PROFILE: “I AM A NEW YORK ACTOR”
By Eileen Henry
NYC Actor and Former Board Member (’88 to ’93, ’01 to ’05)
With 23 Broadway shows (2 Tony Award nominations), 17 major films, 4 television series, hundreds of voice over and radio commercials and a winner of the London Critics’ Poll Award, Tony Roberts is the quintessential NY actor. Currently starring in “Xanadu” at the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway (no, he doesn’t skate, “I didn’t skate when I was 10 and I’m not starting now!”) he embodies the essence of what it’s like to live and work in New York City.
A native New Yorker and consummate gentleman, I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tony about his long and amazingly diverse career, as well as his service in both Actors Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild
Eileen Henry: When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
Tony Roberts: My dad, Ken Roberts, was an announcer for many of the popular radio programs in the 1940s. He would take me to studios when I was young where I was exposed to actors pretending to be other people. This was live radio! One minute they were real people and the next, the show would go on the air and they would go to work. Their bodies would contract and contort. Different voices would come out of their mouths. It was like being in a psych ward! I didn’t want to do anything else.
EH: When was your first job?
TR: At 12 I was cast in a role as part of a fund raiser at the old Madison Square Garden. It was a play based on a story from the bible. There were no microphones on the main floor. The actors would move their mouths, while other actors, high up in the bleachers would read the lines into a microphone. I had one line, “But King Antiochus, if I pick up the ring it will seem as if I am bowing to you.” I got a check for $25.00. It was just great!
EH: Are you a member of all three performers union?
TR: Yes. AEA – AFTRA – SAG. Joined them in that order.
EH: How did you get your first union card?
TR: I did my 1st Broadway show out of college. It was “Something About a Soldier” at the Ambassador Theater and it closed in 2 weeks. We were on the road before opening on Broadway which was a chance to see how pros worked together. At opening night at Sardi’s Sam Wanamaker said to me, “This is the best thing that could happen to you kid. Everyone should begin a career with a whole string of flops.” He was right! The benefit is that you constantly meet new people, working with different directors and actors so you learn more and grow. If you are in a hit, you have a different experience.
EH: How did you land the role as Robert Redford’s replacement in Neil Simon’s, “Barefoot in the Park”?
TR: I replaced Redford when I was 24 and had 4 Broadway plays under my belt. It was a breakout role for me. I got the part because the person who was understudying Redford and was supposed to take over for him broke his ankle sliding into 2nd base during a Broadway League softball game. His big break was my big break!
EH: So then how did you next get your AFTRA card?
TR: While acting on Broadway at night, I played the role of Lee Pollack on Edge of Night during the day. It was live TV, so it went on around 3:30 in the afternoon and was finished in an hour so that I could make it to the theatre in time.
EH: Live TV? Tell me what that was like…I can’t imagine!
TR: It was great fun because it had all the elements of anticipation and suspense that you would find in a theater. We would start piling in around 9AM trying to learn lines for that day’s show. There were Teleprompters next to cameras, but the trick was to avoid looking at them when the red light went on. Nerves in the common room starting about 2PM and created a tension that continued to build. You knew if something went wrong, you had to figure out how to keep going. It was exciting!
EH: Other than the obvious, what’s the difference between live TV and recorded TV?
TR: Recording provides a safety net. It’s why I like theater - you have to adjust in the moment, you can’t go back and do it again. It seemed like a closer connection when it was live and not something that had been edited or otherwise crafted after the fact. All shows lost something when they went to tape.
EH: You are so well known for your work with Woody Allen. Is that how you got your SAG card?
TR: No. My first movie was “Million Dollar Duck” for Disney; I got to play a scheming lawyer. My first scene was disastrous! I had to convince a duck to lay an egg by barking at it like a dog. I was on my hands and knees on a duck farm near Los Angeles on a 100 degree day, barking like a dog at 75-100 ducks. The smell is something I can still remember.
EH: Fortunately, you moved from the duck farm to Woody Allen. Tell me about that collaboration with Woody Allen?
