Robert Foxworth: At Peace in Other Desert Cities

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Robin Weigert, Robert Foxworth and Michael Weston in "Other Desert Cities." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Robert Foxworth may play a Reaganesque actor-turned-politician in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, but it’s far from being a case of art imitating life. The seasoned Broadway and television star once financed his own radio show in the mid-’80s to counter the Gipper’s Teflon-coated media campaign.

“I was so frustrated watching the demeaning and diminishment of language by the Reagan administration,” says Foxworth during a mid-week lunch break from rehearsals. “They found a way to gut the language of meaning so that black was white, up was down, right was left and left was right. I mean it was an amazing piece of propaganda they were able to pull off.  I got so frustrated about it, I started a radio show.”

Robert Foxworth. Photo by Tom Munnecke.

Financed, produced and hosted by Foxworth, American Dialogues ran from 1985-91 and featured a spectrum of guests ranging from the artistic to the political. He estimated that the weekly 30-minute interview show was carried by between 100-200 stations. Friends at the time thought he was crazy, though it would prefigure future progressive radio networks like Air America, which coincidentally lasted the same length of time.

“I found out I could get an hour of satellite time for $50 and thought, “˜Hey, are you kidding?’’’ he remembers. “So I bought a little tape recorder and started going around interviewing people and talking about the issues. Trying to get around the edges of the Reagan administration’s blockade on intelligent thought and intelligent talk. I ended up actually building a studio in the apartment above my garage. Of course what started out being cheap and easy, ended up neither cheap nor easy. But it was really exciting to do. I felt like I got a degree in international relations or political science. I met all kinds of people that I never would have met otherwise.”

Foxworth covered topics such as US policies toward Central America during the Iran-Contra affair, the death of family farms and the rise of corporate power/takeovers. But by 1991 he had begun to burn out and wanted to return to acting full-time.

“It wore me out finally,” he admits. “The whole world of politics I had found very sleazy and very hard to deal with. I mean sometimes one hears how sleazy Hollywood is, but it doesn’t compare to the political world.”

The Road to Palm Springs Via San Diego

Other Desert Cities premiered Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater on January 13, 2011. Directed by Joe Mantello, it starred Stockard Channing as Polly Wyeth, Linda Lavin as Silda Grauman, Stacy Keach as Lyman Wyeth, Thomas Sadoski as Trip Wyeth and Elizabeth Marvel as Brooke Wyeth. The Outer Critics Circle named it the season’s outstanding new Off-Broadway play.

Robert Foxworth and Robin Weigert in "Other Desert Cities"

Nearly 10 months later, it opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, with Judith Light replacing Lavin and Rachel Griffiths taking over for Marvel. The remount garnered five Tony Award nominations — for play, actress in a play (Stockard Channing) and featured actress in a play (Judith Light, who won) among others. The play was also a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and earned a Drama League Award for distinguished production of a play.

This Sunday the Center Theatre Group presents the play’s West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, directed by the Taper’s former producing director Robert Egan. The cast features JoBeth Williams as Polly Wyeth, Foxworth as Lyman Wyeth, Jeannie Berlin as Silda Grauman, Michael Weston as Trip Wyeth and Robin Weigert as Brooke Wyeth.

Other Desert Cities takes place during Christmas 2004 at the tony Palm Springs home of wealthy Republicans Polly and Lyman Wyeth. Daughter Brooke has returned after a six-year absence toting the manuscript of a family tell-all memoir she intends to publish. Polly and her newly-out-of-rehab sister Silda once wrote a string of successful comedies while Lyman is a former movie star turned politician. Their son Trip is a reality TV producer.

Foxworth has personal experience with someone who preferred the siren call of politics after Hollywood fame. The late actress Elizabeth Montgomery, his second wife, was the daughter of actor Robert Montgomery, who became a media appearance consultant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his own White House office.

Robert Foxworth in "Other Desert Cities"

“He ended up working for the Eisenhower administration and became very interested in politics,” Foxworth explains. “To a degree he looked back at Hollywood with some disdain after he had tasted power and what power is like, as opposed to fame. There is a difference. I think my character in this play is a man who in a sense recognizes the same thing — that fame was okay but it’s nothing like power.”

He admits that for his former father-in-law and Lyman Wyeth, hanging out with the Republican party’s power elite is enticing. “Money and power. It’s a very seductive life. But I think my character is a guy who has, as it turns out, a heart and a soul we wouldn’t necessarily associate with our general interpretation of what these powerful people on the right are like. But that’s what makes him interesting and it’s what makes the play interesting as far as I’m concerned.”

Baitz’s published play features an introduction by Honor Moore. She raises the issue inherent in contemporary memoir writing of fact versus fiction versus subjective truth — a public debate ignited when Oprah Winfrey confronted James Frey over his A Million Little Pieces. As Moore defines the stakes in Baitz’s play, “When a family is involved, who owns the story? What kind of consequences might require a writer to have a responsibility beyond herself and her commitment to her art? When is the publication of “˜just a book’ worth the splintering of a family? What is a writer talking about when she says that telling her story is for her “˜a matter of life and death.’ Is there any such thing as a secret that should be kept?”

