Arthur Rubinstein's Prodigy Actor Son, John, Proves a Virtuoso Too—at the Language of the Deaf

updated 06/02/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1980 01:00AM

In Arthur Rubinstein's salon, Peter Ustinov used to do outlandish imitations of German opera singers. Igor Stravinsky lent his avuncular presence to the children's piano practice. Pablo Picasso proudly showed the family his bullfight paintings. Picasso, recalls John Rubinstein, the youngest of the virtuoso pianist's four offspring, "was just another old man—like my father."

No irreverence is intended, only a refreshing candor, which Arthur, now 93, appreciates. "John is colossal," he says of his son, who is both a gifted actor (most widely seen in ABC's Family) and movie composer. "If you were a father, what would you think if your son made it so far? I am absolutely in heaven."

Equally transported of late are the Broadway audiences giving John, 33, standing ovations in Children of a Lesser God. Cast as a teacher of the deaf who eventually marries a student, Rubinstein must deliver his own lines, convert them into sign language for co-star Phyllis Frelich (who has been deaf since birth) and translate her signs for the audience. His astounding quickness in picking up "signing" during an audition won Rubinstein the role, and within four weeks he was fluent in the language of the deaf. "I couldn't stop thinking about it," he explains. His performance may well win him a Tony for best actor June 8, but Rubinstein remains blasé. "There are no real highs and lows in my life," he insists. "It's a continuous story."

In recent years, though, it has been all onward and upward. In 1972 John opened in the title role in the Broadway musical smash Pippin and stayed for two years. On TV, he has appeared in everything from Mod Squad to The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as playing Jeff Maitland in Family. Last week he was seen as Hollywood tycoon Irving Thalberg in NBC's Moviola. Rubinstein's movie career has included acting in Zachariah and In Search of Historic Jesus and composing the scores for The Candidate and Jeremiah Johnson.

His youth was equally eclectic. Says John's close friend, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman: "The father is a monument of the 20th century. I imagine it must have been difficult to live with that." John's mother is Aniela Mlynarski, daughter of a Polish conductor and 16 years younger than Arthur. She, too, is a strong-willed figure. Recalling the past, John reflects: "Until ninth or tenth grade I thought I was a product of my parents lives, their doctrines."

His early years were spent in New York, Paris and Beverly Hills, where John developed a crush on Candy Bergen and chummed around with Liza Minnelli. "I remember her coming to a Halloween party as a fairy with a wand and jewels," says John. "Everybody else was a ghost or a goblin." By the time he was a sixth grader, John was sending flowers and billets-doux to girls. Receiving an ungrammatical note in return, he sent it back, corrected.

A classical pianist from the age of 4, Rubinstein says his "technique was never very good," and he turned to pop music and acting in his teens. His father thought he should be a conductor. John enlisted the moral support of another family friend, Laurence Olivier, and lobbied to skip college and act. Parental pressure made him enroll in UCLA in 1964. But in his senior year he quit to join the road company of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Three years and numerous acting credits later, he performed with actress Judi West at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. "He taught me what love meant," says Judi. "That sounds dirty," cracks John.

The pair married in 1971 and have two children, Jessica, 8, and Michael, 6. The Rubinsteins own a home in Beverly Glen but are negotiating to buy a Manhattan co-op. Meanwhile they are living out of boxes in a small sublet. Judi, though primarily involved with child raising, did a segment of Love Boat last season.

When his current nine-month Broadway commitment is over next December, John hopes to direct a film or play. "I'm looking forward," he asserts, "to being John Rubinstein, and not the 'virtuoso's son.' " But he's philosophical about the future. "If the things I wish don't come about, I consider it a vacation," says John. "My career and my life have a movement of their own." In an odd phrase for a Rubinstein or the star of Lesser God he adds, "It's out of my hands."

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