(December 26, 1914-March 24, 2008 )
It is one of the most chilling moments in screen history. An old woman in a wheelchair is confronted in her apartment by a trench-coated thug. "Iím askiní ya, whereís that squealiní son of yours?" he says. Dissatisfied by the womanís response, the thug rips the cord from a nearby lamp, ties the woman into the chair, then pushes her down a flight of stairs, maniacally cackling as she plunges to the bottom of the staircase and to the floor. Itís doubtful there is another scene in all of film noir as shocking in its cruelty as this moment in 1947ís Kiss of Death, and itís doubtful any actor has ever made such a stunning impression in his movie debut as Richard Widmark did as Tommy Udo, the giggling psychopath of this classic thriller. Of his performance, The New Yorker wrote that Widmark has "the ability to make a perfectly good set of white teeth appear more alarming than any prop-department fangs Boris Karloff ever bared."
"When I was a kid I loved Frankenstein," Widmark once told an interviewer. "I thought Boris Karloff was great." But until his screen debut in 1947, no one ever thought to compare the slight, blonde haired actor with the cinemaís king of horror. Born in Sunrise, Minnesota on December 26, 1914, Richard Widmarkís love affair with the movies started early. "Iíve been a movie bug since I was 4. My grandmother used to take me."
An effective public speaker in high school, Widmark had his eye on a career in law until the lead role in a college production of Consellor-at-Law convinced him to try his luck as an actor. He quit his position as the Assistant Director in Speech and Drama at Lake Forest College where he had earned a B.A. in 1936, moved to New York, and in 1938, scored a hit on radio in Aunt Jennyís Real Life Stories. In 1943, he made his Broadway debut in Kiss and Tell and went on to appear in such plays as Trio, Get Away Old Man, Kiss Them for Me, and Dunniganís Daughter.
On stage he generally played sympathetic good guys, so it was something of a surprise when 20th Century Fox chairman Darryl F. Zanuck insisted Widmark be cast as the homicidal Tom Udo in Kiss of Death after viewing the actorís screen test for the role. Top billing went to star Victor Mature with newcomer Widmarkís name buried in the credits under the title, but it was his supporting performance that proved a sensation. Fan clubs for Tom Udo sprang up overnight and, in addition to an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor (he lost to Edmund Gwennís Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street), Widmark became the first recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Associationís Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. Only two years later, the actor was placing his hand and foot prints in cement outside Graumanís Chinese Theatre.
Having signed a seven year contract with Fox, the new star was put to work in other psychotic roles. In 1948ís The Street With No Name he was cast as Alec Stiles, a fight promoter/gangster whose mob is infiltrated by an FBI agent. Cooler and more calculating that the hot blooded Udo but prone to sudden flashes of violence, Stiles showed that Widmark could be a commanding screen presence even with his loony giggle on hold. Of his role in this film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, "the timbre of (Widmarkís) voice is that of filthy water going down a sewer."
Later in 1948, he was also slightly unhinged in Road House, an odd noirish drama in which his unrequited love for Ida Lupino leads him to frame her lover for theft only so he can torture his rival when heís released in his custody. Proving equally at home on the range as in an urban milieu, Widmark next took his villainy out West opposite good guy Gregory Peck in William Wellmanís Yellow Sky.
Frustrated that he was being typecast as hoods, Widmark successfully lobbied for more varied roles and, in 1949, traded in his black hat for a sailorís cap in the atmospheric Down to the Sea in Ships. His reformation was detailed in a three page spread in the March 28 issue of Life magazine ("Widmark the Movie Villain Goes Straight").
Next came Elia Kazanís excellent 1950 thriller Panic in the Streets. As the by the book doctor who joins forces with hard-boiled detective Paul Douglas to track down a plague carrying Jack Palance, Widmark showed he need not always be a villain to be effective in film noir. But he was much too good at playing heartless heels to remain on the side of the angels for long. In Jules Dassinís grim Night and the City, the actor was cast in what may be his best role, that of Harry Fabian, a small-time hustler, "an artist without an art" as author Foster Hirsch describes him in his book The Dark Side of the Screen. More so than Robert DeNiro in the 1992 remake, Widmark made Fabian a desperate figure, one who claws his way through Londonís underworld yet never reaches the top. When film noir was finally recognized as a genre worthy of study in French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumetonís Panarama du film americain, it was Widmarkís gaunt frightened face in Night and the City that was pictured on the cover.
