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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Adieu Mr. Widmark

Hollywood actor Richard Widmark, who became an overnight star for his portrayal of a psychopathic killer in 1947 classic "Kiss of Death," has died after a long illness. He was 93.

Widmark died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut on Monday aged 93, his wife Susan Blanchard told The New York Times.

Blanchard told the paper that the actor's health had declined after he suffered a fractured verterbra in recent months.

"Everyman" 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.

Widmark made more than 60 films in a career that spanned five decades which saw him carve out a reputation for playing villains and tough guys.

But it was his debut Oscar-nominated performance as the gangster Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" that was to be his most memorable role.

The film features a chilling scene where Widmark's character ties up an old lady in a wheelchair with a piece of cord and then shoves her down a flight of stairs to her death, as her killer cackles dementedly.

Born in Minnesota on December 26, 1914, Widmark grew up in Princeton, Illinois, and after finishing high school attended Lake Forest College on a scholarship, where he studied drama.

He taught acting after graduation, directing and starring in several college productions before heading to New York in 1938 to work in radio dramas. With the outbreak of World War II, Widmark repeatedly tried to enlist but was turned down three times because of a perforated eardrum.

Instead of going to war, Widmark found himself on Broadway, starring in his first stage play in 1943 in "Kiss and Tell", where ironically he played an army lieutenant.

A further role in the controversial play "Trio," which was closed after 67 shows because of its sexual themes, earned Widmark glowing reviews and alerted Hollywood to his talents.

His big break came in the gangster flick "Kiss of Death." Director Henry Hathaway had initially rejected Widmark for the role of Udo, but the film-maker was overruled by Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox.

Film critics described Widmark's performance in the film as one of the scariest ever seen on screen.

"One will remember that nasty little creep with the wild eyes and high-pitched laugh, neurotic to the core, which Richard Widmark has turned into one of his finest roles," Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton wrote in "A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953."

"When in doubt, I'd laugh," he said. "And since this was my first picture and the mechanics of picture-making were new to me, I laughed a lot ... And then, too, part of the laugh came from the fact that I've always had a goofy laugh."

"The first time I met (John) Wayne, I had just made the film 'Kiss of Death," Widmark once said, "and Wayne was standing with a drink in his hand and said, 'Well, here comes that laughing s** of a ****h!'"

"Hoods are good parts because they're always flashy and attract attention," Widmark once said. "If you've got any ability, you can use that as a stepping stone."

The success of "Kiss of Death" earned Widmark a long-term contract with Fox, and over the course of seven years with the studio he became known for playing psychotic villains in films such as 1948's "The Street with No Name" and "Road House."

In reality, one of the screen's most vicious psychopath s 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."

Anxious to avoid being typecast, Widmark badgered his studio bosses to allow him to play other parts, and he was granted his wish with 1949's "Down to the Sea in Ships", where he played a sailor on a whaling ship.

Yet even when not playing villains, Widmark's characters had a flawed quality, as evidenced in 1949's "Slattery's Hurricane" where he played a world-weary pilot who flies a plane for drug smugglers.

Another notable role came in Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning film noir, "Panic in the Streets," where he starred alongside Jack Palance as the police officer attempting to track down a killer infected with bubonic plague.

After leaving Fox, Widmark chose to work outside the studio system for the remainder of his career, appearing in several westerns and social dramas.

Notable later films included a role alongside John Wayne in 1960's "The Alamo" and a memorable performance as a prosecutor in "Judgement at Nuremberg," where he shined amid an all-star cast. Widmark appeared with the Oscar-nominated Spencer Tracy and the Oscar-winning 'Maximilian Schell', as well as with

Burt Lancaster & Montgomery Clift as well as the legendary 'Judy Garland' (the latter two winning Oscar nods for their small roles). Despite being showcased with all this thespian-firepower, Widmark's character proved to be the axis on which this brilliant drama turned.

Widmark also worked with legendary director John Ford in two westerns, 1961's "Two Rode Together" and 1964's "Cheyenne Autumn." 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.

