Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark R.I.P.

Richard Widmark, the actor who starred in movies ranging from Kiss of Death to To the Devil a Daughter, passed Monday at the age of 93. He broken a vertebra a few months ago and his health had declined considerably.

Richard Widmark was born on December 26, 1914 in Sunrise, Minnesota. He grew up in Princeton, Illinois. Widmark fell in love with motion pictures when he was only three years old, although he really wasn't interested in acting a child. He attended Lake Forest College, where he studied acting. He spent two years following his graduation teaching acting at the college before going to New York City in 1938. He soon found himself cast in the radio show Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories. As a radio actor Widmark found himself very much in demand, appearing in such shows as Big Sister, Life Can Be Beautiful, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Stella Dallas, and Inner Sanctum. He starred in the radio show Front Page Farrell and provided narration for Gangbusters.

Because of a puncture eardrum Richard Widmark could not serve during World War II. He made his debut on Broadway in 1943 in the play Kiss and Tell. He would go on to appear in the plays Get Away Old Man (1943), Trio (1944), Kiss Them For Me (1945), and Dunnigan's Daughter (1945). It was in 1947 that Widmark made his screen debut in Kiss of Death. His role as grinning, laughing psychopath Tommy Udo turned him into an instant star and earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. To this day Tommy Udo is regarded as one of the great screen villains of all time. He was signed to a seven year contract at Fox, where he made such movies as Yellow Sky, Road House, Night and the City, Panic in the Streets, and Pickup on South Street. Even in his early days as a movie actor Widmark defied typecasting. He played the villainous bandit Dude in the Western Yellow Sky, but also played the selfless physician Lt. Commander Reed in Panic in the Streets.

After his contract with Fox had ended, Widmark formed his own production company, and produced three films: Time Limit (1957), The Secret Ways (1961), and The Bedford Incident (1964). His career also continued unabated, as Widmark played in a diverse number of film genres, including Westerns (The Last Wagon, The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock, The Alamo, and Cheyenne Autumn), action/adventure (Run for the Sun, Flight from Ashiya), comedy (Tunnel of Love), film noir (The Trap). Prize of Gold), and drama (Judgement at Nuremberg). He continued to act throughout the Seventies and Eighties, his last film being True Colours released in 1991.

Widmark only appeared a few times on television. His 1968 detective drama Madigan was one of the rotating elements of the NBC Mystery Movie during its 1972-1973 season. He also appeared in the television movies The Last Day, Mr. Horn, and A Whale for the Killing, among others.

Quite simply, Richard Widmark was one of the greatest movie actors of all time. Throughout a career that nearly spanned five decades, he resisted being typecast. The reason for this was that Widmark could play a wide range of roles and be utterly convincing in all of them. He wholly believable as the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, yet he was also believable as the heroic pilot Will Slattery in Slattery's Hurricane. He could play everything from the vilest mobsters to the noblest doctors. Widmark was also a private man who was very sensitive to the feeling of others. Playing the racist Ray Biddle in No Way Out, he apologised after every scene to Sidney Potier, even though Potier knew Widmark was simply playing a role in a movie! Widmark never appeared on talk shows, regarding himself as an ordinary guy rather than a celebrity. Indeed, Widmark was married to the same woman, writer Jean Hazelwood, for almost fifty five years until her death in 1997. In the end it can truly be said that Widmark was not only a great actor, but a stand up guy.


J. Marquis said...

I was shocked to find out he had just died. It was a remarkable career.

d. chedwick bryant said...

breaking a vertebra sounds really painful, but when you're in your nineties, it has to be the worst. I suppose you might think "This is IT. I'm not sure I'm gonna recover." heartbreaking to decline rather than go quickly or in your sleep.

I remember the L Love LUCY episode where she was all
"Richard Widmark!" the poor guy had Lucy after him, but he handled it with grace.

I hope Turner Classics does a Widmark day --they probably will.