Standing near the umbrella stand outside the door of the actor Tony Roberts’ apartment on Park Avenue, the suspense was mounting. Would he be like he was in the Woody Allen movies? The door opened, and—he was exactly like he was in the Woody Allen movies.
“Hel-lo, come in,” Mr. Roberts said in that big voice. He was not in a safari jacket with a little belt, and his curly hair is silvery instead of brown because he is now 67, and Woody Allen was not squirming next to him—but still there was the tall, handsome man (the normal one as opposed to the neurotic), nonchalant, hands in pockets, the direct gaze, head held down and out, the way a tall man graciously does to those slightly shorter so he could understand and take in all that one was saying. Everybody probably thinks he lives in an apartment with Diane Keaton and a wooden salad bowl, and in fact his spacious prewar co-op apartment is furnished not unlike an early-1980’s Woody Allen movie: amber light from the lamps, wooden furniture, comfy plaid chairs. “I wish I had a terrace, a view of the park,” Mr. Roberts said. But: “I have a desk, a place to eat. This is what it is. I like it. It’s enough.”
The actor has lived in the apartment for almost 30 years, moving in back when it was rent-controlled. “I was lucky,” he said. “I had to grease somebody’s palm. I was in They’re Playing Our Song. I needed a larger apartment. My daughter was growing up and she needed her own room.” His four-year marriage, to former dancer Jennifer Lyons, ended in 1975. “I bribed my landlord to get me something larger. He said, ‘Now can I have opening night tickets?’” Mr. Roberts bought the place when it went co-op in 1988. He lives there alone, he said, though the housekeeper came through with a spray bottle.
He grew up in New York, taking the number 3 bus, attending P.S. 6 and the High School of Music and Art. “My father’s family was very poor, Lower East Side, then they moved to the Bronx. My mother’s father was on ll9th, then fashionable. Their fortune came undone with the crash.” Mr. Roberts’ father, Ken Roberts, became famous in the days of radio, another Woody Allen world. “He was master of ceremonies for some of the biggest hits,” Roberts fils said, mentioning Quick as a Flash at the Ed Sullivan Theater in Times Square, now the grubby Gothic doorway that opens to The Late Show With David Letterman. People would hear clues. “When they thought they knew the answer, they would buzz the buzzer.” (Oh, for back then when figuring out a clue was all that mattered!) “My father knew the ups and downs of the business,” Mr. Roberts said. “It’s a short run even when it’s a long run. The happiest moment for an actor is when he’s working. Otherwise he could end up being a waiter for the rest of his life. Because you love the theater, you take that chance with your life. You just can’t do it alone. You can’t get your jollies doing monologues in the apartment.”
Mr. Roberts has known more ups than downs. Perhaps best known for Annie Hall, Play It Again, Sam and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, he has also appeared in Serpico, Amityville, Victor/Victoria, Promises, Promises and even Edge of Night. Women in the 1950’s would pull him aside in the basement of Macy’s and scream, “You’re Lee. I’ve seen you in my bathrobe.” There were Neil Simon plays and many musical comedies. Right now he plays Zeus in the musical Xanadu under flashing pink and green lights. “It’s a party, ” he said—a decided contrast, say, from playing Hamm in End Game, playing it blind, with his eyes closed the whole time. “So black, so dark, so gloomy. I missed seeing the other actors. It was very lonely there.”
On his off hours, Mr. Roberts works on his memoirs, though he is concerned they will not be as dramatic as his friend Donna McKechnie’s. “Let’s face it—I wasn’t a longshoreman,” he said. “I’ve had a charmed life.” He likes to walk across Central Park with his iPod—“with the shuffle on so I’m surprised,” he said—and takes a stretch dance class taught by Luigi Facciuto, now 82, on 68th Street. “Luigi taught everybody who danced on Broadway. He was Gene Kelly’s sidekick in movies. There are 20 to 30 people in the class sometimes, Lisa Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Donna McKechnie. It’s a very healthful regimen.”
Mr. Roberts used to own a house in Amagansett, but sold it five years ago. “I couldn’t afford it,” he said.
“Actors’ fortunes shift. I got tired being afraid during the down times, seeing that the lawn is mowed properly in between shows.”
He said he still sees and talks to Mr. Allen. “We were friends and had identifiable repartee,” he said of their collaborations. “When they see intimacy, it was real.”
Talking to Mr. Roberts, an indelible icon of the early Woody Allen period, stirred up feelings of a world that has passed, when people spent enormous amounts of time thinking about sexual performance and taking Darvons.
Does he long for the New York of the 1970’s, more romantic, though yes, dangerous with cracks and holes and people acting like savages?
“No, not at all,” Mr. Roberts said. “I was downtown on Wall Street this morning, the FDR Drive. I couldn’t believe how spiffy and sparkly it looks, like Oz. The city looks like it works.”