When asked whether the actors and Egan had discussed this or decided what the play was about, Foxworth said they had done so in early table reads but had to leave it behind because “these are issues of relations between human beings.

Jeannie Berlin and JoBeth Williams in "Other Desert Cities"

“As powerful as these ideas are, we can’t act ideas,” he offers. “So that will remain for the audience to determine.  I will only say that one of the things I took away from our discussions was that there is a memoirist’s responsibility to be true to fact to the degree that it may damage people. If you are not going to do that, then you must call it fiction.”

Does he think the play’s premise would work the same if it were a powerful Democratic family?

“Wow,” exclaims Foxworth, contemplating the question seemingly for the first time. “I think it would. I mean I just flashed on the Kennedy clan and that kind of thing. Yes, I think they would face the same dilemmas of fact and truth. A lot of skeletons in the closet and the pain in dealing with and releasing some of that stuff.”

The play reunites Foxworth with JoBeth Williams, with whom he co-starred in the The Old Globe Theatre’s 1987 production of Antony and Cleopatra. In more recent years, they have recorded plays together for LA Theatre Works. It also marks his debut at the Taper as well as his first outing with old friend Egan.

“I’ve known him for 30 or 40 years but I never worked with him,” he explains. “I never worked at the Taper.  I lived in LA for 40 years. I had to move out of town to get a job here. [He laughs]. Just proves the old adage — if you want to get a job, leave town.”

Dan Amboyer as Bertram Cates and Robert Foxworth as Henry Drummond in The Old Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival production of "Inherit the Wind," directed by Adrian Noble. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

Foxworth moved to north San Diego county several years ago with his wife of 14 years, Stacey Thomas. He was officially named an Associate Artist at the Old Globe in 2009. His frequent performances there include a recent turn as Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind. Foxworth says he received a call asking if he was interested in playing the Wyeth clan patriarch in the upcoming Taper production. He’d not seen either the Lincoln Center or Broadway productions but said yes after reading the script. He says he will reprise the role at the Old Globe in April 2013.

When asked about the opportunity to work with his old friend, director Egan sent this reply via email.

“Bob is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable stage actors with whom I have worked. That is saying something. He knows deeply the emotional and intellectual dimension of a character and has a very disciplined process to live it fully. And he knows the stage. How to use his voice and body to be nuanced and powerful when the play needs it and demands it. He has been an experienced anchor to the whole process. He has been our trusted Patriarch. I respect and trust his collaboration. For a director “” he is a joy that you look forward to seeing each day in rehearsal.”

Home at the Old Globe

Despite his success in television series like Falcon Crest, Storefront Lawyers, LateLine and Six Feet Under, Foxworth considers the theater his true home. The love affair began at eight years old, when his mother went back to college and dropped him off at a children’s theater on the University of Houston campus.

“I caught the disease and never looked back. It’s all I ever wanted to do after my first time on stage in The Indian Captive. There was no discussion about anything else for me. They tried to keep me away from it for a few years but it didn’t work. So I grew up at the Alley Theatre as a kid and as a teenager. I basically was a terrible student because I was at the theater all the time — building sets and doing props and working on lights and doing what I really wanted to be doing.  It wasn’t until I got to Carnegie [Mellon University] that I actually ever had decent grades because I was actually doing what I wanted to do. It’s my first love and it’s been the pursuit of my life.”

Robert Foxworth and Anthony B. Phillips in San Diego Repertory Theatre's 2011 production of "Superior Donuts." Photo by Daren Scott.

Foxworth spent the next three years at Arena Stage in Washington, DC before working at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut and making his Broadway debut in Henry V in 1969. He won the Theatre World Award in 1970 for his role as John Proctor in The Crucible. In the ensuing decades, his Broadway roles have included August: Osage County, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, Honour, Ivanov, and Candida. His other theater credits include Superior Donuts (San Diego Repertory Theatre; San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award), Cyrano de Bergerac (Great Lakes Theatre Festival), Othello and Macbeth (Guthrie Theater), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Hartford Stage), and Uncle Vanya (Geffen Playhouse).

When asked if Broadway met his childhood expectations, Foxworth says his best experience there was his recent 2008 turn as Charlie Aiken in August: Osage County with Estelle Parsons, because it was a hit. “To come off stage after the second act, after the family fight over the table and hear the audience just roaring. We’re coming off in the dark and just going, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,  this is what it is.’ This is it. This is what it’s about. And getting that sense of accomplishment. Another fun part was getting on the bus going home at night after the show. A bunch of us lived on the Upper West Side, so getting on the bus and finding people there who had just seen the show and basically having little seminars about it as we headed uptown.”

