He studied theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After establishing himself prominently on the American stage, he began appearing in silents beginning with The Gilded Lily (1921). He appeared in more than 100 films, the last of which was the Elvis Presley vehicle Wild in the Country (1961). He starred in a number of silents, often as a clean-living rural hero; in the sound era he began playing character roles, almost always as an arch villain. Due to a serious eye infection, he was absent from the big screen in the '50s. He was the father of actor Jason Robards, with whom he appeared on Broadway in 1958 in The Disenchanted.