TR: I first met Woody when he cast me as the lead in his first play on Broadway in 1966. I had to audition about half a dozen times. David Merick wanted me for the role but Woody wasn’t convinced that I should be cast. He finally saw me in “Barefoot” and came into my dressing room afterwards. He asked why I had such a bad audition. I had no answer! Even though he cast me, it took a very long time to form a deep friendship because he’s very shy. We didn’t begin to socialize until 3 years later when we were both in “Play It Again, Sam” on Broadway. It was a bonding experience because we were on the same side of the lights. He wasn’t as familiar at stage acting as I was but I was in awe of his imagination and abilities as a writer. This somehow or other equalized us and let us become more trusting of each other. We did play for almost a year and worked again when he cast me in the film version of “Play It Again, Sam”
EH: Of the 6 films you did with Woody Allen, which was your favorite?
TR: That would have to be “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”. It was my favorite, because my part had the most “depth”. It was a kind of a character that had a chance to bind some deeper feelings.
EH: How was “Serpico” different?
TR: Sydney Lumet wasn’t looking for laughs. Pacino was an intense actor so this required a different focus because the material was quite fiery. The best direction I ever got was from Lumet who said after a take, “I want you to do exactly the same thing you did, don’t change anything, but don’t show it to me.” It’s the essence of the difference between film and stage acting.
EH: How have you been able to sustain such a great career in NY without living in Hollywood?
TR: David Merrick made the decision for me! I worked in 5 Broadway shows back to back in New York. I wasn’t in need of having to go out to Los Angeles to do TV or movies since I achieved success here. I did the occasional pilot, so I would go, do my job and then come home. I rented a house when I was in a series that required 5 -6 months work. I was afraid of putting down roots in LA. My father always advised me that it would be “better if they came and found me” and that there was a certain cache of saying “no”. He felt that the way you get ahead was by creating a false mystique of being in demand by saying “no”.
EH: Your father, Ken Roberts, was a founding member of AFTRA. Was it his influence that led to your eventual union involvement?
TR: Sure. My father instilled in us that the union was the most important institution you could devote yourself to. It was a way of connecting to and giving back to your community and certainly a way of getting justice in an incredibly unjust business.
EH: How did you start your involvement volunteering with Unions?
TR: I was recruited for the Board of Equity by Theo Bickell. While I thought it was an obligation to do it, I was also aggravated by a union rule while in rehearsal for “How Now Dow Jones”. It used to drive me crazy that the union demanded there be a pause every 50 minutes to give a 10 minute break. It was annoying that once things were cooking creatively we had to stop because of a union rule. I understand it now - but it seemed counter productive to the whole purpose of why we were there.
EH: How did you go from the Equity board to the SAG Board?
TR: I was recruited by former NY SAG President, Paul Hecht. I was inspired by their activism and I agreed to be on their slate. Both experiences afforded me a tremendous education to learn that the union was really made up of different constituencies and I always likened it to a small nation in the sense that there had to be discussions and compromises, with people who didn’t agree with you, though some who did. I gained tremendous respect for the process of governance. It was a great privilege to be to be involved. This is a rotten business. It’s cruel, it’s mean and it doesn’t promise you or give you anything. You have to know going in nothing is guaranteed and that you are going to be fighting enormous odds and that your union is your best friend. You can’t hold the union responsible for your hardship. The best people I’ve ever been among in all ways were the people who served on the boards of these unions.
EH: What is the one thing you are really good at that people would be surprised to know?
TR: (Belly laugh) I think I’m good at helping inspiring people just coming into the business…to take acting seriously as a craft…I’ve substituted for Geo DiCenzo in his acting class as a teacher…I think I can provide open minds with good adjustments when it comes how to approach an acting problem. There’s a certain accessibility with people starting out that might not have with seasoned professionals.
EH: sounds like you might want to try our hand at directing?
TR: I only directed once in professional Theater: Charles Grodin’s “One of the All-Time Greats" at the Vineyard. I enjoyed the experience and the whole production was rewarded with good reviews. I’ve never pursued directing as I was more motivated in being an actor.
EH: Lucky for us, Tony. Lucky for us!