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Richard Widmark (December 26, 1914 – March 24, 2008) began his acting career comparatively late – but he made up for it with both quality and quantity. Film lover Geoff Gardner pays tribute to one of America’s great screen actors.

Richard Widmark was already 34 when he made his startling debut in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947) playing the thug Tommy Udo as a mixture of violent stupidity and malicious rat cunning. Few actors can have leapt out of the screen into instant memory so quickly. He followed that up with a half dozen more major parts over the next couple of years almost all involving variations of laconic nastiness. Only Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) offered him a chance to show a warmer side though the film was a story of the need for discipline in the face of danger on the whaling ships plying their trade a century ago. He was particularly memorable in Jules Dassin’s London set Night and the City and in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets both made in 1950.

After he left Fox he moved effortlessly into parts that made him a star and he gave particularly striking performances in, among many, Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) and Preminger’s St Joan (1957). He could turn his hand to anything really and the roster of major directors he worked for is a sign of the high regard in which he was held throughout a 70+ film career. In the fifties he was in constant demand and he gave fine performances, in quite remarkably varied roles, for many of America’s finest filmmakers of the day including John Sturges, Gene Kelly, Delmer Daves, Edward Dmytryk, Phil Karlson and Richard Brooks.

"gravitas and conviction"

Widmark also brought extraordinary gravitas and conviction to two films he made for John Ford in the early 60s Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn. In both he played a principled Army officer, in the latter sacrificing his career and reputation to make the right decisions on behalf of oppressed Indian tribes. They were films in which Ford recanted much of his own past representations of the Indian and both films cut hard into the casual racism displayed by Europeans towards the Indian minorities as the West was opened.

From the mid-60s onwards, when he entered his fifties, he was still cast in major roles often calling for display of a degree of principle. My personal favourite was his role in Don Siegel’s New York based cop thriller Madigan. His title character was brutal, dismissive of bureaucratic rules but again a man of principle. He also produced a couple of films during these years, most notably James B Harris’s debut movie, the nuclear thriller The Bedford Incident.

As he aged it was clear he enjoyed working. From the 70s to the 90s he made close to a couple of dozen movies, the last being Herbert Ross’s somewhat caramelised take on US political intrigue True Colors (1991). He was 76 when he completed this role.

"an actor of the highest stature"

He was at his best when his role called for him to be a bit of a bastard. His straight blond hair and sharply angled cheekbones bespoke a toughness of spirit and when this was allied to parts requiring principled activity he was at his most impressive. When it required a sneer he was just as good. He leaves a legacy of work ranging from classic Fox noir to light comedy passing through every genre in between. He was an actor of the highest stature and made a landmark contribution to the American cinema. His contribution to the motion picture industry is recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6800 Hollywood Boulevard.

Published: April 3, 2008

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Richard Widmark

... in Kiss of Death

Panic in The Streets

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