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IN MEMORIAM

Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind


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Richard Widmark: Salute To A Sneer

Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATHRichard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH 

Thursday, March 27--------No one quite mastered the sneer as did actor Richard Widmark, who died Monday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut at the age of 93. That sneer and a high-pitched giggling laugh is what shot him the stardom in 1947, when he played the psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in the gangster film KISS OF DEATH. Nothing in the movies before or since can compare with the scene in that film when Widmark tied up an old woman in a wheelchair with a cord ripped from a lamp and shoved her down a flight of stairs to her death. In that one scene, Widmark became the personification of evil and fear on screen. The role won him his sole Academy Award nomination in a career that spanned nearly six decades.

 Richard Widmark was born on December 26, 1914, in Sunrise, Minnesota and spent his childhood moving from one Midwestern town to another. Graduating in 1936 from Lake Forest College in Illinois, he spent two years as an instructor in the Lake Forest drama department, directing and acting in two dozen plays. Then he headed to New York City in 1938, where one of his classmates was producing 15-minute radio soap operas and cast Mr. Widmark in a variety of roles. At the beginning of World War II, Widmark tried to enlist in the army but was turned down three times because of a perforated eardrum. So he turned, in 1943, to Broadway. In his first stage role, he played an Army lieutenant in F. Hugh Herbert’s KISS AND TELL, directed by George Abbott. Appearing in the controversial play TRIO, he received glowing reviews as a college student who fights to free the girl he loves from the domination of an older woman.  

He made his screen debut in 1947 with KISS OF DEATH, which typecast him for the rest of the decade as a sadistic hood. His mobsters were drenched in evil. Even his heroes, including the doctor who fights bubonic plague in Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), the daredevil pilot flying into the eye of a storm in SLATTERY’S HURRICANE (1949) and the pickpocket who refuses to be a traitor in Samuel Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953) defined a new kind of hero….the anti-hero, personified by much younger actors such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and James Dean.

 

Among the standout roles in the 65 movies he made over the next five decades were THE COBWEB (1955), in which he played the head of a psychiatric clinic; SAINT JOAN (1957),  as the Dauphin to Jean Seberg’s Joan of Arc; JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG (1961), as an American army colonel prosecuting German war criminals; John Ford’s revisionist western CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1963) and the Cold War drama THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (1965).

 

Widmark found his seminal role as a loner detective in Don Siegel’s action-packed policier MADIGAN (1968). The film proved so popular that he later played the loner Madigan on an NBC television series during the 1972-73 season. His later roles often cast him as gray-haired authority figures in such films as TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977), THE SWARM (1978), COMA (1978) and TRUE COLORS (1991).  Most of his late career efforts were in television movies, including an Emmy Award-nominated performance in 1970 as the President of the United States in the mini-series VANISHED

 

A self-confessed homebody who hated the limelight, he divided his time between a sprawling farm in Connecticut and an 80-acre horse ranch north of Los Angeles. In reality, the screen’s most vicious psychopath was a mild-mannered former teacher who had married his college sweetheart, the actress Jean Hazelwood, and remained faithful to her for over 50 years, before her death in 1997.

 

Well into his later years, the nonviolent, gun-hating Widmark, who described himself as “gentle,” was accosted by strangers who expected him to be a tough guy. Typecasting aside, he was an often underrated actor whose subtle technique turned him into the characters he played. After all his film roles and the varied characters that he played in an exceptionally long film career, his pathological giggle in his feature debut remains his film trademark and his enduring legacy.

 

Sandy Mandelberger, In Memoriam Editor

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About In Memoriam

Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

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IN MEMORIAM

Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind


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