No Way Out, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was another noir nightmare, this time with a social conscience. As a bigot who blames a black intern (Sidney Poitier) for his brotherís death and retaliates by instigating a race riot, Widmark gave 1950 audiences a look at an Archie Bunker not played for laughs. The controversial film still packs a punch today.
Widmarkís reformation began in earnest in 1951ís The Halls of Montezuma, wherein he was cast as Lt. Anderson of the U.S. Marines. It would be followed by an assortment of military and adventure films starring Widmark, including The Frogmen, Red Skies of Montana, and Destination Gobi.
Back in civilian garb, Widmark provided an up and coming starlet named Marilyn Monroe some solid support in the otherwise flimsy thriller Donít Bother to Knock, but there was nothing flimsy about 1953ís Pickup on South Street. The New York Times may have found cult favorite Samuel Fullerís noir thriller "a trifle silly," but it was recently chosen as one of the best 100 films of the century by Entertainment Weekly. As a pickpocket caught between the FBI and Communist spies, Widmarkís Skip McCoy is the ultimate anti-hero, a lowly criminal in whose hands the fate of the free world falls.
Widmark ended his tenure at Fox with two 1954 westerns: Garden of Evil benefited from the presence of Gary Cooper and Susan Hayward, as well as a thrilling Bernard Herrmann score, while Broken Lance cast Widmark as the most acrimonious member of a dysfunctional family headed by Spencer Tracy. Acrimonious may also be the way to describe the actorís relationship with the studio at this time. Angry that the star would not extend his contract, studio mogul Zanuck pushed him into a supporting role in Broken Lance and gave him fourth billing behind lesser lights Robert Wagner and Jean Peters.
Now freelancing, Widmarkís career became erratic as he worked for a variety of studios in films both good and bad. Whereas seven years earlier he was cast as characters in need of psychiatric treatment, in MGMís The Cobweb he was Dr. Stewart McIver, the head of a mental institution who treats patients while treating himself to the charms of Lauren Bacall. There were westerns like the excellent The Last Wagon and more adventure films (Run for the Sun, A Prize of Gold), as well as the role of the Dauphin in Otto Premingerís disastrous Saint Joan (1957).
For his own Heath productions, Widmark called upon his friend Karl Malden to direct Time Limit, a grim war drama, before lightening the mood considerably by starring opposite Doris Day in the Gene Kelly directed comedy Tunnel of Love.
Political differences and personality conflicts were reportedly rife throughout the filming of John Wayneís labor of love, The Alamo (1960), but if the two stars didnít hit it off personally, Widmarkís Jim Bowie was one of the highlights of the hit and miss production. Maximilian Schell had the flashier and, therefore Oscar winning role in Stanley Kramerís ambitious Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) but Widmarkís prosecutor was the glue that held the all-star drama together.
With television taking its toll on theater attendance, "all-star" productions were considered the safest way to fill theater seats, so Widmark often found himself teamed with another big name in many of his films during the decade. In addition to taking a place among the all-star cast of How the West Was Won, he was paired with James Stewart in John Fordís Two Rode Together, with Sidney Poitier in The Long Ships and The Bedford Incident, with Yul Brynner in Flight from Ashiya, with William Holden in Alvarez Kelly, and he joined both Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum for The Way West, an ambitious but less than spectacular adaptation of A.B. Guthrieís Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The best of his films from this period was probably Fordís Cheyenne Autumn, the last of the great directorís westerns and, if not one of his best, it was still more thoughtful than any other western of the time.
If Fordís western was his best film of the mid to late 60ís, Madigan gave him his best role. Directed by Don Siegel, the 1968 film followed a maverick detective and his partnerís pursuit of a homicidal maniac. Though thereís some fine action and crisp dialogue, the film, a precursor of sorts to Siegelís Dirty Harry, was marred by subplots involving the detectiveís less than ideal relationship with wife Inger Stevens and Commissioner Henry Fondaís investigation of corruption in the NYPD. Still, Widmark was very much at home on the police beat, playing a detective in a terse style later echoed by TVís NYPD Blue.
