving a car once and struck a bird. I had to get out and kill it because it was so wounded, and I took such comfort from the fact that "there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow." And the lines stay with you all your life. The television show you did last week is gone, out of your head. But Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Richard II, those lines you know forever. And they're a treasure, because you think of them all the time.

What else do you remember about working with Laurence Olivier?

He's a difficult man. He wanted his way, and he let you know if you weren't picking up the cues fast enough. He was just so powerful, the director was really doing his bidding. The director would say, "Larry feels you should pick up that cue faster..." You went along with it out of sheer admiration for the man and how much you learned from him.

I played with him [in 1961] in a big TV special of a play I did on the stage years earlier, The Power and the Glory. At one point in the rehearsal, having heard that I had done it on the stage and, like all actors, eager to pick up anything he could use, he strolled over to me and said, "I heard you did this part. What sort of thing did you do?" I said, "Well, to me it's about that little Mexican girl." Olivier looked at me and said, "No. Can't use it," and strolled off. He always looked for something external which he could add to himself. I tend to work from the inside out; he worked from the outside in. Olivier did something extravagantly wonderful with the part that I wouldn't have done. When he [the priest] had to leave the country, he made himself into a cross and fell straight forward onto his face. Just a shocking, wonderful, theatrical moment.

Which performances by other actors affected you deeply?

I go back to my teens, even before I thought of being an actor: I can remember the farewell performance of Cyrano de Bergerac by Walter Hampden, which made a huge impression on me. Julie Harris in The Lark...Uta Hagen...their performances always moved me.

You've probably been asked often to teach acting. Why haven't you done it more?

I didn't like it very much. I felt helpless. I sensed their ambition, and I didn't know how to help them. There are certain things you can share, but I don't have a vocation for it. I find acting itself to be so difficult and so challenging, still, that I don't feel ever that I'm ready to impart the truth about the matter, because I don't know what the truth is.

What are the biggest differences between the American theater now and when you were starting out?

When I came to New York, you could walk into an open audition and be cast in the lead. I did that down at the CherryLaneTheatre [1954's Way of the World]. I was freshly arrived in New York, nobody knew me, I didn't have an agent. It was a casting call, I went in and read for it, and "you got it." Now you've got to audition for an agent before. I think it's impossible. I don't know if I would be an actor today. Where do you go? Young actors look to do commercials, and they're proud of that. They list it in their resumes: I did the cheese commercial. The amount of difficulty it is to get recognized: You go to drama schools, you act... I just don't think I would do it. I'd think, This is not for me.

When I made my debut, there were about 50 theaters running in town. And good theaters―Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw. The musical had not yet taken over and become the main product of Broadway. That was a big change, and I regret it. I think television and the movies also moved in. We'll never replace the stage, but it has been pushed to one side in a way. [Television] has reduced the attention span of audiences, and their expectations. The theater isn't what it used to be, and I guess that's the oldest complaint in the world when you get to be my age: It ain't what it used to be.

Photos of Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda in Trying by Joan Marcus. Black-and-white photo of Francis Biddle courtesy of U.S.HolocaustMemorialMuseum and National Archives.

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Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

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