Playing Dr. James Wilson on the popular FOX medical drama "House" (Mondays, 9 PM ET) is the latest turn for Robert Sean Leonard, whose TV fans may well be unaware of his theatre background, which began when he was a pre-teen.
Included among his credits is the role of Jack (of beanstalk fame): "When I was 16, I was cast by [Stephen] Sondheim for a six-week workshop of Into the Woods. One day, Sondheim came in, with [the just-written] 'Giants in the Sky.' He pointed to me, and said, 'This is for Bobby.' I pretty much could have died."
Offered the lead in a teen movie, '"My Best Friend Is a Vampire," Leonard called James Lapine, who had written the musical's book, and was directing, to ask what he should do. "In the most supportive, incredibly helpful way, he said, 'Robert, you're a talented guy, but your future's not in musical theatre.'"
The movie about the undead did not fare well, but his next assignment, "Dead Poets Society," brought Leonard lots of recognition. "Peter Weir told us, 'I'm a wonderful director and Tom [Schulman] is a wonderful writer, but neither of us is 17.' We were encouraged to improvise."
"Dead Poets" was a big success, but Leonard says, "I didn't want to chase movies. It's too hard. You've got to work at it — opening nights, photo shoots, publicity people, managers. I never wanted to do that. I'm too lazy."
He confesses: "Theatre's very satisfying, and I miss it, but it doesn't pay that well." A few years ago, he decided to switch coasts in search of greener pastures. "I did a pilot that Larry Gelbart wrote, 'The Corsairs,' with Martin Landau, John Larroquette, Patrick Dempsey, Balthazar Getty. It was an hour-long drama about a media-mogul family. I was Landau's son, but really Larroquette's bastard son. I loved it, but the network didn't."
When he read "House," Leonard thought: This is really good. "I didn't want to be the lead guy. That's too much work. But I thought that it might be fun to be the lead guy's friend. I'd have days off, and still get a paycheck every week. Hugh Laurie, who plays [Dr. Gregory] House, is remarkable. I lean in the door and say, 'Hey, what do you think about egg salad [for lunch]?' Then I have two days in a row off. [Laughs] It's a great gig."
Signed for three more years, Leonard just wrapped the series' fourth season (re-runs of which start tomorrow night). A month-long hiatus between seasons doesn't allow him time to do theatre. "There are a lot of us out here who are making money, but longing to be doing what we love. Within minutes of the [recent writers'] strike being announced, we were on planes to New York."
Among his past stage roles is a trio of "Eugenes": In March 1986, he made his Broadway debut as the final replacement Eugene Jerome (a character based on the young Neil Simon) in Brighton Beach Memoirs, in which he later toured; he was an older Eugene in a 1987 tour of Simon's sequel Biloxi Blues; he received a 1993 Tony nomination (his first of three) in the role of Eugene Marchbanks in Shaw's Candida; and he's twice played Edmund Tyrone (the young Eugene O'Neill) in Long Day's Journey into Night — in Boston, in 1983; on Broadway, in 2003 (earning his most recent Tony nomination).
According to Leonard, the Broadway production "was the greatest thing I've ever been in, the greatest time of my life. To act with Phil[ip Seymour] Hoffman, to know you're about to walk onstage and give this play to people is like kissing the Pope's ring. I think [Brian] Dennehy was great! I loved [the way he performed] his speech about Edwin Booth.
"For me, doing the greatest American play on Broadway is it! I don't think it's going to happen again. I'm pretty humble, but I know when I'm good. I'd be in the middle of describing being lost in the fog on the ship, with Brian [Dennehy], and I knew there may be actors who can do this as well, but I don't [know if] there are any who can do it better. Something clicked. It was magic!
"Vanessa [Redgrave] is a unique woman, just about the bravest actor I've ever seen onstage. There's no 'over-the-top' with her; if it's rooted in good acting, there's no such thing. She knows that. But, at times — and I don't think she'd mind my saying it — she's out of her mind.
"One of my favorite moments is when Edmund learns that his mother has sent Cathleen [the maid] into town to pick up drugs. 'Mama, you can't do that. You can't trust her. You don't know that she won't tell anyone.' She says, 'Tell? Tell what? That I have rheumatism? That I need medication for the pain in my hands?' Her next line is, 'I never knew what rheumatism was — until you were born.' She'd sort of spit it at me, like a cat, across the stage.
"Then, one night — I don't know if she was bored, or rambunctious — she jumped up and started walking toward me. Her nails were curled like a witch, and she made a growling sound like a cat. She said the line, and walloped me across the face. I'd never heard 1,100 people gasp at the same time. Afterward, she asked, 'Did I hurt you?' It stung, but I lived. She said, 'I think that sort of worked.' Take it from the guy who took the punch — it worked. It was one of the most stunning moments I've ever lived through onstage. She said, 'Do you mind if we keep exploring that?'
