In this guest column for Deadline, actor Sam Waterston, who co-starred with Jeff Daniels in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom (2012-2014), offers his thoughts on seeing his old friend’s Tony-nominated performance as Atticus Finch in Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The 2019 Tony Awards are Sunday airing on CBS.
Everybody knows a Tony Award is a prize for a performance. It’s not a lifetime achievement award. But sometimes it could be, and Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those cases. A performance like that doesn’t just happen. You need to have it in you, you need to have spent a very long time learning the skills required to deliver it, and there are lots of them, having to do with timing and pace, with “touch” and “feel,” which goes back to having the part in you somewhere, even before it’s written, before Aaron Sorkin invented a new form for it and wrote it out in his own signature, insightful, brilliant — and demanding — way.
It’s a great part, alright. I believe Jeff has called it the role of a lifetime, and, except for whatever he’s going to do next, he could be right. Jeff has been nominated for Tonys before. I hope Tony voters this time will give him one to keep, at last, at long last, in recognition of the flesh, heart and voice he’s giving every night to a great American character, one of those fictional characters, like Huck Finn, say, who in many ways say what it is to be an American better than any of us real-live and actual Americans can say it ourselves.
I’ve known Jeff a long time, and worked with him a lot, although it will be a hot January before I ever think “OK, I’ve worked with this guy enough.” It’s too much fun; you learn too much. Way back when, Diane Wiest and I were playing Masha and Vershinin in The Three Sisters. Those were the big parts. When I wasn’t onstage myself, I stood in the wings night after night, watching the scenes the three sisters’ brother, Andrei, was in. It’s never true of a Chekhov character, but it’s close to true of Andrei, that there’s not much of him, and not much to him. He’s a bit of schlemiel, everyone pushes him around, he doesn’t count for much, he’s almost a cipher. A kid I’d never seen before, Jeff Daniels, had the part. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Every night, I tried to figure out why, how he did it. I now believe it’s one of the gifts Jeff brought with him when he came to town: the ability to make you watch, and to feel his beating heart, without appearing to do much. It’s sometimes called Presence, but, really, it’s Magic, and you can’t buy it anywhere.
Gifts need to be taken careful care of, they need nourishment to grow and get stronger. Jeff provided all that. That’s how we get to feel we’re in the actual presence of a giant, a national myth, Atticus Finch, a true icon, and AT THE VERY SAME time, that we’re on the porch with a small-town Southern lawyer from another era who happens to have it in his soul to do the right thing in a very difficult circumstance. For that, the actor has to have the soul in him and the skills to bring it. And then he’ll need the part that will let us see it.
Jeff Daniels has hit the trifecta. I think there should be a prize for that.