Over a sixty-plus year career, Ron Leibman enjoyed memorable success on stage, television, and the big screen.
Starting in the late ’50s and through the entirety of the ’60s, he was almost exclusively a theatre actor. He began his acting career as a member of the Compass Players out of Chicago before joining the Actors Studio in New York City shortly after.
He didn’t make his film debut until 1970 when he made a strong impression as George Segal’s brother in the largely forgotten, but well reviewed, Where’s Poppa. That decade brought two other memorable movie roles for Leibman. First, as Paul Lazzaro in George Roy Hill’s adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut book, Slaughterhouse Five in 1972. Then in 1979 he received excellent notices as a union organizer in Martin Ritt’s Oscar winning labor drama, Norma Rae. That same year he won an Emmy for best actor in a drama for playing the title role of the short-lived legal drama, Kaz. A show he helped create and co-wrote.
Success on TV and film became more elusive for Leibman in the ’80s, but the stage still served him well through the decade. Perhaps most notably in Neil Simon’s award-winning play Rumors, which began its run in 1988.
His greatest success on stage came in Tony Kushner’s landmark drama Angels In America in 1993. Leibman played Roy Cohn, and he did so to the hilt. For his work, he received the Tony Award for best actor in a drama.
If all Leibman had done in his career was play Roy Cohn in one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, that would have been plenty.
But I’d like to talk about his work in a film from 1997 that few saw. This, despite it being a police corruption drama directed by the master of that form, Sidney Lumet. I’m referring to Night Falls On Manhattan starring Andy Garcia as a reluctant, but eventually crusading, assistant D.A. in an office run by the New York City District Attorney, Morgenstern, played by Leibman.
It’s a solid film that came and went quickly that spring. Reviews were middling and with the summer movie season coming up, it never really had a chance. And while out of Lumet’s trio of police corruption films (also including Serpico and Prince Of The City) it is surely the runt of the litter, it still contains one seriously show-stopping performance.
As Morgenstern (“call me Morgie”), Ron Leibman gives a big, but masterful, performance as the driven, eccentric, and boisterous District Attorney. He is brash and theatrical, yet somehow never quite too much.
Almost like Peter O’Toole in Becket. In fact, there’s a scene in Night Falls that reminds me of the moment O’Toole dresses down his wife in Becket. She defends their loveless marriage by telling O’Toole, “I gave you children.” To which O’Toole replies, “I don’t LIKE my children!”
In Night Falls, Leibman assigns Garcia to a case he doesn’t feel prepared to take on. When Garcia protests the assignment, Leibman replies, “My kid could win this case. And he’s in high school. And he’s stupid!” It was probably a good thing I was the only person in the theater at the time, because I’m pretty sure I was still laughing two scenes later.
Leibman is so good in the part that I swear to you, I would look into the corners of the screen just waiting for him to come back on camera. He was a wonder. It’s the kind of performance that, had the film been just a bit better received and released in the fall, Leibman might have received Oscar consideration. He’s that damn good.
Leibman went on to do some other notable work on film and television after that. Most memorably in Personal Velocity, Auto Focus, and Garden State on the big screen, and fans of Friends and The Sopranos probably recall his multi-episode stints on both shows.
His list of memorable credits on film and TV may have paled in comparison to his legendary stage work, but when Ron Leibman was onscreen — usually in “Hey! Don’t I know that guy” roles — in a production that was up to his considerable abilities, he was electric.
It was easy to see. Even if you were in high school. And stupid. You simply couldn’t miss it.
Ron Leibman died on December 6, 2019. He was 82 years old.