Besides being one of the most beloved actors in the business, Barney Hughes is also the head of a distinguished theatrical family. While he was appearing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway with Jason Robards in the acclaimed revival of Eugene O'Neill's
The Iceman Cometh, both his wife, Helen Stenborg, and his daughter Laura were engaged at the Circle Repertory Theater Off-Broadway, and his son Doug, a talented stage director, was working as associate director of the Seattle Repertory Theater.
It was shortly before Thanksgiving when we met in his dressing room before a matinee, and Barney (who had recently turned seventy) was reassessing the wisdom of his offer to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the whole family. It also turned out to be the last week of
The Iceman Cometh, which opened to sensational reviews but didn't do great business and closed after a surprisingly brief run.
The time has come for me to go out West and do a mini-series or something like that, and then come back and shoot the roll on another play. I walk into the theater every night under the marquee dangling those banners saying what people think about this production; to think that it's closing after fifty-five, sixty performances is rather disheartening. This has happened to me the last three plays I've
done -- Arthur Kopit's End of the World, a wonderful play, closed in a hurry. The season before that, I was in Lanford Wilson's
Angels Fall -- I'd go anywhere to do it at the drop of a hat. That was a fast close. I must stop doing plays I like, if I intend to make a living in the theater.
Does it seriously disrupt your life when a play closes prematurely?
Well, you just have to sit for a while until you catch the brass ring again. If
you're doing films or television, you're in one wheel. If you're doing theater, you're in another wheel. When you try, as I do, to dance back and forth between the two of them, there are disruptions. But at my stage in life, it's kind of nice to have a breather in between.
In sheer number of hours, you've probably been running longer in
Iceman than any two other plays.
Yes, plays are getting shorter and shorter. I went to Washington to see Ralph Richardson a couple of years ago in
Early Times. I'd never met him, but Irene Worth heard I was going and had given me a birthday present to deliver to Sir Ralph for his wife. So I went back to see him, and he said, "What brings you to Washington?" I said, "I came down to see your performance." He reared back and started poking me with his cane, dueling with me. I said, "Yes, and I found it well worth my time." He said, "My God, it's only ninety minutes long. Now, let me
see -- three and a half hours on the train, three and a half hours back. I owe you five hours and thirty
minutes -- what can I do for you?"
What do you think about onstage in The Iceman Cometh?
I must admit that I ran over a couple of shopping lists this week. Generally I've found that you'd better stay with the play; if you drift out of it, you begin to hear the zzzzzs all over the place.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I suppose I did. I always loved the theater. Growing up in New York, I had a great opportunity. My parents went all the time, so I saw everything when I was a kid. I was highly critical of everything. All the actors, especially the young
ones -- I'd trash them after the show. A friend of mine got annoyed at my being so critical about everything. One day I got a postcard saying that Franklin Short had received my letter and would be very happy to audition me next Tuesday at five o'clock and to bring something I'd prepared, about five minutes long. I didn't know what the hell it was all about, so I showed this mysterious postcard to my friend Art Nesbit. He said he'd read in
The New York Times about a man forming a Shakespearean repertory company to play schools and colleges and had submitted my name. He said, "You're always shooting off your mouth about how you could do better than so-and-so." I had no idea what the hell an audition was, so I memorized a poem, Pope's "The Dying Christian to His Soul," went down and read it to the old man. He must have been shocked, but he gave me a part.
I made my debut as the haberdasher in The Taming of the
Shrew. Afterward, I had no conscious memory of having been on. I remember sitting in the dressing room and a big bright spot out there beyond the dark and then suddenly being back in my dressing room. The rest was a total blank. But I stayed with the company about three years, playing all sorts of parts. You were expected to be able to play every part in the play. "You play Hortensio instead of Gremio tonight," and you'd do it. I never felt awed by Shakespeare again.
Did you have any training before that?
Never even been in a play. Always shied away from it. Sometimes I sit looking at myself in the mirror and wonder, if Art Nesbit hadn't given me the goose, would I have ever had the nerve to do it? Of course, it took a long, long time before I knew what the hell I was doing. For six years I worked almost continually in stock companies through the South, and then I went into the army when I was twenty-five, so I had four years to think about what I was going to do. I realized I didn't know anything about acting. All I knew was
performing, getting out there and learning your lines and having energy and being as bright as you could. I really didn't know anything about looking at the parts. I was over thirty by the time I began to think seriously about becoming an actor.
I went out to Chicago to work with a young company and stayed for about six years, playing eighteen weeks of stock in Chicago and then in winter going to Palm Springs to play eighteen weeks there. We were always doing nine new plays in each town. My wife joined the company, and we all married each other
-- the director married the ingenue, and the juvenile got married. It was a fantastic company. Then the time came when Helen and I were driving home thinking, "Jesus, we're leading this wonderful life, making money, playing wonderful
parts" -- but we felt we didn't deserve it. So we decided to go back to New York.