"The stage manager asked, 'Robert, are you sure you're okay with this?' I don't know if she'd agree with this, but she's one of those actors who doesn't remember everything she does onstage. But look what she's creating every night."
Leonard comes across as straightforward and sincere. He has a good sense of humor, and even a better sense of himself. Born Robert Lawrence Leonard "in Washington Township, New Jersey," the actor is the youngest of three. His parents, Robert Howard Leonard (who taught Spanish) and the former Joyce Peterson (an RN who once taught art), also have another son and daughter: Sean (who's in law enforcement) and Kimberly (an English teacher).
Young Robert joined the New Players Company. "I was there for many years." He grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and attended Ridgewood High. Later on, he took classes at Columbia and Fordham Universities. Upon joining SAG, he was told that there was already a member named Robert Leonard, and that he could add his middle name. But Robert Lawrence Leonard seemed too long, so he substituted his brother's name.
A fan of old movies, his favorite actors include Joseph Cotten, William Holden, Montgomery Clift, and Jimmy Stewart. "The first time I saw 'A Wonderful Life,' it rocked my world. I also like 'Shop Around the Corner' and 'Made for Each Other' [both Stewart films]. Clift and Stewart had a very human quality.
"I never quite got the wounded, angry kid that James Dean played; I didn't like him much. While other boys got mushy over Kate Jackson, I got mushy over Jean Arthur — 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' 'You Can't Take It with You' [both co-starring Stewart]. She seemed so confident, so smart, so sexy."
His New Players debut was not on, but underneath, the stage "as Annie Sullivan's dead brother in The Miracle Worker. I had a script and a flashlight, and would make sounds when Annie would talk about him." Leonard appeared in a number of New Players' shows, including Shenandoah (as part of the ensemble), Oliver! (the Artful Dodger), and The Music Man (as Winthrop).
Early 1985 marked his first New York stage credit, as understudy for three roles in Coming of Age in Soho, at the Public. "I was brought in when it was extended." (He never went on.) His Off-Broadway debut (May 1985) occurred in Sally's Gone, She Left Her Name, as Cynthia Nixon's brother, with Michael Learned and David Canary playing their parents. Noted the New York Times review, "Robert Leonard also makes a vivid impression as the eccentric kid brother...."
Leonard's reflections on some stage and screen performances:
The Beach House (1985, Off-Broadway): He was studying at HB Studios at the time, and when he auditioned for the non-HB play (and landed the part) without asking permission, "[HB] wouldn't let me leave. George Grizzard [who had the lead in The Beach House] called me, though he didn't know me: 'What's this I hear about you turning down my play?' I explained that I was at HB. He said, 'Are you out of your f--king mind? You're going to learn more with me in one night than you'll learn in a year at that place.'"
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986, Broadway): "Fantastic! My Broadway debut. Dick Latessa, who played my father, is one of those guys that everybody loves. He's packed with talent and generosity. For him to be one of my first guides was a real gift!"
Breaking the Code (1987, Broadway): "I had a great time. The first Broadway role I originated."
The film "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge" (1990): "I couldn't have been more excited to meet Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward [who played his parents], Blythe Danner, Simon Callow, Austin Pendleton, and James Ivory [who directed]. My career has gone oddly. After 'Dead Poets,' the next three jobs I did were [not commercial successes]: Romeo and Juliet, at the Riverside [Shakespeare Company]; 'Mr. & Mrs. Bridge'; and a weird play [Rocky and Diego] in Philadelphia. I never wanted to be Tom Cruise; I wanted to be Sam Waterston. He's a huge inspiration — 'Much Ado,' 'Killing Fields,' Lincoln. My God, I saw [Waterston in] Abe Lincoln in Illinois four times."
The Speed of Darkness (1991, Broadway): "Very important to my career. The director was Robert Falls [who would later direct him in Long Day's Journey]."
Candida (1993, Broadway): "My first Tony nomination, which was shocking. We had closed [by the time the nominees were announced]."
The film "Swing Kids" (1993): "Beautiful screenplay, terrible direction. I met [cast member] Kenneth Branagh, and shamelessly campaigned to be in 'Much Ado About Nothing.' Of course, he knew what I was up to. I don't even like the part of Claudio — in fact, I despise it — but I knew it was the only role I'd be right for. I wore him down."
