Wednesday, March 7

Richard Widmark

Early in his movie career he played vicious psychopaths and an assortment of other unsavory types, often in my beloved film noirs, and then he gravitated to mainly good-guy roles, frequently in war dramas and westerns.  In his later career, at an age when most actors would have retired or at least been forgotten by Hollywood, he got back to some bad-guy roles.  And the funny thing is, like a lot of those who played villains, in real life he was a terrifically nice guy.  I have always considered him to be one of the most watchable of actors, a true scene-stealer if there ever was one.

Richard Widmark had done some radio early in his career and a little Broadway where he was discovered by a 20th Century Fox talent scout and signed to a seven-year contract.  I thought that studio had the most talented stable of stars and Widmark is one of the reasons it was.

He was nominated for a supporting Oscar for his very first film, 1947's Kiss of Death... one that will forever be associated with him... as a maniacal, giggling thug who pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.  That kind of a role could have spelled the end of a career for an unknown actor... not because he was bad at it but because he was quite good with no basis for comparing it to any other work.  That goosebump-producing laugh was put to good use in many a movie.

He was dynamite as a controlling nightclub owner in Road House (1948), slimy as a street hustler in Night and the City (1948), hateful as a racist in No Way Out (1950) and sleazy as a pickpocket in Pickup on South Street 1953).  When he wasn't making these film noirs, he easily segued into a hero in such war dramas as The Halls of Montezuma (1950), The Frogmen (1951) and Take the High Ground (1953). 

All of these films were for Fox.  He seemed to be the go-to boy; studio head Darryl F. Zanuck favored cooperative stars in his stable and Widmark was a favorite of the boss.

Then he went and put on chaps and cowboy boots for his first western, the superior 1948 Yellow Sky, as a bank robber on the run with a gang.  He saddled up again as one of four men hired by Susan Hayward to help her retrieve her wounded husband from the Mexican jungles in Garden of Evil and as one of Spencer Tracy's unruly sons in Broken Lance, both 1954.   One of my favorite Widmark westerns was The Last Wagon, 1956, where he shifted gears as a sympathetic hero playing the reluctant wagon master.  More westerns as the hero included Warlock (1957) as a man trying to redeem himself, as Jim Bowie in The Alamo (1960), as a cavalry officer out to retrieve captives from the Indians in Two Rode Together (1961), in the all-star epic How the West Was Won (1963) and The Way West (1967) again as a member of a wagon train.  He rubbed shoulders with some big stars in these films... Henry Fonda, John Wayne, James Stewart, Anthony Quinn, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.

He mixed it up some playing a bit of a patsy to Marilyn Monroe's role as a crazy babysitter in 1952s Don't Bother to Knock.  He did adventure films, notably with beautiful Jane Greer trying to escape nasty Germans in the jungle in 1956's Run for the Sun and in historical dramas, playing like the Dauphin in the highly-anticipated but ultimately unsuccessful Saint Joan (1957) and the prosecuting attorney in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg.  He was the wealthy man everyone wanted to kill in the 1974 all-star blockbuster, Murder on the Orient Express.

Widmark could handle many forms of drama with superior ability but when he tried playing a frustrated husband to Doris Day in the 1958 comedy Tunnel of Love, it flopped.  He did have some misses-- what actor doesn't?-- and in his mid-to-later career he made some silly stuff at Universal when that studio cranked 'em out like salmon during spawning season.  One of these was the cop drama Madigan (1968) which he later revived as a short-lived TV show.

In his later years, he became the second male lead, often the nemesis of the leading man... to some new guys like Jeff Bridges,  Timothy Bottoms and Michael Douglas and in his final film True Colors with John Cusack.  And Widmark was still good.  He never lost his touch, his edge; he could cut you up with a steely stare and a snarl and always that laugh.

He didn't do much television in his early and middle career but one exception was an I Love Lucy where our girl trespasses onto his property so she can collect a souvenir.  He did comedy!

He was as much a no-nonsense guy offscreen as he was onscreen.  There were no scandals.  He never bought into the whole Hollywood carnival atmosphere.  Publicity was not his game but turning in efficient, workmanlike performances was. 

He was married over 50 years to his dream wife.  They were for awhile the in-laws to Dodger baseball great, Sandy Koufax.  After Widmark was widowed he married one of Henry Fonda's ex-wives.  Interestingly, Widmark made five movies with Fonda.

At 93 super actor Richard Widmark died at his Connecticut home.

NEXT POSTING:  My 48th Favorite Film

1 comment:

  1. Wow-- another great piece about a true Hollywood original. Widmark was a near-by Connecticut neighbor-- not known by me, but to my brother. He was as unpretentious as they come and a true dog lover and guardian of the land. Not one for any Hollywood nonsense, he did happily accommodate my brother's request one time to call my Mom-- perhaps his greatest fan-- one year on her birthday. He was truly a great guy.