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Richard Widmark, 1914 - 2008

Actor played both heavies, heroes

March 27, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Richard Widmark, who made an indelible screen debut in 1947 as a giggling sadistic killer and later brought a sense of urban cynicism and unpredictability to his roles as a leading man, has died. He was 93.

Widmark died Monday at his home in Roxbury, Conn., after a long illness, his wife, Susan Blanchard, told The Times on Wednesday. She said a fractured vertebra that Widmark suffered in a fall last year was the beginning of his illness.

"I lost a dear friend, and you don't have friends like him," said Karl Malden, who first met Widmark in New York when they were both "hustling for radio work" in the early 1940s and later appeared in five movies with him.

"He was a damn good actor," Malden told The Times. "He knew what he was doing, he could do it well, and he hated anyone he worked with who wasn't prepared, because he came ready to go."

Sidney Poitier, who acted in three films with Widmark, told The Times that Widmark "left his mark as a very fine actor."

"His creative work is indelible on film and will be there to remind us of what he was as an artist and a human being," Poitier said.

Equally believable playing heavies and heroes, Widmark portrayed a broad range of characters in a film career that spanned more than 70 theatrical and television movies from the late 1940s to the early '90s.

He played a rabid racist in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" (1950), an obsessed prosecutor in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), an authoritarian Navy destroyer captain during the Cold War in James B. Harris' "The Bedford Incident" (1965) and a tough New York City police detective in Don Siegel's "Madigan" (1968).

The lean and rugged Widmark, who director Samuel Fuller once said "walks and talks like no one else," was known to be equally at home astride a horse -- in films such as William Wellman's "Yellow Sky," John Ford's "Cheyenne Autumn" and "Two Rode Together," John Wayne's "The Alamo" and the star-studded epic "How the West Was Won."

But it's as Tommy Udo, the sadistic New York City gangster in Henry Hathaway's 1947 film noir classic, "Kiss of Death," that Widmark made what may be his most enduring on-screen impression.

Widmark had been working nearly a decade as a successful New York radio and Broadway actor when he was cast in the memorable supporting role that set him on the path to stardom.

"Kiss of Death" starred Victor Mature as a small-time crook and family man who reluctantly informs on his ex-partners to gain parole from prison. But Widmark stole the show as the revengeful Udo, who gleefully ties up an older woman in her wheelchair with a lamp cord and then pushes her down a flight of stairs.

The chilling performance prompted film critic James Agee to write of Widmark's character: "It is clear that murder is one of the kindest things he is capable of."

Widmark received his only Oscar nomination -- as best supporting actor -- and he won a Golden Globe as "most promising [male] newcomer" for the role.

If his giggling killer in "Kiss of Death" made a big impression on movie audiences, his performance also had an effect on the actor.

"I'd never seen myself on the screen, and when I did, I wanted to shoot myself," he told the New Yorker in 1961. "That damn laugh of mine! For two years after that picture, you couldn't get me to smile. I played the part the way I did because the script struck me as funny and the part I played made me laugh, the guy was such a ridiculous beast. I was doing 'Inner Sanctum' on radio at the same time, and I remember reading the 'Kiss of Death' script to some of the guys and saying, 'Hey, get a load of this!' and I'd laugh, it was so funny."

And that, he said, is the way he played the part in the movie.

"I don't think we'd seen quite that level of anti-social behavior in movies, and he never repeated villainy at that level in the movies," film critic Richard Schickel told The Times in 2002.

But, he said, even when Widmark played a leading man, "there was a kind of hard-core urban cynicism about him that was really different than previous urban bad guys in the [James] Cagney or John Garfield vein, where there was a kind of sweetness lurking there."

"He's, to me, one of those people I was always glad to see on the screen because it promised some edge that wasn't entirely conventional. There was something slightly mysterious about his behavior, and you felt a slight unpredictability about him."

Widmark, Schickel said, later became a much more conventional leading man, but even then his portrayals conveyed "sort of an awareness that the world didn't always work out for the best, that you had to be somewhat wary of people."

Widmark was born Dec. 26, 1914, in Sunrise, Minn., where his father ran a general store before becoming a traveling salesman. Growing up, Widmark moved frequently before his family settled in Princeton, Ill., where his father acquired a bakery and the family lived in the apartment above.

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