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Another Oldtimer Gone…

Richard Widmark, Actor, Dies at 93
nytimes.com ^ | March 26, 2008 | ALJEAN HARMETZ
Posted on 03/26/2008 12:37:09 PM EDT by lunarbicep
Richard Widmark, who created a villain in his first movie role who was so repellent and frightening that the actor became a star overnight, died Monday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 93.


His death was announced Wednesday morning by his wife, Susan Blanchard. She said that Mr. Widmark had fractured a vertebrae in recent months and that his conditioned had worsened.

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March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark, Actor, Dies at 93

Richard Widmark, who created a villain in his first movie role who was so repellent and frightening that the actor became a star overnight, died Monday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 93.

His death was announced Wednesday morning by his wife, Susan Blanchard. She said that Mr. Widmark had fractured a vertebrae in recent months and that his conditioned had worsened.

As Tommy Udo, a giggling, psychopathic killer in the 1947 gangster film “Kiss of Death,” Mr. Widmark tied up an old woman in a wheelchair (played by Mildred Dunnock) with a cord ripped from a lamp and shoved her down a flight of stairs to her death.

“The sadism of that character, the fearful laugh, the skull showing through drawn skin, and the surely conscious evocation of a concentration-camp degenerate established Widmark as the most frightening person on the screen,” the critic David Thomson wrote in “The Biographical Dictionary of Film.”

The performance won Mr. Widmark his sole Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actor.

Tommy Udo made the 32-year-old Mr. Widmark, who had been an established radio actor, an instant movie star, and he spent the next seven years playing a variety of flawed heroes and relentlessly anti-social mobsters in 20th Century Fox’s juiciest melodramas.

His mobsters were drenched in evil. Even his heroes, including the doctor who fights bubonic plague in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950), the daredevil pilot flying into the eye of a storm in “Slattery’s Hurricane” (1949) and the pickpocket who refuses to be a traitor in Samuel Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street” (1953) were nerve-strained and feral.

“Movie audiences fasten on to one aspect of the actor, and then they decide what they want you to be,” Mr. Widmark once said. “They think you’re playing yourself. The truth is that the only person who can ever really play himself is a baby.”

In reality, the screen’s most vicious psychopath was a mild-mannered former teacher who had married his college sweetheart, the actress Jean Hazelwood, and who told a reporter 48 years later that he had never been unfaithful and had never even flirted with women because, he said, “I happen to like my wife a lot.”

He was originally turned down for the role of Tommy Udo by the movie’s director, Henry Hathaway, who told Mr. Widmark that he was too clean-cut and intellectual. It was Darryl Zanuck, the Fox studio head, who, after watching Mr. Widmark’s screen test, insisted that he be given the part.

Among the 65 movies he made over the next five decades were “The Cobweb” (1955), in which he played the head of a psychiatric clinic where the staff seemed more emotionally troubled than the patients; “Saint Joan” (1957) , as the Dauphin to Joan Seberg’s Joan of Arc; John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960), as Jim Bowie, the inventor of the Bowie knife; “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), as an American army colonel prosecuting German war criminals; and John Ford’s revisionist western “Cheyenne Autumn” (1963), as an army captain who risks his career to help the Indians.

The genesis of “Cheyenne Autumn” was research Mr. Widmark had done at Yale into the suffering of the Cheyenne. He showed his work to John Ford and, two years later, Ford sent Mr. Widmark a finished screenplay.

Mr. Widmark created the role of Detective Sergeant Daniel Madigan in Don Siegel’s 1968 film “Madigan.” It proved so popular that later played the loner Madigan on an NBC television series during the 1972-73 season.

As his blonde hair turned grey, Mr. Widmark moved up in rank, playing generals in the nuclear thriller “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977) and “The Swarm” (1978), in which he waged war on bees. He was the evil head of a hospital in “Coma” (1978) and a United States Senator in “True Colors” (1991).

He was forever fighting producers’ efforts to stereotype him. Indeed, he became so adept at all types of roles that he consistently lent credibility to inferior movies and became an audience favorite over a career that spanned more than half a century.

“I suppose I wanted to act in order to have a place in the sun,” he once told a reporter. “I’d always lived in small towns, and acting meant having some kind of identity.”

Richard Widmark (he had no middle name) was born on Dec. 26, 1914, in Sunrise, Minn., and grew up throughout the Midwest. His father, Carl Widmark, was a traveling salesman who took his wife, Mae Ethel, and two sons from Minnesota to Sioux Falls, S.D.; Henry, Ill.; Chillicothe, Mo.; and Princeton, Ill., where Mr. Widmark graduated from high school as senior class president.

Movie crazy, he was afraid to admit his interest in the “sissy” job of acting. On a full scholarship at Lake Forest College in Illinois, he played end on the football team, took third place in a state oratory contest, starred in plays and was, once again, senior class president.

Graduating in 1936, he spent two years as an instructor in the Lake Forest drama department, directing and acting in two dozen plays. Then he headed to New York City in 1938, where one of his classmates was producing 15-minute radio soap operas and cast Mr. Widmark in a variety of roles.

