Screen Legend Richard Widmark Dies

Hollywood actor Richard Widmark, who often portrayed killers, cops and Western gunslingers, died after a long illness. He was 93. Widmark made his film debut in 1947 as a giggling killer in "Kiss of Death." David Thompson, author of the Biographical Dictionary of Film, discusses Widmark's career in film.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In 1950, the Joseph Mankiewicz film "No Way Out" told the story of a hoodlum who is laid out in a prison hospital. This music was from Alfred Newman's score; they used it for the trailer.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In those days when they needed someone to play a bad a guy like Ray Biddle, there was an actor on the scene that was perfect. He'd made his debut three years earlier as a killer in "Kiss of Death." And here he was confronted by Linda Darnell, who was playing his sister-in-law.

(Soundbite of movie, "No Way Out")

Ms. LINDA DARNELL (Actor): (As Edie Johnson) Why couldn't it be you that got kill him instead of Johnny.

Mr. RICHARD WIDMARK (Actor): (As Ray Biddle) That's your favorite question, ain't it? Only the last time, you asked it, it wasn't about being dead.

Ms. DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) You scum.

Mr. WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) It was why couldn't it be you I'm married to instead of Johnny.

Ms. DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) You dirty scum.

Mr. WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) Sounded good in the dark.

Ms. DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) I should have killed you.

Mr. WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) You had other things on your mind.

SIEGEL: That actor was Richard Widmark, who died this week at his home in Connecticut. He was 93.

David Thompson is the author of the "Biographical Dictionary of Film." He joins us from San Francisco. When we speak of Richard Widmark, what do you think of first?

Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Author, "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Expanded and Updated"): Well, I think you have to remember that debut. He played one of the most vicious killers in American film, even allowing for changes in time and context. But in 1947 in "Kiss of Death," he pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase and then he giggled.

SIEGEL: He giggled. Yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: It went into the nervous system of the nation and it was, you know, it was one of the great villain debuts of all times.

SIEGEL: Widmark, thereafter was cast off and as a — just a nasty guy, at least a tough guy.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. For a few years, he could not escape that. And I think that it paint him to a good degree because he was an enormously amiable, decent man — very, very far from this character. But, you know, when you make your first impact like that then everyone wants you to repeat it, forever. And it took a good 10 years before, I think, people understood that he had a very decent side to him, too.

SIEGEL: He acted in several Westerns, and he said the Westerns agreed with him except he couldn't ride.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. He had a sort of naturally suntanned face. Yeah, he's (unintelligible) the part, (unintelligible) that Midwestern drawl. He had a very good, deep voice; he'd come from radio. And he looked great in cowboy clothes, playing either villains or heroes. And if he couldn't ride, you'd never notice it.

SIEGEL: Of course, the part for which, I guess I'll remember him most, was from "Judgment at Nuremberg," which is totally different from everything else we've said just now. He was prosecutor at the war crimes.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's right. And, you know, he was encouraged in that film by the director, Stanley Kramer, to be very fierce, very tough in the film because Maximilian Schell was the defense attorney. He had the sort of rather more interesting argument to make. And Widmark was quite brutal, quite tough in that film, but did it very, very well. He was typical of the actors of that generation, who could do more than they were normally asked to do, if you know what I mean.

SIEGEL: He was someone who really was a talented actor, limited in terms of what we saw for several years because of that giggle?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, because of that and because you get typecast and a certain range of parts become available. He was also, I think, compared with many actors; not a tremendous self-promoter, he liked his private life. And he was a very quiet man. He didn't go out and boast about what he could do.

SIEGEL: That's David Thompson, author of the "Biographical Dictionary of Film," speaking with us about Richard Widmark, who died this week at the age of 93.

Mr. Thompson, thank you very much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay.

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Hollywood Veteran Richard Widmark Dies at 93

A head shot of actor Richard Widmark from the early 1980s. i i

Richard Widmark, shown here in the early 1980s, was a fixture on film for nearly 50 years. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A head shot of actor Richard Widmark from the early 1980s.

