From Shakespeare to “Blue Bloods”: Len Cariou

February, 2015 

By envisioning King Lear’s age as “four score and upward,” Shakespeare created a great role for an actor to play in the autumn of his career. So wasn’t Len Cariou, at age 44, a bit young for the part? In fact, he told me, he had already done it. Ten years earlier, when he was only 34, Cariou had played Lear at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. That made him one of the youngest actors ever to play the part. Richard Burbage, the star of Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men, had been 40 when he originated the role in 1607. Centuries later, in 1962, Paul Scofield was also 40 when he played Lear in a Peter Brook production.

Len Cariou at the Drama League Benefit Gala Honoring Angela Lansbury, February 8, 2010. The Pierre, New York City. Photo by Drama League via Flickr, Creative Commons
Len Cariou at the Drama League Benefit Gala Honoring Angela Lansbury, February 8, 2010. The Pierre, New York City. Photo by Drama League via Flickr, Creative Commons

Cariou told me he had been appearing in A Little Night Music on Broadway in 1973 when he got the call from director Michael Langham inviting him to play Lear at the Guthrie. “I just laughed in his face,” recalled Cariou in 1983. “But he was dead serious. He said he didn’t know any actor near the age who could get through the role. That was always the problem with the play, he said. The actor who plays Lear has to be as strong as a bull. He should never tackle the role unless he’s in good shape and has been doing this kind of stuff all his life.”

Cariou wasn’t convinced but Langham was insistent. “You’ve got the technique to do it,” he told Cariou. “If you didn’t, I wouldn’t be asking you to play the part. Besides, it’s about time you started doing some of these great classical roles.” Langham knew Cariou’s work from the time, during the early 1960s, when they worked together at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

With Langham coaching him every step of the way, Cariou worked hard to prepare for his first Lear. He ended up giving a performance that, he said, was not too different from the one he was now giving, in 1983, at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre. “The only difference is that I’m 10 years older now,” he said. “Some things are a little easier to do because I’ve had that much more experience.”

“Of course, I was too young when I did it first,” he conceded. “But that doesn’t necessarily make a big difference when one has somebody like Langham to help you get there.” Bottom line: “It worked. Nobody but nobody ever asked why a 34-year-old actor was playing an 80-year-old man.”

Cariou had been working professionally for 24 years when I spoke to him in Edmonton. An early mentor was John Hirsch who directed the Winnipeg-born actor in plays at the Manitoba Theatre and subsequently brought him to Stratford. If if hadn’t been for Hirsch, said Cariou, “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today.”

Hirsch encouraged Cariou to try out for Broadway musicals when he might have been content to pursue a career as a dramatic actor. “You’re a born singer,” Hirsch told Cariou after directing him in The Boy Friend. “You must never give that up.” With that encouragement, Cariou landed a starring role and a Tony Award nomination for 1970’s Applause, a Broadway musical based on the movie All About Eve. Three years later, Cariou earned a second Tony nomination, for A Little Night Music. Six years after that, in 1979, came Sweeney Todd, for which Cariou won the Tony as best actor in a musical.

In 1981, Cariou starred opposite Alan Alda in the movie The Four Seasons. The same year, he starred in an acclaimed production of Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival. He told me that given a choice, he would do nothing but classical roles: “They are the biggest challenge for an actor. They stretch you in every possible direction and demand everything of you. They make you a better actor as a result. Doing classical theatre is just a marvellous way to spend a life.”

Cariou’s Lear, as expected, was nothing like Charles Lamb’s image of “an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night.” As I wrote in my review, this was a “robust Lear who could jog from Calgary to Banff with his three incorrigible daughters on his back.” Even in his dying scene, there was nothing decrepit or frail about Cariou’s titanic monarch. With his voice still booming loudly, he sounded as if he could go on for another three hours without losing a decibel.

Cariou told me he hoped to take Lear to Broadway, but this never happened. Nor did he do much in the way of classical roles in the years following. After directing a 1984 production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Citadel, Cariou returned to the stage in 1985 as a drunken Josef Stalin in the Citadel’s production of David Pownall’s black comedy, Master Class. That show opened off Broadway in 1986 and failed to impress the critics. Frank Rich of The New York Times said Cariou’s “unvaried boisterousness” did little to reconcile the dictator’s “variously megalomaniacal, sentimental and patriotic moods.” Cariou did somewhat better in 1987, playing President Theodore Roosevelt in a Broadway musical called Teddy and Alice. His performance was praised (for what Rich called Cariou’s “dignity and honest enthusiasm”) but the show itself was panned. Cariou also received good reviews for his 1990 off Broadway performance as U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in Douglas Scott’s Mountain, but that show too was panned. “A mountain of fascinating material has yielded a weightless play,” said the Times.

A blot appeared on Cariou’s acting resumé in 1988 when he was hired to star as legendary American showman Florenz Ziegfeld in a West End musical, Ziegfeld, billed as the most expensive (CAD$6.2 million) stage show ever produced in London. Cariou left the show after two weeks when it was savaged by the London press, and went back to New York where he still had plenty of job offers. He worked steadily on and off Broadway throughout the 1990s and into the first decades of the 21st century. He also worked steadily in films (About Schmidt, Secret Window) and television (Murder She Wrote, Law and Order). Currently, at age 75, Cariou has a recurring role as Tom Selleck’s father in the popular police drama Blue Bloods on CBS.

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015 

Brian Brennan

Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website,

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.


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