The film "The Age of Innocence" (1993): "I still don't know how I got that role [as Daniel Day-Lewis' son]. I didn't audition. My guess is that Winona [Ryder, an acquaintance] told Daniel, who told Martin Scorsese. It's one of my favorites; I love it. Tim Monich, a great speech coach, saved my life. I told him that I didn't know what to do. My scenes take place 45 years after the rest of the film. He said, 'That was the time of new money in New York. Think of Mr. Howell [Jim Backus] in 'Gilligan's Island': a little too loud, a little too much money.' I'm really proud of that — thanks to Tim. I don't like my work on film. I'm always impressed by someone like Daniel [Day-Lewis] who walks in front of a camera with no self-consciousness. I feel constrained."
Arcadia (1995, Broadway): "It proves that if you work on something long enough...."
The TV film "The Boys Next Door" (1996): "It wasn't very successful, but I got to meet and work with Mare Winningham — one of the joys of my life. She's the real McCoy."
The cable TV movie "In the Gloaming" (1997): "The last real amount of time I got to spend with Chris Reeve [who directed]. We did a lot of readings together. I'd loved to have seen what Chris might have done, if not for 'Superman.' That kind of thing can be a blessing, but I don't think it was for Chris. It limited his options. He had the heart of a real theatre actor, and you're not going to find a nicer guy."
You Never Can Tell (1998, Off-Broadway): "I loved every minute. You don't get better than Katie Finneran."
The Iceman Cometh (1999, Broadway): "Kevin Spacey saw me in You Never Can Tell, and offered me the role of Don Parritt. I don't know why. I didn't have to audition.
"Austin Pendleton later told me, 'If you can play that role, and by the end of the play, announce you're going to kill yourself — without the audience breaking into applause — you're a better actor than I am.' I was grateful to be part of it."
The Invention of Love (2001, Broadway): "I read the script — and after Act One, fell asleep. The next morning, I called my agent, and told him, 'I have no idea what this play is about. I can't get through it.' He said, 'If you don't do this role, I'll kill you.'
"I was at the Huntington [in Boston], and Nicky Martin [its artistic director] said, 'Look, if Tom Stoppard and Jack O'Brien [who directed] are telling you you're right for a part, they're right — no matter what you think. Believe me, they know more than you.'" (Leonard won a Tony Award for it.)
The Music Man (2001, Broadway): "That was [Susan Stroman's] idea. I had to work for it; I had to prove myself. I don't know what made her think of me, but I'm glad she did.
"It was like a birthday cake every day. To stand next to Rebecca Luker, while she was singing 'Till There Was You' — and get paid for it. It doesn't get better than that."
The Violet Hour (2003, Broadway): "That was a bit of an unfortunate train wreck. We did the best we could. It was a good role for me; I think I did well in it. The second act is tricky, but it was a lovely experience. The director [Evan Yianoulis] was good. Mario Cantone was great. I made a good friend in Scott Foley. But it didn't quite work."
Asked to mention a few career highlights, he claims, "There are so many." Among those he shared: "James Lapine calling and asking me to read Boyd Gaines' part in The Heidi Chronicles, with Jennifer Ehle, because Andre [Bishop] and Bernie [Gersten] wanted to hear it. I told him, 'It means so much to me, more than 20 years later, that you believe in me.' To me, that's it — it's family. To be included in a room with people you admire is one of the greatest joys in life."
Our Town, at the Shaftesbury, in 1991, remains Leonard's only London appearance. His sole Tennessee Williams play ("unfortunately") was The Glass Menagerie (his favorite Williams play), at Baltimore's Center Stage, in 1997. He played Tom (who's based on the playwright).
"I'm not a director, but I had an idea I wanted to try. At the end of Act One, the script says that Tom 'steps away, or disappears.' Amanda calls Laura, 'Come, look at the moon, darling...make a wish.' It leads to the lights going out. 'This may be cheesy,' I told the director, 'but I want to stand with one foot offstage and the other, on — and watch the scene. I want to use the papers, my writing, almost like a paint brush, sweep the text over them, and bring the lights down.' It worked beautifully. We kept it in."
Confessing to a "guilty pleasure," Leonard admits that he collects disparaging reviews. A favorite example refers to a recent film release. Quotes Leonard: "'88 Minutes,' unfortunately for the audience, runs 108 minutes."
Here comes the groom: An August date has been set for Leonard to marry long-time fiancée Gabriella "Gaby" Salick. How did they meet? "An acquaintance said, 'I know of only one other person who loves to stay home as much as you do. I think you'd like her.' Our favorite things are watching 'Law & Order,' and walking our dogs [Bradley, "named for Bill Bradley," and Happy]. We're a perfect match."
Come fall, Leonard's series switches to Tuesdays (8 PM ET). When his "House" work ends, he plans "on coming home [New York]. I'll have some money in the bank, maybe Gaby and I will start a family, and I can go back to doing plays."