Another fine role, one which Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas believed "deserves to be remembered come Oscar nomination time," came in 1972ís When the Legends Die. As a former rodeo star tutoring Frederic Forrest, Widmark was better cast than Cliff Robertson, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn, all of whom also hit the rodeo circuit in films at the time.
But with good roles in quality projects becoming scarce, Widmark, whose only previous television appearance was in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy, ended his long embargo against the medium by heading the all-star cast of NBCís 1971 four hour "World Premiere Movie," Vanished. Very impressive indeed as the President of the United States whose administration is rocked by the mysterious disappearance of an advisor, Widmark won an Emmy nomination.
The year 1971 found such movie stalwarts as Anthony Quinn, Shirley Maclaine, Rock Hudson, James Garner, Rod Taylor, and Henry Fonda seeking renewed popularity as stars of their own TV series, and thatís what Widmark had in mind with Brockís Last Case, another NBC-TV movie, this one serving as a series pilot. The premise--a New York detective disgusted with crime retires to a ranch in California only to become embroiled in a murder case involving a ranch hand--was weak at best, and the network instead asked the star to reprise Madigan. This he did in six 90 minute episodes that began appearing in September 1972 as one-third of the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie. Short-tempered and blunt to the point of rudeness, Widmarkís detective was a breath of fresh air on network television but despite excellent reviews and good ratings, the show was cancelled after one season.
His lined aging face now looking like it wouldnít be out of place on Mount Rushmore, Widmark spent the next two decades alternating between roles in movies and television, now more often than not cast in authoritative roles. He was Ratchett, the millionaire whose Murder on the Orient Express was one of 1974ís top box-office hits. In Robert Aldrichís Twilightís Last Gleaming (1977), he was a General negotiating with terrorist Burt Lancaster, and in 1978ís Coma, he returned to villainy as the nefarious surgeon involved in a scheme to sell body parts on the black market.
On television, he was an unusual choice to play Benjamin Franklin: the Rebel (1975), but was on familiar ground in the westerns, The Last Day (1975), Mr. Horn (1979), and Once Upon a Texas Train (1988). His liberal political credentials drew him to such socially minded projects as All Godís Children (1980) and A Gathering of Old Men (1987), while his interest in conservation led him to narrate numerous wildlife documentaries and to appear in 1981ís A Whale for the Killing. In 1989 at the age of 74, he even romanced Faye Dunaway in the TNT presentation of Cold Sassy Tree.
Devoted to the craft of acting but not to the perpetuation of a star image, Widmark maintained a low profile when not in the cameraís range. Married to playwright Jean Hazlewood from 1942 until her death in 1997 (a daughter, Anne, was born in 1945), Widmark lived quietly, avoided interviews and, except for appearances on The Merv Griffin Show in 1975 and 1978, and a salute to Broadway legend George Abbott on a segment of Dinah Shoreís show in 1977, has rarely appeared on talk shows or taken part in publicity seeking endeavors. As a result, Widmark is not always given the credit he deserves as a great star and a fine actor. "I think a performer should do his work and then shut up," he told The New York Times in 1971. This Richard Widmark has done, and well, for more than five decades.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.
On Movies and Criticism
FOREWORD from I Saw That Movie, Too
Vanished (1971), Brockís Last Case (1972), The Last Day (1975), Mr. Horn (1979), All Godís Children (1980), A Whale for the Killing (1981), Blackout (1985), A Gathering of Old Men (1987), Once Upon a Texas Train (1988), Cold Sassy Tree (1989).
"Madigan" segment of NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie (September 1972-September 1973). Six 90 minute episodes: "The Manhatten Beat," "The Midtown Beat," "The London Beat," "The Lisbon Beat," "The Naples Beat," and "The Park Avenue Beat."
MISCELLANEOUS TV APPEARANCES:
I Love Lucy (1955), Benjamin Franklin: the Rebel (1975), The Merv Griffin Show (1976), Dinah (1977), The American Film Institute Salute to Henry Fonda, The Merv Griffin Show (1978), The American Film Institute Salute to Gregory Peck (1989), The Spencer Tracy Legacy (1986), Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend (1987), The American Film Institute Salute to Sidney Poitier (1991), Lincoln (1992), Big Guns Talk: The Story of the Western (1997).
Previously published at