Mastering a joy of acting
by Karen Duncan
Peter McRobbie is an actor who specializes in playing the roles of unusual or distinctive characters. One might not look twice at this tall, slim, middle-aged man, passing him as he buys his Starbucks coffee before hopping on the South Orange train bound for a Manhattan audition. So while watching the new movie, 16 Blocks with Bruce Willis, you might not recognize him as the NYPD hostage negotiator. Or as the father of Jack Twist in the blockbuster Brokeback Mountain, in arguably the movie’s most emotional climatic scene. Fans of Law & Order might notice a striking similarity to the reoccurring role of Judge Walter Bradley and they would be correct. Playing such varied and critical characters is an art and vital to the success of any project on stage, television or film. Peter McRobbie is the essence of a true American character actor.
"My mother introduced me to great literature, Shakespeare in particular," he says with a sophisticated confidence. "I learned to love good stories, beautifully told."
Having immigrated to the United States as a child from Scotland, his working class family settled in Connecticut. He received a scholarship to Yale and it was there that he found his calling. Or it "found him," as he admits.
He spent his junior year in Paris where, at the Sorbonne, his professors "had us seeing great stuff every week." This too had a profound impact on his decision to pursue dramatics as a profession.
The Vietnam War delayed his immediate plans, but he was fortunate to serve out his army duty at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma where there was an outstanding community theater. There he had the opportunity for many fine roles and to work with other talented actors. He formed a friendship with Larry Bryggman, who for 35 years played Dr. John Dixon on As the World Turns.
"There is a misconception that this is a profession that is well paying or for that matter, that one can earn a living doing this," he laments. When he moved to New York this was frustratingly apparent. Not choosing the common route of waiting tables, and with no money and no prospects, McRobbie took a job writing advertising copy for ad agencies, such as BBDO and Young & Rubicam. His feeling was that, unless one could give acting a go, full time, one could not succeed. So he saved his pay, and after five years, quit to pursue acting full-time. He had enough to support himself for one year – that’s what he gave himself. He took dramatic classes and studied with greats such as Uta Hagan (who was Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello and who originated the role of Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire). He began to be cast in Broadway and off-Broadway plays.
"Life in the theater is very difficult for those with children," says the father of two. "Six days a week; Monday as your only day off."
When television and movie roles presented themselves, he started commuting to where a project was being filmed.
"It’s not glamorous, but the money is better," he described. "There have been some awful motels in towns where there is nothing for miles." But he fondly remembers in 1989 when he was in Taos, New Mexico shooting an American Playhouse movie, Land of Little Rain, with then virtual unknown, Helen Hunt.
"We could see for an astonishing 100 miles – viewing different weather patterns from the mountains. We filmed in a house where D. H. Lawrence wrote some of his greatest work. He painted as well as wrote, which I did not know, and he’d painted the windows of the bathroom. They were beautiful and I remember thinking, I’m in D. H. Lawrence’s bathroom."
For 14 years he and his wife, stage actress Charlotte Bova, raised their two boys in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Then in 2002, after living in Park Slope, they moved to South Orange. His sons, now grown, are living locally; one is an accomplished animator and the other a student at Seton Hall University.
"We found South Orange by accident," he admitted. After 9-11 he and his wife came on the train to visit friends. As they passed through South Orange and Maplewood, they took notice of the lovely old trees and remarked how these towns looked nothing like typical suburbs. They quickly came back for a real look and settled on a home that allows them an easy walk to and from the train station. "Good exercise," he says.
Peter McRobbie has appeared in eight films by Woody Allen, in John Singleton’s Shaft and in the Sundance hit, Big Night. He was featured in Spiderman 2 as the OsCorp Representative and played Lee Vilenski, the man who owned Jupiter, in The American Astronaut. On television, McRobbie has been seen as Father Felix in The Sopranos. A fixture on the New York theater scene, McRobbie has appeared in dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
Later this year you can see him as George Gordon Holmes in The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who sells his bogus biography of Howard Hughes to a premiere publishing house in the early ‘70s and as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s father in Oliver Stone’s, World Trade Center. It is the story of two Port Authority police officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) who become trapped under the rubble of the fallen buildings. Gyllenhaal plays Michael Pena’s wife.
"I have the distinction of playing father to both Gyllenhaals," he says smiling. His character in Brokeback Mountain is the father of the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie’s real life brother.
"Life of an actor is all about uncertainty," McRobbie reflects. "… a good director can use an actor’s uncertainty to the advantage of the film."
He described his first day on the set of World Trade Center, shooting a very emotional scene with his on-screen daughter. Oliver Stone asked to see him privately which signaled trouble to McRobbie. Stone took him off the lot and McRobbie panicked more with each step, sure he was going to be seriously reprimanded or, worse, fired. Finally in a secluded office Stone said, deadly seriously, "Do you think you should wear a jacket in this scene?"
McRobbie laughs, "I think he was testing me. Showing me he was in charge. But he never raised his voice. He was never abusive. He was supportive and a good movie starts with that."
"I read a lot of scripts. Most are dreadful and it continually baffles me how they get produced. I knew in a few pages Brokeback Mountain was a beautiful story. I had no idea it would be this phenomenon." He described how with a modest budget and the thoughtful, gentle, unassuming quality of director Ang Lee, the movie is really old-fashioned story-telling.
"When I watch the film and my scene with Roberta Maxwell and Heath Ledger, I see everything from those days of shooting. The vastness of the location. I can still see out the window of that old house."
This is a devastating scene late in the film. McRobbie’s character, like the house, seems worn and faded. In Brokeback Mountain the emotional tension is all the more stunning for its quietness. Ultimately that is what he strives for and most enjoys.
"I like stories that unfold through dialogue. Not cars exploding or thrill rides. I truly enjoy five minutes of uninterrupted dramatic dialogue." Little that’s dramatic happens onscreen, and its central image couldn’t be more ordinary: two worn-soft western shirts, hanging together. But McRobbie feels it’s a classic and heartbreaking story that won’t be easily forgotten.
Fortunately the audiences of today will be enjoying much more than five minutes of fine character acting from Peter McRobbie.
Karen Duncan thoroughly enjoys meeting those who have a gift and particularly those whose gift allows them the privilege to work on stage.
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