With his mantle adorned with an Emmy® statue for his dynamic ex-con-turned-canny attorney in the one-season 1978-79 drama series Kaz and a Tony® Award for his blazing performance as nefarious lawyer Roy Cohn in the original 1993 Broadway production of Angels in America, there’s no doubt that Ron Leibman, celebrating his 81st birthday today, can claim the leading player spotlight on either side of the law when the occasion arises. But the native New Yorker, a veteran of cult movies with fervent followings [Where’s Poppa? (his 1970 big-screen debut), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)] and mass-appeal flicks with enduring appeal [The Super Cops (1974), Norma Rae (1979)], is eminently valuable in the supporting ranks as well, with two standout examples, filmed 30 years apart, that recently joined this label’s library.
He’s a wild-eyed wheelman named Murch, member of the gang who couldn’t steal straight, in his second theatrical feature The Hot Rock (1972), based on the first John Dortmunder crime novel by Donald E. Westlake. In the company of a button-down Robert Redford as the master schemer Dortmunder, George Segal as the jittery locksmith Kelp, and Paul Sand as the explosives somewhat-expert Greenberg, Leibman’s Murch is the bounciest felon in this uptight wild bunch, but his vehicular instincts come in handy when it comes to staging a bogus auto-accident diversion or piloting a helicopter across Gotham skies to touch down on the incorrect rooftop. At a crucial moment that can make or break the success of this outlandish multi-phase enterprise, playfully directed by Peter Hyams (Bullitt) and dryly scripted by William Goldman (the team also responsible for a similarly larkish caper reunion 20 years later, Year of the Comet (1992), available from Twilight Time), he can function as a menacing masked muscleman too, a jack of all trades – and tirades. He even lives with his mom (a lovely cameo by the late, great Charlotte Rae), to whom he is sweetly attached. And it is that tender, openhearted side of Leibman that’s on view as the clear-eyed and caring agent of ill-fated actor and Hogan’s Heroes TV star Bob Crane (played by Greg Kinnear) in the otherwise dark and unsettling Auto Focus (2002), director Paul Schrader’s mesmerizing study of an otherwise upstanding family man with an outwardly square and appealing persona, yet perniciously undone by his addiction to a brazenly swinging sexual perversity and an attachment to a smarmy video tech specialist rivetingly portrayed by Willem Dafoe. Providing what the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert called “the movie’s moral counterpoint” to Crane’s dark side, Leibman’s Lenny is all-business and all-sincerity as he warns his clueless client of the treacherous path he’s treading. “There could be very serious conflict here between your lifestyle and your career. You don't see this?” he asks. Kinnear’s Crane answers, “I’m normal.” “Sex is not the answer,” Lenny presses. Crane counters: “I know that, Lenny, it’s the question. Yes is the answer.” The exchange sums up the movie’s charged and cautionary message, and Leibman is beautifully on point.
Earlier this year, Stephen Spinella, the actor who played Prior Walter and won two Tony® Awards for his efforts across both halves of the original two-part Broadway production of Angels in America, tackled – a quarter-century later – the role of Roy Cohn in a revival of the Tony Kushner Pulitzer Prize-winning epic at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. He told San Francisco Chronicle interviewer Edward Guthmann “that, having co-starred with Ron Leibman in the Roy Cohn part on Broadway, it was difficult ‘to get Ron’s voice out of my head. It’s embossed in my mind.’” Likewise, the hip effervescence of The Hot Rock and the subversive chill of Auto Focus on TT’s marvelous discs would be incomplete without the solid imprint of the marvelous Mr. Leibman.