He was a great fan of Westerns and also appeared in these movies of that genre: "Garden of Evil" with Gary Cooper, "Broken Lance" with Spencer Tracy, John Ford's "Cheyenne" and the epic film, "How the West Was Won."

Other notable roles included a detective in "Madigan." In "No Way Out" he played a bitter racist but felt so bad about the lines his character spat at Sidney Poitier that he would apologize to Poitier between takes. 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.

Widmark's last movie role came in the 1991 political thriller "True Colors."

He lived quietly and avoided the press, saying in 1971, "I think a performer should do his work and then shut up.". "Los Angeles Times" critic Kevin Thomas thought that Widmark should have won an Oscar nomination for his turn in "When the Legends Die" (1972, playing a former rodeo star tutoring 'Frederic Forrest'. It is surprising to think that "Kiss of Death" represented his sole Oscar nomination, but with the rise of the respect for film noir around the time his career began tapering off in 70s, he began to be reevaluated as an actor. Unlike Bogart, who did not live to see his reputation flourish after his death, well before he retired, Widmark became a cult figure.

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."

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."

Widmark was married to his first wife Jean Hazlewood from April 1942 until her death in March 1997. The couple had one child, a daughter. Widmark married Susan Blanchard, his good friend Henry Fonda's third wife and widow, in September 1999. Besides his wife Susan, he is also survived by his daughter, Anne Heath Widmark, of Santa Fe, N.M., who once was married to the Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax.

He was amazing this man Richard Widmark and yes. He even did a guest shot on a much loved and very memorable "I Love Lucy."

Ah, remember that one? A classic. The episode, called "The Tour," was the season finale in May 1955. Lucy and Ethel are abandoned by their sightseeing bus tour when they try to get a grapefruit from Richard Widmark's garden. When Lucy is stranded inside the garden wall, she and Ethel, who is outside, launch plans to get Lucy out -- but without comparing notes on how.

So naturally Lucy ends up inside Widmark's house. Under a bear rug.

Farewell Mr. Widmark. You will be missed.


smilnsigh said...

-sigh- Another great one gone...

And thank you for reminding me of that great old "I Love Lucy" and the trip to Hollywood. Oh golly, Lucy and the grapefruit! :-)


Rosemary said...

Hi Susie,
So sad. Very interesting post today though. I learned a few things I didn't know before. That was a classic Lucy episode.
I don't live too far from Hidden Valley. I live about 20 minutes north.
Thanks for sharing with us,

Sandi McBride said...

I had the biggest crush on Richard Widmark when I was a kid...I've never seen Kiss of a Killer but it's on my Net Flix list...I read Cold Sassy Tree years ago and was so pleased that he had been chosen to play the grandpa part...sure was a sexy grandpa! Thanks for this moving trip down memory lane!

justabeachkat said...

Gosh, it seems f-o-r-e-v-e-r since I've been able to visit you. You've been very busy and I've enjoyed each and every post I've missed and I've loved seeing all the photos. I'm so jealous of your Springsteen night! What fun!

We had a ball on our California trip, but it's always nice to return home. I'm still gradually catching up on things around here. (Just in time before company comes next week...our daughter and my Mom and Aunt.)


Kellie said...

What a great walk done memory lane! Mr. Widmark lived in my neck of the woods -- his death was front page news this morning!

Thanks so much for visiting my blog!

Andi said...

This was interesting for me to read Sue. I had seen Richard Widmark in films but really didn't know that much about him. Now of course I feel like I do.

By the way...I've tagged you with an award and you don't even have to make a list or anything!

Hugs, Andi

Rue said...

Hi Sue :)
I do remember that Lucy episode. So sad that another star has left us.

I read your other posts too and you've been a busy bunny ;)

Grace looked beautiful in her Easter dress and I love your mom doing the bunny ears.


Simply Heart And Home said...

Gosh, I remember him. So very sad. Thank you for your tribute to him.

Pamela said...

quite a nice send off SzQ.