Prolific actor James Whitmore passed yesterday at the age of 87. The cause was lung cancer.
James Whitmore was born in October 1, 1921 in White Plains, New York. His family later moved to Buffalo, New York. He attended Amherst Central High School in Snyder, New York and then the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, on a football scholarship. He attended Yale University as a pre-law student on an athletic scholarship. He had to quit playing football after two injuries to his knees. While at Yale he helped start the college's radio station.
During World War II and during his senior year at Yale, Whitmore joined the Marines. He served in the South Pacific. Following the war Whitmore moved to New York City and started studying at the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill. By 1947 Whitmore had made his debut on Broadway, in the play Command Decision as Tech Sergeant Harold Evans. Whitmore would spend much of his career on stage. He returned to Broadway in the plays Winesburg, Ohio (1958), Inquest (1970), Will Rogers' USA (1974), Bully (1974), and Almost an Eagle (1982). He also appeared in the play Give 'Em Hell, Harry, which debuted in Webster Groves, Missouri in 1970.
Whitmore appeared in his first film with The Undercover Man in 1970. He would go on to appear in such films as The Asphalt Jungle, Across the Wide Missouri, Kiss Me Kate, Them, Oklahoma, Black Like Me, Madigan, Planet of the Apes, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Harrad Experiment, Give 'Em Hell, Harry, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Majestic. He was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in his debut role in Battlefield and for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his role as Harry Truman in Give 'em Hell, Harry.
James Whitmore appeared extensively on television, starting in an episode of Crossroads in 1955. Over the years he appeared on Studio One, Lux Video Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, Climax, Playhouse 90, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Combat, The Wonderful World of Disney, Burke's Law, The Invaders, Tarzan, The Big Valley, Bonanza, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Ray Bradbury Theatre, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (his last appearance on screen). He was one of the leads on the 1960-1961 series The Law and Mr. Jones and the 1969 series My Friend Tony. He was twice nominated for Emmy awards and won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for an appearance on The Practice.
If James Whitmore was a legendary actor, it is perhaps he was very much a chameleon. Over his career Whitmore played such diverse roles as Harry S Truman, Will Rogers, and Teddy Roosevelt, and he was extremely convincing in all three roles. Such was his talent that he carried he entire film version of Give 'Em Hell, Harry by himself, and was nominated for an Oscar for it. And while Harry Truman, Will Rogers, and Teddy Roosevelt are arguably heroic figures, Whitmore could play villains. In guest appearances on The Big Valley, in which he played such things as corrupt sheriffs and politicians, he could be downright sinister. Besides his talent, much of what set Whitmore above other actors was simply his authenticity. Whitmore had the ability to pick up the slang and body language of historical eras with ease, making him all the more convincing whether he was playing Harry Truman or a corrupt sheriff. There can be little doubt that James Whitmore was an actor matched only by a very few.