“Getting launched was easy for me — too easy, perhaps,” he said of his success playing “young, neurotic guys” on “Big Sister,” “Life Can Be Beautiful,” “Joyce Jordan, M.D.,” “Stella Dallas,” “Front Page Farrell,” “Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories” and “Inner Sanctum.”

At the beginning of World War II, Mr. Widmark tried to enlist in the army but was turned down three times because of a perforated eardrum. So he turned, in 1943, to Broadway. In his first stage role, he played an Army lieutenant in F. Hugh Herbert’s “Kiss and Tell,” directed by George Abbott. Appearing in the controversial play “Trio,” which was closed by the License Commissioner after 67 performances because it touched on lesbianism, he received glowing reviews as a college student who fights to free the girl he loves from the domination of an older woman.

After a successful, 10-year career as a radio actor, he tried the movies with “Kiss of Death,” which was being filmed in New York. Older than most new recruits, he was, to his surprise, summoned to Hollywood after the movie was released. “I’m probably the only actor who gave up a swimming pool to go out to Hollywood,” Mr. Widmark told The New Yorker in 1961.

He had never expected 20th Century Fox to pick up the option on the contract he was forced to sign to get the role of Tommy Udo. During the seven years of his Fox contract, he starred in 20 movies, including “Yellow Sky” (1948), as the blackguard who menaces Gregory Peck; “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949), as a valiant whaler; Jules Dassin’s “Night and the City” (1950), as a small- time hustler who dreams of becoming a wrestling promoter; and “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), in which the tables were turned and he was the prey of a psychopathic Marilyn Monroe.

A passionate liberal Democrat, Mr. Widmark played a bigot who baits a black doctor in Joseph Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950). He was so embarrassed by the character that after every scene he apologized to the young actor he was required to torment, Sidney Poitier. In 1990, when Mr. Widmark was given the D.W. Griffith Career Achievement Award by the National Board of Review, it was Mr. Poitier who presented it to him.

Within two years after his Fox contract ended, Mr. Widmark had formed a production company and produced “Time Limit” (1957), a serious dissection of possible treason by an American prisoner of war that The New York Times called “sobering, important and exciting.” Directed by the actor Karl Malden, “Time Limit” starred Mr. Widmark as an army colonel who is investigating a major (Richard Basehart) who is suspected of having broken under pressure during the Korean War and aided the enemy.

Mr. Widmark produced two more films: “The Secret Ways” (1961) in which he went behind the Iron Curtain to bring out an anti-Communist leader; and “The Bedford Incident” (1964), another Cold War drama, in which he played an ultraconservative naval captain trailing a Russian submarine and putting the world in danger of a nuclear catastrophe.

Mr. Widmark told The Guardian in 1995 that he had not become a producer to make money but to have greater artistic control. “I could choose the director and my fellow actors,” he said. “I could carry out projects which I liked but the studios didn’t want.”

He added: “The businessmen who run Hollywood today have no self-respect. What interests them is not movies but the bottom line. Look at ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ which turns idiocy into something positive, or ‘Forrest Gump,’ a hymn to stupidity. ‘Intellectual’ has become a dirty word.”

He also vowed he would never appear on a talk show on television, saying, “When I see people destroying their privacy — what they think, what they feel — by beaming it out to millions of viewers, I think it cheapens them as individuals.”

In 1970, he won an Emmy nomination for his first television role, as the president of the United States in a mini-series based on Fletcher Knebel’s novel “Vanished.” By the 1980s, television movies had transformed the jittery psychopath of his early days into a wise and stalwart lawman. He played a Texas Ranger opposite Willie Nelson’s train robber in “Once Upon a Texas Train,” a small-town police chief in “Blackout” and, most memorably, a bayou country sheriff faced with a group of aged black men who have confessed to a murder in “A Gathering of Old Men.”

“The older you get, the less you know about acting,” he told one reporter, “but the more you know about what makes the really great actors.” The actor he most admired was Spencer Tracy, because, he said, Tracy’s acting had a reality and honesty that seemed effortless.

Mr. Widmark, who hated the limelight, spent his Hollywood years living quietly on a large farm in Connecticut and an 80-acre horse ranch in Hidden Valley, north of Los Angeles. Asked once if he had been “astute” with his money, he answered, “No, just tight.”

He sold the ranch in 1997 after the death of Ms. Hazelwood, his wife of 55 years. “I don’t care how well known an actor is,” Mr. Widmark insisted. “He can lead a normal life if he wants to.”

Besides his wife, Ms. Blanchard, Mr. Widmark is survived by his daughter, Anne Heath Widmark, of Santa Fe, N.M., who had once been married to the Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax.

Well into his later years, the nonviolent, gun-hating Mr. Widmark, who described himself as “gentle,” was accosted by strangers who expected him to be a tough guy. There is even a story that Joey Gallo, the New York mobster, was so taken by Mr. Widmark’s performance in “Kiss of Death” that he copied the actor’s natty posture, sadistic smirk and tittering laugh.

“It’s a bit rough,” Mr. Widmark once said, “priding oneself that one isn’t too bad an actor and then finding one’s only remembered for a giggle.”

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