Richard Widmark grew up in Princeton, Illinois, and attended Lake Forest (IL) College, where he first began acting. He taught acting at Lake Forest after graduation until 1938, when he made his radio debut in New York in "Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories." Widmark made his Broadway stage debut in 1943 in "Kiss and Tell." He had been rejected as unsuitable for military service because of a perforated eardrum. In 1947, he got his big break, making film history as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947), beginning a seven-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. His hand and footprints were cast in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1949.
After his contract with Fox expired, Widmark went independent. He first appeared on TV as himself in an episode of "I Love Lucy" (1951), and began producing films from the late 1950s. His film career slowed in the 1970s, but he remained active in made-for-TV movies. He starred in his own TV series, "Madigan" (1972), based on his 1968 hit movie, but only six episodes were produced before the show was canceled.
Richard Widmark established himself as an icon of American cinema with his debut in the 1947 film noir Kiss of Death (1947) in which he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination as the killer "Tommy Udo". Kiss of Death (1947) and other noir thrillers established Widmark as part of a new generation of American movie actors who became stars in the post-World War II era. With fellow post-War stars Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum, Widmark brought a new kind of character to the screen in his character leads and supporting parts: a hardboiled type who does not actively court the sympathy of the audience. Widmark was not afraid to play deeply troubled, deeply conflicted, or just down right deeply corrupt characters. After his debut, Widmark would work steadily until he retired at the age of 76 in 1990, primarily as a character lead. His stardom would peak around the time he played the U.S. prosecutor in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) as the 1950s segued into the 1960s, but he would continue to act for another 30 years.
Richard Widmark was born on Boxing Day (the Day After Christmas) in 1914 in Sunrise, Minnesota. He says that he loved the movies from his boyhood, claiming "I've been a movie bug since I was 4. My grandmother used to take me". The teen-aged Widmark continued to go to the movies, and was thrilled by Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). "I thought Boris Karloff was great", Widmark said. Although he loved the movies and excelled at public speaking while attending high school, Widmark attended Lake Forest College with the idea of becoming a lawyer. However, he won the lead role in a college production of, fittingly enough, the play "Consellor-at-Law", and the acting bug bit deep. After taking his bachelor of arts degree in 1936, he stayed on at Lake Forest as the Assistant Director of Speech and Drama. However, he soon quit the job and moved to New York to become an actor and, by 1938, he was appearing on radio in "Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories". He made his Broadway debut in 1943 in the play "Kiss and Tell", and continued to appear on stage in roles that were light years away from the tough cookies he would play in his early movies. After World War II, he was signed by 20th Century Fox to a seven-year contract. After seeing his screen-test for the role of "Tommy Udo", 20th Century Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck insisted that the slight, blonde Widmark - no one's idea of a heavy, particularly after his stage work - be cast as the psychopath in Kiss of Death (1947), which had been prepared as a Victor Mature vehicle. Even though the role was small, Widmark stole the picture. 20th Century Fox's publicity department recommended that exhibitors market the film by concentrating on thumbing the tub for their new anti-hero.
"Sell Richard Widmark" advised the studio's publicity manual that an alert 20th Century Fox sent to theater owners. The manual told local exhibitors to engage a job-printer to have "Wanted" posters featuring Widmark's face to be printed and pasted up.
He won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nod for the part, which lead to an early bout with typecasting at the studio.
Widmark played psychotics in The Street with No Name (1948) and Road House (1948), and held his own against new Fox superstar Gregory Peck in the William A. Wellman's Western, Yellow Sky (1948), playing the villain, of course. When he finally pressured the studio to let him play other parts, his appearance as a sailor in Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) made headlines: "Life" magazine's March 28, 1949 issue featured a three-page spread of the movie, headlined, "Widmark the Movie Villain Goes Straight". He was popular, having captured the public imagination, and before the decade was out, his hand and footprints were immortalized in concrete in the court outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
The great director Elia Kazan cast Widmark in his thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) not as the heavy - that role went to Jack Palance - but as the physician who tracks down Palance, who has the plague, in tandem with detective Paul Douglas. Widmark was establishing himself as a real presence in the genre that later would be hailed as "film noir".
Having proved he could handle other roles, Widmark didn't shy away from playing heavies in quality pictures. The soon-to-be-blacklisted director Jules Dassin cast him in one of his greatest roles, as the penny-ante hustler "Harry Fabian" in Night and the City (1950). Set in London, Widmark's Fabian manages to survive in the jungle of the English demimonde, but is doomed. Widmark was masterful in conveying the desperation of the criminal seeking to control his own fate but who is damned, and this performance also became an icon of film noir. In that same year, he appeared in Oscar-winning writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950) as a bigot who instigates a race riot. As the 1950s progressed, Widmark played in Westerns, military vehicles, and his old stand-by genre, the thriller. He appeared with Marilyn Monroe (this time cast as the psycho) in Don't Bother to Knock (1952) and made Pickup on South Street (1953) that same year for director Samuel Fuller. His seven-year contract at Fox was expiring, and Zanuck - who would not renew the deal - cast him in the Western Broken Lance (1954) in a decidedly supporting role, billed beneath not only Spencer Tracy but even Robert Wagner and Jean Peters. The film was well-respected, and it won an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for the front of Hollywood 10 blacklistee Albert Maltz.
