By Isa Goldberg
If you haven’t heard, there’s a lot of clamor around the Cavendishes and it’s all self-created. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s valentine to the theater, “The Royal Family”, takes off like a madcap evening with the Marx Brothers. The 1927 satire in revival at The Manhattan Theatre Club flaunts a lineup of theatrical royalty the likes of Rosemary Harris, John Glover, Jan Maxwell, Ana Gasteyer, Larry Pine, Reg Rogers and David Greenspan.
Before the matinee on Wednesday we caught up with Tony Roberts, a longtime favorite of New York’s theatrical clan. Here he plays the Cavendish family’s producer.
I used to run into you at the A&P in East Hampton and I’d smile and say hello. You’d say hello and smile back. Of course you were familiar to me as Woody Allen’s best friend. Were the characters you played in those movies just you, or were they a role you played so believably?
Woody cast me and had me in mind I’m sure when he wrote the character. That’s the way it worked with those films.
When I first met him I was acting in a Broadway play he wrote, “Don’t Drink the Water” which ran for a year. I played a bumbling Ambassador’s son who gets into an international incident while his father is on vacation. In that case I did audition for the role. After that I think he sort of knew the quality I had and it fit his purpose.
But as for how I played the roles in his films…it didn’t seem to be such a big stretch for me to portray his friend. I was more or less playing the fabric of our relationship as it existed.
And that I imagine was the same with the other actors and characters — Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton…
I think that’s true. He understands the equation between the affection and the teasing. And it wasn’t rocket science to figure out who they were and how they related to one another. He just made up good stories and clever lines and let it go.
In Woody Allen’s films you play the WASP to Allen’s Jewish neurotic. In “The Royal Family” you play the Jew in a nest of WASPs. How did you convert?
Well, I must say right off the bat I never for as much as a second considered myself a Jew or a WASP in the Woody Allen movies…if there is such a thing. It never entered my mind and we never discussed it.
In “The Royal Family”, it’s also similar to me. I’ve often thought, is Oscar Wolfe a Jew? I’m serious. And I don’t know whether he is or not.
I guess the cards would favor that he’s Jewish to contrast with the ethnic origin of the Cavendishes. But it was never something that I questioned or lingered on. I presume that he was probably born elsewhere and came to the United States as a young man and learned English in kind of a broken manner. It’s not emphasized terribly, but it’s hard not to think that English was his second language.
So as an actor, did you construct this history or backstory for the character?
It’s not anything that was written; it’s an intuition. Oscar Wolfe does sound a little Jewish. And his vernacular is familiar to an immigrant identify.
Did you see the 1975 production of “The Royal Family” in which Sam Levene played Oscar Wolfe?
I was a great fan of his and I did see his work in “The Royal Family”. I also worked with Sam Levene on Broadway in a play in 1963.
Did his portrayal of Oscar serve as an inspiration for you?
Yes, I think it did. I think I had a better chance, as every actor does, having seen a part portrayed by somebody at some point. I don’t remember anything specifically that he did when he played Oscar Wolfe, but there is an impression somewhere in my head of him playing that role and I think that contributed to some extent to my demeanor.
Like the role of the best friend in “Annie Hall” and other movies you’re known for, Oscar Wolfe in “The Royal Family” has an air of familiarity. Was there anything or anyone specifically that you were drawing on in creating the character?
I worked for David Merrick for many years. I was in five plays plays and musicals that he produced when I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. David had a similar kind of command and sense of style and a presumption of himself as a man of class. So I may be carrying a little bit of David Merrick around with me in this performance.
Back to “The Royal Family”, how were you able to get these self-involved characters, all with inflated egos, to listen to you?
Well, they have entrusted Oscar. He was adopted, so to speak, by Fanny (Rosemary Harris) who was already established at that time and who took Oscar into her employ when he was a young man starting out. That trust that she placed in him at the very beginning of their relationship goes back 50 years. That’s a long time. And obviously Oscar benefited her and her family in many ways that a company manger or a producer can. He took care of them and that’s how I see that relationship evolving.
Like most actors I’ve known, myself included, they are indebted to somebody who can give them a perspective on reality that their own egos sometimes can’t see. Their own egos become over inflated or underrated by themselves.
The play is loosely based on the lives of John and Ethel Barrymore. To what extent if any have you had a personal connection to any of the famous Barrymores?
I’ve never met them. My father was a huge fan of John Barrymore’s and he had met him.
Did he fill you with impressions of him?
He could do a pretty good imitation of him and he looked a little like him. Because I always thought my father looked like Errol Flynn and Errol Flynn didn’t look that far afield from John Barrymore — at least in terms of his persona and his flair and his sense of the drama. But no, beyond that I don’t have any connection to them.
How has your own background growing up in a theatrical family influenced your role in “The Royal Family”?
Well, my father was an announcer, a radio announcer and during the big days of radio which were 1932-1959 he was a star. I accompanied him to the studios very frequently and I grew up watching actors act in front of microphones. So I fell in love with the whole aura of acting and actors. It was great fun to watch grown people dressed like businessmen and women act out their imaginations in front of a microphone holding a script. It was dazzling. I wanted to do it.