Sunday, March 22, 2009

Featured Today: Richard Widmark

Featured Today: Richard Widmark

Richard Weedt Widmark
26 December 1914 - 24 March 2008

Richard Widmark was one of the movies' all-time great tough guys. A handsome man, he could contort his face into something gruesome, a sneer conveying a ruthless hatred and sadistic intent -- the savagery to do great damage, the lack of conscience to enjoy it, and the clear intelligence to get away with almost anything. Before he was a movie star, Widmark was a movie buff. When he was four, his Scottish grandfather started taking the toddler to silent films, and he became a great fan of star Boris Karloff. As a teen, Widmark could smooth-talk his way out of trouble. He was elected class president in high school, and his intent was to become an attorney. When his college announced plans to stage Counsellor at Law, a then-popular play about a lawyer, the brash Widmark auditioned for the lead. He won the role, and he knew on opening night that playing a lawyer was more enjoyable than being one, so he decided to become an actor instead.

His first role came in 1938, when he joined the cast of Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories, a popular daily 15-minute soap opera on the radio. He left that program to star in his own radio drama, as reporter Front Page Farrell. He also provided narration for Gangbusters, a true-crime show. In the late 1970s, long after he became a movie star, Widmark returned to radio as host of CBS Mystery Theatre.
He tried to enlist for service in World War II, but was rejected due to a perforated eardrum. He made his Broadway debut in 1943, but in plays he was always cast as charming, good-natured fellows. Even as his name became familiar on New York marquees, he was more famous and better paid for his radio work.

He cackled with laughter in 1947's Kiss of Death, as he shoved an old, wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs. It was his first bad guy, and the director had not wanted Widmark, but his performance overshadowed the lead (Victor Mature) and made him a star. He was Oscar-nominated for the role, but lost -- and amazingly, he was never nominated again.

Over subsequent decades, Widmark perfected his haggard, haunting style, playing numerous psychotics, sons of bitches, and cold-blooded killers. Among his many memorable roles, he played a gangster in The Street with No Name with Ed Begley, Sr., a small-time hood in Night and the City with Gene Tierney, and framed an innocent man in Road House with Cornel Wilde. He triggered a race riot in No Way Out with Sidney Poitier, he played a pickpocket with potentially cataclysmic consequences in Pickup on South Street with Thelma Ritter, and he was the surgeon with a secret in Coma with Michael Douglas.

Proving he did not need to play evil to hold the screen, Widmark was excellent as the doctor battling bubonic plague in Panic in the Streets with Jack Palance, as the heroic Marine in Halls of Montezuma with Palance again, and as the prosecutor in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. He was also terrific as the blunt, quick-tempered detective Dan Madigan, in the 1968 movie and a few early-'70s TV sequels.

Perhaps Widmark's finest performance came in The Bedford Incident, a very effective thriller, now generally-forgotten. As the stern commander of a US Navy destroyer on cold war patrol, Widmark's crew detects a Soviet submarine in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and pursues the enemy vessel with dogged determination. In addition to starring, Widmark also produced the film, because he liked its ominous anti-war message.

A longtime liberal and equal rights advocate, Widmark says the only reason he was not blacklisted in the 1950s is because he was "never a joiner", so he had no memberships to disavow. He said he hated his role as the bigoted crook in No Way Out. The script had him saying terrible things to Poitier, and every time the director yelled "cut", Widmark would apologize to his co-star.

He lost the desire to act when his wife of more than fifty years, Jean Hazelwood, became ill in the early 1990s. Two years after her 1997 death, he married Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein and ex-wife of Widmark's longtime friend Henry Fonda. Baseball great Sandy Koufax was Widmark's son-in-law for the decade the Dodger was married to Widmark's daughter, Anne.

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