Richard Widmark, shown here in the early 1980s, was a fixture on film for nearly 50 years.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Widmark and Victor Mature in 'Kiss of Death.' i i

Widmark, in the hat, meets Victor Mature (right) in Widmark's bone-chilling 1947 film debut, Kiss of Death. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Widmark and Victor Mature in 'Kiss of Death.'

Widmark, in the hat, meets Victor Mature (right) in Widmark's bone-chilling 1947 film debut, Kiss of Death.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Character Parts, Star Roles

Richard Widmark, who made a sensational film debut as the giggling killer in Kiss of Death and became a Hollywood leading man in Broken Lance, Two Rode Together and 40 other films, has died after a long illness. He was 93.

Widmark's wife, Susan Blanchard, says the actor died at his home in Connecticut on Monday.

After a career in radio drama and theater, Widmark moved to films as Tommy Udo, who delighted in pushing an old lady in a wheelchair to her death down a flight of stairs in the 1947 thriller Kiss of Death. The performance won him an Academy Award nomination as supporting actor; it was his only mention for an Oscar.

"That damned laugh of mine!" he told a reporter in 1961. "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."

A quiet, inordinately shy man, Widmark often portrayed killers, cops and Western gunslingers. But he said he hated guns.

"I know I've made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence," he remarked in a 1976 Associated Press interview. "I am an ardent supporter of gun control. It seems incredible to me that we are the only civilized nation that does not put some effective control on guns."

Two years out of college, Widmark reached New York in 1938 during the heyday of radio. His mellow Midwest voice made him a favorite in soap operas, and he found himself racing from studio to studio.

Rejected by the Army because of a punctured eardrum, Widmark began appearing in theater productions in 1943. His first was a comedy hit on Broadway, Kiss and Tell. He was appearing in the Chicago company of Dream Girl with June Havoc when 20th Century Fox signed him to a seven-year contract. He almost missed out on the Kiss of Death role.

"The director, Henry Hathaway, didn't want me," the actor recalled. "I have a high forehead; he thought I looked too intellectual." The director was overruled by studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, and Hathaway "gave me kind of a bad time."

An immediate star, Widmark appeared in 20 Fox films from 1957 to 1964. Among them: The Street with No Name, Yellow Sky, Panic in the Streets, and the Samuel Fuller film noir Pickup on South Street.

In 1952, he starred in Don't Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe. He told an interviewer in later years:

"She wanted to be this great star but acting just scared the hell out of her. That's why she was always late — couldn't get her on the set. She had trouble remembering lines. But none of it mattered. With a very few special people, something happens between the lens and the film that is pure magic. ... And she really had it."

After leaving Fox, Widmark's career continued to flourish. He starred (as Jim Bowie) with John Wayne in The Alamo, with James Stewart in John Ford's Two Rode Together, as the U.S. prosecutor in Judgment at Nuremberg, and with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas in The Way West.

He also played the Dauphin in St. Joan and had roles in How the West Was Won, Death of a Gunfighter, Murder on the Orient Express and Coma.

Madigan, a 1968 film with Widmark as a loner detective, was converted to television and lasted one season in 1972-73. It was Widmark's only TV series.

Widmark was born Dec. 26, 1914, in Sunrise, Minn., where his father ran a general store, then became a traveling salesman. The family moved around before settling in Princeton, Ill.

"Like most small-town boys, I had the urge to get to the big city and make a name for myself," he recalled in a 1954 interview. "I was a movie nut from the age of 3, but I don't recall having any interest in acting," he said.

But at Lake Forest College, he became a protege of the drama teacher and met his future wife, drama student Ora Jean Hazlewood.

In later years, Widmark appeared sparingly in films and TV. He explained to Parade magazine in 1987: "I've discovered in my dotage that I now find the whole moviemaking process irritating. I don't have the patience anymore. I've got a few more years to live, and I don't want to spend them sitting around a movie set for 12 hours to do two minutes of film."

When he wasn't working, he and his wife lived on a horse ranch in Hidden Valley, Calif., or on a farm in Connecticut. Their daughter Ann became the wife of baseball immortal Sandy Koufax.

— The Associated Press

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