Playing Judge Francis Biddle, based upon the real-life historical figure—yet one whose vocal and physical style is virtually unknown—is liberating on two fronts. So asserts veteran actor Fritz Weaver, who plays the prominent blueblood lawyer in "Trying," a two-hander that opened Off-Broadway at the Promenade Theatre on Wed., Oct. 13.
To begin with, short of suggesting someone from the upper classes, "I really didn't have to worry about what Biddle looked or sounded like," says Weaver. "I never heard Biddle speak and the film clips I saw of him suggested a businessman, which was not particularly helpful. Secondly," continues the patrician 70-something Pittsburgh native, who meets me in an Upper West Side eatery near the theatre, "I don't have to worry about being authentic because everything in the play is true." Biddle served as U.S. attorney general during Franklin Roosevelt's administration and later as a judge at the Nuremberg trials.
"Trying," an autobiographical memory play by Joanna McClelland Glass, is set in 1968 and recounts the evolving relationship between Sarah (Kati Brazda), a feisty young secretary, and her boss, the curmudgeonly octogenarian judge whose sensibility and values are firmly rooted in the Victorian era while his politics are decades ahead of his time. Sarah is there to help put his affairs in order in the final months of his life. It is a love story, of sorts.
Weaver notes that Biddle is, for the most part, a character he can relate to, although it presents no shortage of acting challenges, not least the number of serious ailments with which Judge Biddle was afflicted.
"He walked with a metal pin in his ankle, which meant his foot dragged. He had a crippling and painful arthritic condition. He also had stabbing intestinal problems. He probably had stomach cancer, although it was never diagnosed. He suffered from memory loss. With any of these conditions, you have to go gingerly because it's difficult for an audience to watch. And I didn't want to create a self-pitying character. Judge Biddle was not self-pitying.
"I want audiences to see Judge Biddle as a basically decent man in the grip of old age, a man dealing with his losses over a lifetime: the loss of his son and the father he never knew," Weaver stresses. "Still, it is hard for me to understand a man who is so uncomforted by anything. It's hard to believe that he could reach his old age without any sense of serenity. He is remarkably bright, so it's surprising that he didn't have a philosophy. I'm not talking about religion. I think he was an atheist. I also would have liked him to feel guiltier than he did about the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. He was ashamed, but not enough."
Weaver believes that a character like Biddle, who grew increasingly liberal and distrustful of the military, should have special resonance for a contemporary audience. He surely does for Weaver, a Quaker and conscientious objector who did not serve during World War II: "I don't have any regrets about my position, but I now believe if ever there was a just war, that was it."
The knowledgeable and highly literate Weaver—who admits "the science section is the first thing I turn to in the paper"—made his New York acting debut 50 years ago Off-Broadway in the Phoenix Theatre's production of John Webster's "The White Devil," a performance that won him the Clarence Derwent Award. For his Broadway debut, in Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden," he received a Theatre World Award and was nominated for a Tony Award. He won the Tony for his performance in "Child's Play" in 1970.
In addition to a very long list of Broadway appearances, Weaver has performed in regional theatres nationwide and has had guest spots on such TV shows as "The X Files," "Frasier," and "Murder, She Wrote" and appeared in a host of TV movies. Film credits include "Fail-Safe," "Marathon Man," "Black Sunday," and "The Thomas Crown Affair."
Walking the Appalachian Trail
The son of a social worker cum amateur economist (with left-leaning politics), Weaver's early ambition was to be a political-science writer. Later, he toyed with the idea of playwriting. At the University of Chicago, however, his goals took yet another (albeit related) turn. It was there that he began performing in plays, alongside such fellow thespians as Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and the soon-to-be-well-known writer Susan Sontag. Surprisingly enough, she was an especially good actress, he says, citing her performances in "Antigone" and "Murder in the Cathedral," two plays in which Weaver also appeared.
Following graduation, Weaver came to New York, endured the standard auditioning merry-go-round, spent two years at Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., returned to New York, and joined Norris Houghton and T. Edward Hambleton's Phoenix Theatre. His formal acting training was limited to classes taught by legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen, with whom he studied periodically over a number of years.
Looking back, Weaver observes that launching a career was much easier when he was starting out: "I arrived in New York after World War II and there were new plays, new roles, and open auditions where an unknown actor could get cast in the lead. Now you need an agent to get into almost anything and you need an agent to get an agent." Weaver is only half kidding.
"My son Tony, who is a very talented actor, sat at the phone for one year, waiting for it to ring with an acting job offer," Weaver continues. "Finally he said, 'This is ridiculous,' and went back to his first love: mathematics. He is now a professor of math at CCNY."
Weaver is not entirely sure he'd be acting today either if he were a young man. He feels the need to act is engrained in the psyche, regardless of era; nonetheless, the contemporary culture of commercialism is alien to Weaver.
"I wouldn't do a commercial for the longest time," Weaver recalls. "I found them demeaning. I know that's not the feeling today and they are lucrative. Still, it's startling to me to hear actors bragging about their commercial credits and even listing them in their resumes."
Weaver insists he never had any desire to do a TV series, the exorbitant sums of money notwithstanding: "I never wanted to sign a five-year contract. I had a couple of offers when I was hot and it could have made me 'rich beyond the dreams of avarice,' to quote Sam Johnson. But I didn't want to commit myself to any one project for that amount of time."
At this point in the game, there are no roles he is dying to play, Weaver notes: "I don't have any crazy ambitions." On the subject of the aging actor, Weaver quotes Ralph Richardson: "Actors never retire. They simply act fewer and fewer parts, until they stop getting offered and then they're retired." Weaver adds, "I think you have to know when to stop. It's not that you're weak, but 'all passion spent.' " He is citing the title of a novel by Vita Sackville-West that is also referred to in "Trying." Weaver continues, "The early fire in the belly is quieted down by overuse."
That said, Weaver is hopeful that "Trying" runs a long time. After that, who knows? Another juicy role would be great. But Weaver has other interests: "One of the things I'd like to do is walk the Appalachian Trail."