Tony nominee Ron Leibman storms Broadway as one of the most detested figures in U.S. history

By Michael Musto
Updated June 04, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

One of the most powerful moments in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, has infamous lawyer Roy Cohn getting the word from his doctor that he has AIDS. Cohn — who refuses to acknowledge he’s gay — isn’t too thrilled with the information. ”AIDS is what homosexuals have,” veteran actor Ron Leibman snarls as Cohn. ”I have liver cancer!”

Spitting out these lines with a mixture of bravado and pathos, Leibman has won raves for his over-the-top characterization, one that has become a metaphor for America’s self-delusion in the AIDS era. He landed the role, according to playwright Kushner, because ”he is brave and theatrical in a way no other stage actor of his generation is.”

Although Leibman, 55, did extensive research on Cohn, interviewing many who knew him, the actor says that ultimately the character he plays is Kushner’s Roy Cohn — a dramatic representation. There is enough of the real man, however, to see the tragedy in Cohn’s denial — both for himself and the country. ”If you think about one phone call Cohn could have made to his friend Nancy Reagan promoting AIDS research, he would have been very helpful,” says Leibman, who was hooked on the part seconds into reading the script. ”But he was selfish. He kept his diagnosis secret right to the end, and you don’t have to admire that — I don’t — but it certainly is a kind of screw-you to the world that makes for a character that’s interesting as hell.”

Leibman is one of several actors who have tackled Cohn, the man who first came to attention as an aide to notorious Red-baiting senator Joe McCarthy. Only nine months ago James Woods starred in the HBO movie Citizen Cohn. Leibman’s theory about the nation’s fascination with a man so reviled is that he is symbolic of this country’s darker side. ”He represented greed and misuse of power, denial of sexuality, and denial of disease,” Leibman says of the man who finally died of AIDS in 1986. ”My feeling after playing him after many, many months is that basically he wanted to be a star, to be different, which is why he liked the role of the Jewish guy in the Republican right. He very much wanted to be the center of attention, which is pathetic.”

Leibman’s own priority, judging by a backstage dressing table overrun with bottles of vitamins, is to maintain stamina for his demanding time on stage eight performances a week. ”I’m getting old,” he half-grins as he applies his makeup before the show. ”Doing this f—ing part, I’m getting old.” In the fall he’ll do the second half of Angels (Perestroika), ”then I’ll go to the Bahamas for four years.”

He just might be bringing a Tony award along with him; the New York-born actor has garnered the first nomination of his lengthy career for his performance as Cohn. A stage actor originally, Leibman flirted with TV stardom as a feisty lawyer with too much integrity on the 1978-79 series Kaz (a role he created and for which he won an Emmy), and attempted Hollywood stardom in mostly forgettable movies and one Oscar-winning film, 1979’s Norma Rae. ”Everybody thought I’d have more of a film career,” he says wistfully. ”I don’t look for answers anymore. It’s pointless because there are no answers. I don’t know how I’m perceived in Hollywood,” he adds. ”Or if I’m perceived in Hollywood.”

As for Broadway, he has always been golden, earning a Theatre World Award for We Bombed in New Haven in 1968, and four Drama Desks (for Angels, We Bombed, Room Service, and Transfers). ”But I don’t have an Oscaroo, or a Tony-ette,” he quips. ”I may go to that little repertory in the sky without either.” Doubtful. Even against heavy Tony competition like Stephen Rea (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me) and Liam Neeson (Anna Christie), Leibman’s flashy, mordant work is the odds-on favorite. ”It’s very nice to be included,” he admits. ”But do I see it as life and death? No. It’s not like millennium is approaching.”

As flamboyant as he is on stage, Leibman is as understated off. He doesn’t read reviews, he says, and even declined to have his name placed above Angels‘ title because ”this play is not about my ego.” Keeping him in check, says Leibman, is his second wife, actress Jessica Walter (Play Misty for Me, The Flamingo Kid) who, as millennium — or at least the summer — approaches, will count a decade of marriage to the guy (Leibman and his first wife, Alice star Linda Lavin, split amicably in 1980).

Leibman met Walter when he was a weekend guest at actress Brenda Vaccaro’s house, and Jessica and her daughter paid a visit. ”I was very much looking for a family, so I married one,” he explains, simply. And it’s a tight unit: The two marrieds are virtually inseparable, going back and forth between coasts together as their careers demand. Typically, Walter was jetting off to L.A. to do the mother’s voice on the just-canceled TV series Dinosaurs, then winging back immediately to her admittedly fossilized hubby. ”This role tires him out more than any other,” says Walter, who starred opposite Leibman on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Rumors in 1989. ”He has more integrity than any actor I’ve worked with; he always gives 150 percent and tries to keep it fresh for every audience. Couple that with how emotional this role is, and he is just exhausted. Although he did play tennis for two hours this afternoon,” she laughs. ”Go figure.”

A few more touches of makeup, and Leibman is a little closer to becoming a compellingly loathsome Roy Cohn, the toast of Broadway. But no matter how reptilian-looking and ready to dazzle with pure evil, he’s still very much the sensitive guy. Turns out his stepdaughter, Brooke, an English major at Duke, will be in the audience tonight. ”It’s her birthday,” he says, suddenly breaking into tears. ”She’s gonna be 21, and her coming is very touching to me.” He laughs, dabbing his eyes with a tissue, as Roy Cohn never had to.