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James Whitmore dies at 87; veteran award-winning actor brought American icons to the screen

An avid gardener, he also was known as the TV pitchman for Miracle-Gro.

February 07, 2009|Dennis McLellan

James Whitmore, the veteran Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who brought American icons Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt to life in one-man shows, died Friday. He was 87.

Whitmore died of lung cancer at his home in Malibu, said his son, Steve. He was diagnosed with the disease a week before Thanksgiving.

"He cared about acting; his whole life was dedicated to the theater and to movies," said actor David Huddleston, a longtime friend who appeared in Whitmore's 1964 movie "Black Like Me" and did a couple of plays with him. "I asked James Cagney one time to tell me the best thing you can about acting. He said never to get caught at it. That's kind of how I'd sum up Jim Whitmore."

James Arness, who appeared with Whitmore in the movies "Battleground" and "Them!," said Whitmore was "an actor's actor," adding that "it was always a treat to work with him."

Arness also remembered the "great intensity" Whitmore could bring to a role.

"When we wanted to get an actor to play a character who had that quality, Jimmy was the guy you'd think of," said Arness, who starred in "Gunsmoke," a TV series that Whitmore appeared on a number of times.

A stocky World War II Marine Corps veteran who bore a resemblance to actor Spencer Tracy and shared Tracy's down-to-earth quality, Whitmore earned early acclaim as an actor.

In 1948, he won a Tony Award for outstanding performance by a newcomer in the role of an amusingly cynical Army Air Forces sergeant in the Broadway production of "Command Decision."

Whitmore's Broadway success brought him to Hollywood, where he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in his second movie, the hit 1949 World War II drama "Battleground," in which he played a tobacco-chewing, battle-weary Army sergeant.

Supporting roles and occasional leads in some 50 movies followed over the next 50-plus years, including "The Asphalt Jungle," "Them!," "Kiss Me Kate," "Battle Cry," "Oklahoma!," "Planet of the Apes," "Tora! Tora! Tora!," "The Serpent's Egg," "Nuts," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Majestic."

A frequent guest actor on television, Whitmore also starred in three series: the 1960-62 legal drama "The Law and Mr. Jones," the 1969 detective drama "My Friend Tony" and the 1972-74 hospital sitcom "Temperatures Rising" (although he left after a year, he later said, "because it was just a series of jokes").

In 2000, Whitmore won an Emmy Award as outstanding guest actor in a drama series for "The Practice," and he received a 2003 Emmy nomination in the same category for "Mister Sterling."

An avid flower and vegetable gardener, Whitmore also was known to TV viewers as the longtime commercial pitchman for Miracle-Gro garden products.

Whitmore often said he found acting in films and television boring because of the long waits between scenes; his passion was for the theater, and he continued to act on stage throughout his long career.

"I've been very, very lucky," he said in a 2003 interview with the Nashville Tennessean. "The stage is human beings sharing something together -- flesh and blood together -- and the others are mechanical and shadows on the screen."

Although he starred in productions of plays such as "Our Town," "Inherit the Wind" and "Death of a Salesman," Whitmore was best known for his three one-man shows: as Truman in "Give 'em Hell, Harry!," as Roosevelt in "Bully" and as Rogers in "Will Rogers' U.S.A."

The 1975 film of his performance in "Give 'em Hell, Harry!" earned Whitmore a best actor Oscar nomination.

But the one-man-show character he said he "always felt most comfortable with" was Rogers.

"He was wise with a sense of humor, and that's an unbeatable combination," Whitmore told the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader in 2003.

He was initially resistant to the idea of playing the gum-chewing, lariat-twirling humorist -- his first one-man show -- when adapter-director Paul Shyre brought "Will Rogers' U.S.A." to him in 1969.

"I didn't think I could conceivably carry an evening by myself. I had difficulty holding the attention of my family," Whitmore recalled in a 1995 interview with The Times.

But any qualms he had disappeared when the show premiered in a small theater in Webster Groves, Mo., in January 1970.

"I realized immediately that I was in the presence of an extraordinary man," Whitmore told The Times. "I didn't realize that until I heard the response of other human beings to him."

Whitmore ultimately had about eight hours of Rogers' various comments about the topics of the day memorized, changing the show each time he did it.

"I tried to use whatever seemed to be of interest to the folks in the audience that day," he told the Tulsa World in 2001. "I took the news from today's newspaper but didn't change what Will Rogers said. It's amazing how little things have changed since Will was about."

Whitmore completed 30 years of on-and-off touring as Rogers at Ford's Theatre in Washington in 2000, and his costume is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

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