You went back to New York for penance?
For growth. We went back into a new apartment in London Terrace, and we were just saying good-bye to the telephone installer when the telephone rang. It was Marion Dougherty [New York casting
director], who didn't even know I'd been out of town, offering me a job. I haven't stopped working since. That was thirty-two years ago or so. After doing some television, I immediately went on the road with
Teahouse of the August Moon for a year and a half. Doug was born on the road in Palm Springs. I was in Boston playing with Gertrude Berg
in A Majority of One when Laura was born. So I owe a lot to various friends who've seen my wife to the hospitals and back home again.
Is that what the life of an actor is about, being on the road?
Well, we have a very romantic feeling about the theater, really. We have old traditions and things that we keep up, the pretzels. . . [He gestures toward his dressing table, and indeed among the various trinkets, toys, letters, and Polaroids scattered across the tabletop and makeup mirror is a curious stockpile of big, doughy pretzels, the kind that vendors sell from pushcarts on New York City street
corners.] Doug was in kindergarten when I had an opening, and he bought a pretzel for me as an opening-night present. So we've always exchanged them since. We fly them out to Seattle when he has openings. Helen got one when she opened at Circle Rep. Everybody gets a pretzel. We used to save them all, but it got ridiculous. The back room was festooned with old stale pretzels. So now we keep them a year or two, then move on and get a fresh batch.
What are the other traditions in your family?
We have aphorisms, very private and personal, that we never go onstage without repeating to ourselves. I don't know what Helen's or Laura's or Doug's is, and they don't know mine. I guess
we'll put them in a sealed envelope when the end is near and pass them on.
What did it mean in the '50s to come to New York and work in the theater?
A lot of things to me. It meant I had reached another level of competence. I don't regret all those years I spent out of New York, because, God, I played
everything -- Ephraim in Desire Under the Elms, Chris in
Anna Christie, all the wonderful Coward leading men, Jack in
The Importance of Being Earnest, Charley's Aunt, everything that was current. But of course, being in the theater, New York was a goal of mine. I became an actor to be a Broadway actor. People didn't go into the theater. . . I suppose they did, to become movie actors, and of course there's television, and radio is something else again. Now you cross all lines and work in radio, television, films, commercials, circuses, or whatever the hell comes along. But in those days, there were stage actors, movie actors, and radio actors. I always wanted to be a stage actor.
Once I was doing a play downtown, and I was walking up Broadway to get the subway to Fiftieth Street and Seventh Avenue. I'd pick up
The New York Times at the newsstand there going home every night. One night the guy saw me coming, folded the newspaper, and threw it under my arm as I paid him. He just knew that I belonged. I don't know if he even knew I was an actor, but it was a big thrill for me. I still get goose pimples thinking about it.
When you were a young man starting out, did you think you would have this long career in show business?
Fifty-two years! I look at a mirror, and I think, "What the. . . how did you wind up here?" Life has been so random. I don't remember making a choice about anything. Things came, and I did them.
I worked at Macy's one Christmas years ago, I guess over fifty years ago. It was just for six, seven, eight weeks, something like that, but I was a very good salesman, and I had a lot of enthusiasm. I was so good that they asked me to stay on after Christmas. I had this strange
feeling -- I was so glad when they got rid of me, because I might still be down there behind one of those counters.
When you started doing TV and films, did it feel like a different kind of acting?
No. It was their job to know where to point the camera and where to put the boom and where to turn the knobs, and I just did what I did. Once it's done, I don't like to look at myself, and if it's possible to avoid it, I do. I don't like that gent up there, particularly. I don't connect with him. He makes me uncomfortable when I look at him, me, up there. It's very upsetting to look at
yourself -- you think, "Oh, fool, why did he do that?" Because you change your mind about it, and you never get a chance to do it again. I think that's the thing actors love about acting in the
theater -- you always get a chance to atone for your sins the next night. If you continue to do it, you continue to change it.
There are a few things that I kind of think were okay, but they're rare. Jason
[Robards] and I did a television show thirteen or fourteen years ago, a wonderful, gentle thing for
Hallmark Hall of Fame or something called Thanksgiving
Treasure. I played an old farmer who has a relationship with a young girl, Jason's daughter. I have a wonderful, wonderful death scene. I'd never seen it, but Jason has it on videocassette, and just yesterday I had a copy made. When I was at the studio, I saw less than a minute of the thing on the monitor, and there was this wonderful old actor
dying -- by Jesus, he was good. And it was me.
from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (photo
by Susan Shacter)