Robert Foxworth and Melinda Page Hamilton in The Old Globe Theatre’s 2009 production of "Cornelia." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

LA theatergoers last saw Foxworth on stage in the Falcon Theatre’s 2006 production of Darwin in Malibu and a year earlier in Honour at the Matrix Theatre.  LA audiences are more likely to have seen his son Bo Foxworth treading local boards at A Noise Within, The Theatre @ Boston Court, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts or the Antaeus Company, where he is a company member. Bo Foxworth’s recent Antaeus shows include The Malcontent and The Seagull, and he played the titular lead in Macbeth. The elder Foxworth was awestruck by his son’s performance in the Scottish play.

“He’s a wonderful actor and I am so proud of him,” he enthuses. “I’d done it [Macbeth] a few years ago, but I couldn’t come anywhere near what he did. I mean his ‘tomorrow’ speech was so in the moment, and so explosively in the moment, that it was almost shockingly beautiful. It was just great. Anyway, I’m only slightly prejudiced!” He laughs.

Foxworth now calls the Old Globe his artistic home. He has been working there on and off for more than 25 years in shows such as Richard III, Inherit the Wind, August: Osage County, King Lear, The Madness of George III, Cornelia, Julius Caesar, Private Lives, Below the Belt, Love Letters and Antony and Cleopatra. He met his wife while doing Richard Dresser’s Below the Belt and is excited by the arrival of the Old Globe’s new artistic director Barry Edelstein.

“I love working there for a lot of reasons,” he explains. “It’s unlike any other theater I’ve ever worked in. I mean there’s such a completeness of all the facets of theater right there with three stages.  The most exciting time is every spring when the [Shakespeare] festival is mounting three plays. There are actors all over the place and there’s music, and there’s rehearsals here and sounds there”¦I mean it’s thrilling to me. I often stop and say a little prayer of gratitude because this is actually the way I dreamed always of being able to work. And here I am at this point in my life working in an atmosphere that I find really creative and really filled with vitality.”

Robert Foxworth, Molly Regan, Sally Murphy and Estelle Parsons in the 2008 Broadway production of "August: Osage County." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Since 2008, Edelstein has been director of the Shakespeare Initiative at the Public Theater in New York. His appointment returns the Globe to the traditional nonprofit theater management structure of separate heads for artistic and business operations. Michael Murphy was officially named managing director in April after acting in that capacity following Louis Spisto’s resignation the year before. Spisto had been wearing both hats to mixed public opinion in recent years. Foxworth looks forward to the new team.

“I like the old model of having a managing director and an artistic director,” he says. “I think there are two different sides of the brain. Michael Murphy’s a wonderful guy and I think the theater’s going to be really happy with him as a managing director working hand in hand with Barry. I know virtually nothing about him other than what I’ve read in the paper. All these last months, there’s been a lot of like chatter around the theater about what was going to happen in the selection committee and all the people they were interviewing. I don’t know him at all, but his resume looks great and I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

Edelstein’s Shakespeare expertise at the Public, combined with the Old Globe’s legacy and current artistic contributors, make the company’s future achievements limitless, says Foxworth.

“This bastion of Shakespeare knowledge in America, along with [director] Adrian Noble from the Royal Shakespeare Company there for the summer festival, I mean this place is going to be unbeatable.”

A Bucket List of Lear

Robert Foxworth as King Lear in the 2010 Shakespeare Festival production of "King Lear," directed by Adrian Noble at The Old Globe. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Actors often speak of classic roles they hope to play one day after reaching a certain age marker. Do any remain on Foxworth’s bucket list?

“Well, I kind of did that because I carried around a copy of King Lear with me for years,” he offers.  “I just kept it with me wherever I was and read it. I just sort of made it obvious that it was part of me and I finally got a chance to do it [at the Old Globe].  So in a sense that was the role, my bucket list, and I never have to do it again. It was particularly interesting to do with Adrian Noble because of his language and the orientation he has with the language. I loved cracking open the meaning of it with him, discovering the power of the play and the character in the use of the language.

“So I’ve kind of done that, and now it’s like I’m just going to play this game. I’m going to go to my little house in the country and sit back. If I get a role, I get it and if I don’t, that’s okay.”

When told that sounded like a pretty zen-like perspective, Foxworth admits it’s been a long time coming.

“Yes, I’m at peace. For the first time in my life I’ve been at peace, so I might as well enjoy it.”

Other Desert Cities, presented by Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, LA 90012. Opens December 9.  Tue-Fri 8 pm; Sat 2:30 and 8 pm; Sun. 1 and 6:30 pm.  Through January 6. Tickets: $40-78. 213-628-2772.

***All Other Desert Cities production photos by Craig Schwartz

Deborah Behrens

Deborah Behrens

Deborah is an award-winning arts/entertainment journalist best known for her celebrity profiles. She is the former Editor-in- Chief of LA STAGE Times, the predecessor site to @ This Stage Magazine. Her work has garnered numerous honors including a 2009 Maggie Award, a 2012 National Entertainment Journalism Award and recognition at the 2013 Southern California Journalism Awards. In 2014, she received the Queen of the Angels Award at the 35th Annual L.A. Weekly Theater Awards for her contributions to L.A.’s theater community. You can follow her on Twitter @deborahbehrens.