"Andy was always very encouraging, positive,
energetic and full of new ideas," says Jack Klugman, whom Robinson
directed in a 1998 "Death of a Salesman' at the Falcon Theatre. "He's
very good with actors. What I hope for mostly is that a director stays
out of my way. After you've been acting .for so long, you're ahead of
them, but he was always helpful. There're maybe five directors I've
really enjoyed working with. I'd work for him again in a New York
minute, if we had the right play."
Leight's "Side Man," which won a 1999 Tony Award for
best play, is a free-flowing portrait of the effect that one jazzman's
obsessive devotion to music has on his family life.
"'Side Man' is about these musicians who, in their
early days, they're just playing their music, and they can live on no
money," says Robinson. "When they're playing their music, as Warren
Leight describes it, they're oblivious. They've given themselves up to
the music. The scene is exciting; it's great. And then they have
families, and everything changes. They have to live in the real world,
which is a world of streets and junk and booze and bills and rent and
"The play, for me, is about reconciling your art,
your dreams, the stuff of your imagination, with the reality of life,"
Robinson continues. At the heart of "Side Man" are two themes that
resonate particularly strongly with Robinson. One is his lifelong love
of jazz. "When I was a kid, I remember first hearing it," he recalls.
"I'm this white kid from New England, and somehow I understood every
moment, not so much the words but the feeling that was coming out."
Then too, the plight of the play's wife and mother,
Terry (played by Winningham), also strikes a familiar chord "The mother
in this, she's deeply disturbed, and circumstances conspire, so her
mental state deteriorates, and then she starts drinking, and the more
she drinks, the worse it gets," says Robinson. "That's basically what
happened to my mother.
"Like the young man in this play, Clifford, for
several years I was her caretaker—not as long as Clifford was in the
play, but long enough to know that territory very well—pouring bottles
of booze down the sink or biding them, kicking drunken boyfriends out of
It was a harsh life that Robinson remembers perhaps
too well. Born and raised to New York City, he was 3 when his father was
killed in World War II. He and his mother moved back to where her family
was from, just outside of Hartford, Conn., only to see her fall apart.
"She just kind of broke down and started drinking heavily," says
Robinson. "It wasn't a nervous breakdown, but there was nobody to help
her. She didn't want anybody helping her."
Robinson was removed from his mother's care when he
was 10 and sent to school in Rhode Island, where he stayed for the next
eight years, a period he recalls as a welcome respite. In due time, he
graduated with an English degree from the New School for Social Research
in New York.
Initially, he thought he'd become a teacher, but his
career took an important turn when a professor persuaded him to pursue
acting and apply for a Fulbright scholarship.
The process proved aptly dramatic, "It was during a
huge snowstorm in the winter of '63-'64, when I went up to audition for
my Fulbright," Robinson recalls. "The storm was so bad that a lot of
people didn't show up, including judges. When I got there, Joe Papp was
the only judge who was there, and he's asking me, 'Why do you want to be
an actor?' I'll never forget, I said, 'Well, I don't know what else to
do with my life'—really smart answers like that. Then I got up and I did
a couple of monologues for him—the monologues that you pick, when you're
a kid—from 'Henry IV,' and 'Threepenny Opera'— and that was that. I got
the Fulbright, and I know it was largely because of him."
Robinson spent his Fulbright year at the London
Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Upon returning to the States,
Robinson spent the next several years honing his craft in regional
theaters. In 1966, he landed a breakthrough role, taking over for
William Devane in the off-Broadway hit "MacBird!," starring Stacy Keach.
Other off-Broadway shows followed, as did assignments at Lincoln Center
and Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival.
In a more experimental vein, Robinson was one of the
co-founders of the LaMama Plexus Troupe, which became the resident
company and teaching group at LaMama and toured extensively for several
years in the late '60s.
Indeed, Robinson was happily ensconced in the heyday
of the off-Broadway scene. Until, that is, Clint Eastwood came along and
made his day. "These weird things happen in your life: like Clint
Eastwood comes to this small theater at the Shakespeare Festival and
sees me in this play." And so it came to pass that Robinson landed the
role of the Scorpio Killer in the original "Dirty Harry," a role that
would mark him indelibly for years to come.
"I did this crazy guy well, and this is the kind of
crazy guy that nobody'd ever seen before, and essentially that was my
badge," says Robinson. "I got nailed with the psychotic tag, and I
started turning down a lot of work doing that kind of guy again."