Widmark left Fox for the life of a freelance, forming his own company, "Heath Productions". He appeared in more Westerns, adventures and social dramas, and pushed himself as an actor by taking the thankless role of "The Dauphin" in Otto Preminger's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1957), a notorious flop that didn't bring anyone any honors, neither Preminger, his leading lady Jean Seberg or Widmark. In 1960, he was appearing in another notorious production, John Wayne's ode to suicidal patriotism, The Alamo (1960), with the personally liberal Widmark playing "Jim Bowie" in support of the very-conservative Wayne's "Davy Crockett". Along with character actor Chill Wills, Widmark arguably was the best thing in the movie.
In 1961, Widmark acquitted himself quite well as the prosecutor in producer-director Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), appearing with the Oscar-nominated Spencer Tracy and the Oscar-winning Maximilian Schell, as well as with superstar Burt Lancaster and acting genius Montgomery Clift and the legendary 'Judy Garland' (the latter two winning Oscar nods for their small roles). Despite being showcased with all this thespian-firepower, Widmark's character proved to be the axis on which the drama turned. A little later, Widmark appeared in two Westerns directed by the great John Ford, with co-star James Stewart in Two Rode Together (1961) and as the top star in Ford's apologia for Indian genocide, Cheyenne Autumn (1964). On Two Rode Together (1961), Ford feuded with Jimmy Stewart over his hat. Stewart insisted on wearing the same hat he had for a decade of highly successful Westerns that had made him one of the top box office stars of the 1950s. Both he and Widmark were hard-of-hearing (as well as balding and in need of help from the makeup department's wig-makers), so Ford would sit himself far away from them while directing scenes and then give them directions in a barely audible voice. When neither one of the stars could hear their director, Ford theatrically announced to his crew, that after over 40 years in the business, he was reduced to directing two deaf toupees. It was testimony to the stature of both Stewart and Widmark as stars that this was as far as Ford's baiting went, as the great director could be extraordinarily cruel.
Widmark continued to co-star in A-pictures through the 1960s. He capped off the decade with one of his finest performances, as the amoral police detective in Don Siegel's gritty cop melodrama Madigan (1968). Watching "Madigan", one can see Widmark's characters as a progression in the evolution of what would become the late 1960s nihilistic anti-hero, such as those embodied by Clint Eastwood in Siegel's later Dirty Harry (1971).
Im the 1970s, he continued to make his mark in movies and, beginning in 1971, in television. In movies, he appeared primarily in supporting roles, albeit in highly billed fashion, in such films as Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977), and Stanley Kramer's The Domino Principle (1977). He even came back as a heavy, playing the villainous doctor in Coma (1978). In 1971, in search of better roles, he turned to television, starring as the President of the U.S. in the TV movies Vanished (1971) (TV). His performance in the role brought Widmark an Emmy nomination. He resurrected the character of "Madigan" for NBC, in six 90-minute episodes that appeared as part of the rotation of "NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie" for the Fall 1972 season. Widmark was married for 55 years to playwright Jean Hazlewood, from 1942 until her death in 1997 (they had one child, Anne, who was born in 1945). He lived quietly and avoided the press, saying in 1971, "I think a performer should do his work and then shut up". "Los Angeles Times" critic Kevin Thomas thought that Widmark should have won an Oscar nomination for his turn in When the Legends Die (1972), playing a former rodeo star tutoring 'Frederic Forrest'. It is surprising to think that Kiss of Death (1947) represented his sole Oscar nomination, but with the rise of the respect for film noir around the time his career began tapering off in 70s, he began to be reevaluated as an actor. Unlike Bogart, who did not live to see his reputation flourish after his death, well before he retired, Widmark became a cult figure.
|Susan Blanchard||(27 September 1999 - 24 March 2008) (his death)|
|Jean Hazlewood||(5 April 1942 - 2 March 1997) (her death) 1 child|
Unforgettable in his screen debut in Kiss of Death (1947) as Tommy Udo, a psychopathic mob hit-man, who giggles gleefully even as he shoves a wheelchair-bound old woman, portrayed by Mildred Dunnock, tumbling down a long stairway to her demise.
President of his high school class.
Inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 2002.
His sole Academy Awards nomination was for best actor in a supporting role for Kiss of Death (1947) in 1948. Though he had won the Golden Globe for the role, he lost the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
Was honored with a retrospective of his films by the Museum of Modern Art (New York, New York) in May 2001.
