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Jack Warden, 85; Prolific Film, TV Actor

July 22, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Jack Warden, the gravel-voiced character actor and two-time Oscar nominee who appeared in nearly 100 feature films, has died. He was 85.

Warden, who won an Emmy award for his portrayal of crusty football coach George Halas in the 1971 television movie "Brian's Song," died Wednesday at a New York City hospital, Sidney Pazoff, his Los Angeles-based business manager, said Friday.

Pazoff said Warden, who was living in Manhattan, had been in failing health for several months. The cause of death was not given.

Warden first made his mark in the movies in 1957 as the sports-obsessed juror in "12 Angry Men." He received Academy Award nominations for his supporting work in two Warren Beatty vehicles, "Shampoo" (1975) and "Heaven Can Wait" (1978).

His small-screen resume was just as deep, with featured roles in a dozen series and appearances in about 100 shows and made-for-TV movies that stretched back to television's golden age and included "Mr. Peepers" (1952-55) on NBC, "N.Y.P.D." on ABC (1967-69), "Jigsaw John" (1976) on NBC and "Crazy Like a Fox" (1984-86) on CBS.

From the moment Warden broke through on Broadway in 1955 in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," he said, he never stopped working.

"I still panic sometimes when it comes down to 20 minutes between jobs," Warden told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1984. "I love what I'm doing...."

The gruff yet often engaging characters he became known for could have been lifted from his rough-and-tumble early life.

At 17, the redhead from Newark, N.J., was a ranked professional middleweight boxer who billed himself as Johnny Costello -- the last name was his mother's -- and reportedly once fought on the same card at Madison Square Garden as another future actor, Charles Durning.

Warden often said he got kicked out of high school for boxing professionally, so he joined the Navy and served in China patrolling the Yangtze River.

He came home in 1941, shoveled coal on tugboats on New York's East River and a year later joined the merchant marine.

His romance with the sea ended, he said, while he worked in the engine room of a freighter that was repeatedly attacked by German bombs. Every explosion sounded like a direct hit.

After the vessel made it to port, he demanded a job above deck. When the merchant marine wouldn't comply, Warden said, he went across the street and joined the Army's 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper.

"I figured anything was better than being trapped in the boiler room of a sinking ship," Warden said in 1984.

During a practice jump while preparing for the Normandy invasion, his chute failed to fully open. His broken leg required a steel plate and a lengthy hospital stay that had an unexpected side benefit.

A friend suggested that he read plays, and among the first Warden tackled was Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty." He identified with the play's striking cabdrivers and the way the story was told.

"That year in the hospital was the turning point in my life," Warden told the Herald Examiner. "After eight months of that diet, I thought I was an actor and headed straight for New York."

It was 1945, and a series of jobs -- bouncer at a dime-a-dance hall, shirt salesman, dockworker, roofer and semipro football player -- would come first.

"Warden's done it all," Jack Ging, an actor and friend, told TV Guide in 1979. "He's the kind of guy that Spencer Tracy played."

While working as a lifeguard in 1946 at a hotel pool in New York, Warden met Margo Jones, manager of the well-regarded Alley Theatre in Dallas. She asked him to join the company, and he spent five years there.

He debuted on television in 1950 in "The Philco TV Playhouse" production of "Ann Rutledge" on NBC and began appearing regularly in drama anthologies that often aired live.

He found live television exciting -- the next best thing to the stage.

With a bit of bluster, he captured a Broadway role in 1955 that became the springboard of his career.

Weeks went by as playwright Miller, who had cast approval for "A View From a Bridge," kept calling back Warden and others for readings. Finally, Warden improvised a scene as Marco, the Italian immigrant.

"That's it! That's exactly what I want!" Miller exclaimed, according to a 1966 TV Guide article.

The actor also had roles in a handful of other Broadway productions, beginning with Odets' "Golden Boy" in 1952 and including "The Man in the Glass Booth" in 1969.

Warden worked mainly, and steadily, in television and film through the 1990s, often playing the heavy in movies before inhabiting more comedic roles.

He was the scruffy outlaw in "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing" (1973), the cab-driving father in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974), the hard-nosed city editor in "All the President's Men" (1976) and Paul Newman's friend and conscience in "The Verdict" (1982).

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