Initially, Robinson didn't take to LA. "I was in
mourning for several years for those New York days, which were gone
forever, because the scene was gone." But moving back to New York didn't
solve the situation either.
In New York again, Robinson spent several years
working on the soap opera "Ryan's Hope." Returning to the theater proved
problematic. "The momentum that I had as a stage actor in New York,
I lost that, and I got into a fight with Joe Papp, who was kind of my
sponsor, because he never wanted me to do 'Dirty Harry.'"
Once again, Robinson—who was by this time married and
had a young daughter—moved back to California. "I hung in here for a few
more years and still had a hard time," he recalls. "I was doing
occasional TV episodes and TV movies for the most part, but very few
films, which is what I wanted to do. Then I was doing this show, "The
A-Team,' and I was doing a role that I hated, and something snapped."
Abruptly, Robinson decided to drop out. "In the middle
of it, we just packed up, sold the house, left L.A. and moved to Idyllwild
for four or five years," he says. "I just quit the business. USC had an
art school up there, and my wife, Irene, and I started administering and
teaching a couple of programs, the children's center and also the
teenage drama program."
Eventually, the stage hired him back to L.A.,
Specifically, it was the lead in "In the Belly of the Beast," based on the writings of murderer lack Henry
Abbott, adapted by Adrian Hall and further adapted and directed by Robert
Woodruff. The production began at the Taper, Too at the John Anson
Ford theater and moved to the Taper main stage in the 1984-85 season. It then traveled to the Sydney Arts Festival in Australia and to New
York. "Essentially, it revived me," says Robinson. "I found a new life, and
I also began to make my peace with L.A."
As he had in the '60s, Robinson found himself
looking for an artistic home, finding the solution in becoming part of a
new troupe. In 1992, he was one of a group of actors, many of
them established in the industry, who were gathered together by
producer Joe Stem to form the Matrix Theatre Company.
With that company, he acted in such works as "The
Tavern," "Habeas Corpus" and the one-man play "Memoirs of Jesus." But Robinson also decided
to branch out, as he had in his earlier LaMama days, and
try other jobs in the theater. With Stem's support, he directed
"You don't expect people to show up in June in Los Angeles to see dense
Beckett, but people did, and it was a thrilling experience,"
Robinson says. Robinson went on to direct a number of other Matrix
shows, including "Yield of the Long Bond," "The Homecoming," "Dangerous Corner" and "Waiting for Godot." "Joe is
the one that really supported the directing thing," he says.
"He got behind me a thousand percent as a director, and he, more
than anyone else, is responsible for me having a directing career." While his directing career was beginning to take shape, Robinson "paid the bills" with a recurring role as Garak the tailor on the
television series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" from 1992 to
'99. He has also directed episodes of that show, as well as of "Star
Trek Voyager" and, more recently, "Judging Amy."
In 1998, Robinson ventured outside the Matrix for the
first time as a stage director with "Death of a Salesman," starring
Klugman. "It was great working with a guy who's a star but who's a human
being. He gave his heart to it," Robinson says.
Klugman returns the praise. "It was my favorite play,
and I'd wanted to do it for several years," says the actor, "I knew most
of it going in, but there were places where Andy would pull me out more.
It's such a dramatic piece, you've got to really let go, and he
encouraged new things. But if you went too far, he'd stop you."
Only after that production did Robinson feel his
directing career was launched. "Moving to the Falcon for 'Death of a
Salesman,' and then to the Pasadena Playhouse for 'Visiting Mr. Green,'
that's when it started becoming a career," says Robinson, referring to
his Pasadena debut in 1999. Last year, he directed "The Glass Menagerie"
at Pasadena and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at South Coast Repertory.
Robinson's current assignment calls for him to guide
his cast through a process of self-examination, enabling them to
make personal connections with the material, connections he regards as
essential "It's basically up to the actors," he says. The first
thing we talked about was, what about you? How have you reconciled being
an actor, which is one ;. of the most unstable things on Earth
you can do, with your family lives? None of us are
musicians, so we don't know about being a jazz musician, but we know
about being actors in this society."
Ultimately, translating those emotional truths into
performance is what Robinson feels acting—and directing—are all about.
"The obstacles to be removed are all about fear, and I know about this,"
he says. "In 'In the Belly of the Beast,' I was playing this guy who's a
murderer. I've never killed, anybody, but what in me exists that can
relate to that life? It's A very scary thing to really get in
there and investigate your rage. That's an extreme example, but it's
the same thing with any good play. It's about finding that connection.
It's what the great actors do. It's what great theater does."