When Kiss of Death (1947) was released to theaters in 1947, 20th Century Fox's publicity department encouraged theater owners to "Sell Richard Widmark!" Fox's publicity manual advised theaters to have a local printer make up "Wanted" with Widmark's face on them to advertise the film, in which he made his debut. The part was small, but Widmark made it one of the most indelible performances in the history of cinema.
He has significantly contributed to the preservation of land and nature in his adopted hometown of Roxbury, Connecticut. As one of the founding members of the Roxbury Land Trust, he has tenaciously worked to preserve the pristine character of the Litchfield County town which has been the long-time home of celebrities the likes of Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and artist Alexander Calder. Actor and Widmark's friend, Walter Matthau also owned property in bucolic Roxbury and at Widmark's urging, Matthau made a generous contribution of property to the trust shortly before his death.
At 5' 10" he was one of the shorter leading men of his era.
His father was Swedish by descent; his mother was Scottish, English and Irish.
He was the stepfather of Amy Fonda, daughter of Henry Fonda and Susan Blanchard.
In the fall of 2007 he sustained a fractured vertebrae after a fall. He died about six months later of complications.
When his contract at Fox expired in 1954 after seven years, he deliberately went independent in order to have more artistic control over his films. He formed his own company, Heath Productions.
Was not able to see active duty during WWII due to a perforated eardrum, but did serve as an air raid warden and entertained servicemen as a member of the American Theatre Wing.
Despite playing heartless killers and bigots on film, he personally denounced all kinds of violence and the usage of guns. He admitted that once he went fishing and regretted the fact he caught a trout and took its life. He also apologized profusely to Sidney Poitier during the shoot of the movie No Way Out (1950) after filming scenes together which called for Widmark to spew out racist remarks.
Earned several awards in oratory contests while a pre-law student at Lake Forest College. He was also active in the drama department and played the lead in the play "Counselor-at-Law" as a sophomore.
In high school he wrote for the school newspaper.
Born in Sunrise, Minnesota, his father, Carl, was a general store manager before becoming a traveling salesman. The family eventually settled in Princeton, Illinois, where his father owned a downstairs bakery.
Spent his later years divided between a ranch in Hidden Valley, California, and a farm in Connecticut.
Activist for strengthening gun control laws in the United States.
Resided on his mansion in Roxbury, Connecticut from the 1950s until his death.
Was on the first cover of German teen magazine "Bravo" together with Marilyn Monroe (1956).
Born to Carl Widmark, a salesman, and his wife Ethal Mae.
His acting idol was Spencer Tracy.
Before he ever became a film actor, Widmark was busy with voice-over work on various radio programs during the 1930s and 1940s.
Featured in "Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir" by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (McFarland, 2003).
Good friends with Sidney Poitier. They co-starred in three films together.
He was a lifelong liberal Democrat.
[speaking in 1976] The heavies in my day were kid's stuff compared to today. Our villains had no redeeming qualities. But there's a new morality today. A villain is a guy with a frailty. Heroes are villains.
The more takes I do, the worse I get.
[on his giggling psychopathic killer in his debut film Kiss of Death (1947)] I'd never seen myself on the screen, and when I did, I wanted to shoot myself. 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 suppose I wanted to act in order to have a place in the sun. I'd always lived in small towns, and acting meant having some kind of identity.
It's weird the effect actors have on an audience. With the [bad guy] roles I played in those early movies, I found that quite a few people wanted to have a go at me.
It's a bit rough priding oneself that one isn't too bad an actor and then finding one's only remembered for a giggle.
Marilyn Monroe 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.
I'm a lifelong liberal. I've never been a real activist - I just shoot my mouth off. When I knew Ronald Reagan, he was an affable, boring fellow. Now he's an icon. It's incredible. Like half of America, I'm doubly mystified by Reagan's spiritual heir, our current president. (2001)
I know I've made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence. 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. (1976)
Movie audiences fasten on to one aspect of the actor, and then they decide what they want you to be. They think you're playing yourself. The truth is that the only person who can ever really play himself is a baby.
I could choose the director and my fellow actors. I could carry out projects which I liked but the studios didn't want. The businessmen who run Hollywood today have no self-respect. What interests them is not movies but the bottom line. Look at Dumb & Dumber (1994), which turns idiocy into something positive, or Forrest Gump (1994), a hymn to stupidity. 'Intellectual' has become a dirty word.
When I see people destroying their privacy - what they think, what they feel - by beaming it out to millions of viewers, I think it cheapens them as individuals.
[on Spencer Tracy] What an actor should be is exemplified, for me, by him. I like the reality of his acting. It's so honest and seems so effortless, even though what Tracy does is the result of damn hard work and extreme concentration. Actually, the ultimate in any art is never to show the wheels grinding. The essence of bad acting, for example, is shouting. Tracy never shouts. He's the greatest movie actor there ever was.
I won't have a gun in my house.
Many of my friends were blacklisted. America should be ashamed forever.
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