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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Richard Widmark, Oscar Nominated Actor, Dies at Age 93

Turner Classic Movies will honor the life and career of Richard Widmark, the Oscar-nominated actor who died March 24 with a Special Triple-Feature this Friday, April 4th.

Richard Widmark is a well-known and respected name in film history. Although not a readily recognizable name, a quick glance at Widmark’s credits will undoubtedly reveal several of your favorite old movies. And then you’ll likely say, “Oh, yeah, I like him. He’s good. I wish I’d seen more of his films.” Well, now you can, because this Friday Turner Classic Movies will present a marathon of three films featuring this unassuming, charismatic actor.

Widmark achieved instant stardom in 1947 with his debut performance in the gangster saga Kiss of Death. His delivery of Tommy Udo, a giggling killer, not only created the indelible iconic image of a psychopath pushing a wheelchair-bound woman down a flight of stairs, but it earned him a Golden Globe statuette and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor of the year (he ultimately lost the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn, for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street). Initially, Widmark built his indelible career on a new kind of character: the hardboiled type who does not seek, nor expect the sympathy of the audience; men who are deeply troubled, deeply conflicted, and deeply corrupt. Although the role was small in Kiss of Death, he stole the picture and created a niche for himself. Widmark would continue to play such psychotics in The Street with No Name and Road House (both in 1948), and proved himself capable of holding his own against such superstars as Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky (a western version of The Tempest).

But Widmark, noted for living a private life away from the glitz of Hollywood, was not limited by so-called character roles, he was also good at playing a regular guy too. When he finally pressured the studio to let him play other parts, his appearance as a sailor in Down to the Sea in Ships was such a revelation to filmgoers that it made headlines: Life magazine’s March 28, 1949 issue featured a three-page spread of the movie, stating, “Widmark the Movie Villain Goes Straight”. Widmark was just plain popular. At just 5’ 10” and slight of build, he represented the kind of every guy you might be, placed in the same situation. He was a little bit brash, but ever charming, a little bit cynical, but he always saw the humor (however dark) and looked out for number one, unless the greater good demanded action. He played the kind of guy you wanted to be, or wanted to have around the house. He was a basic guy, who when pressed became an unassuming leader. If the TV show Lost had been made in his time, he most certainly would have been cast as “Jack” as easily as “Sawyer”. It was during the height of this extraordinary/ordinary man popularity that his hands and footprints were immortalized in concrete in the court outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

But Widmark did not rest on the safety of his established characters. Throughout his career he continued to seek out diverse roles, appearing as a bigot in No Way Out, opposite lifelong friend Sidney Poitier (to whom he profusely apologized between scenes that required him to spew racist remarks), and as the 50s came and went, he played in Westerns, military vehicles, and more thrillers, including Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe (in a rare turn as a mentally troubled woman). In the 60s he worked with John Wayne in The Alamo, Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg, and James Stewart in John Ford’s Two Rode Together. Widmark’s resume is really quite impressive, marked with many Oscar nominated films and legendary costars. He capped off the decade with one of his finest performances as the amoral police detective in the gritty cop melodrama Madigan. Widmark’s portrayal of a nihilistic anti-hero is clearly an early predecessor to other such no-nonsense, hard-ass lawmen on the fringe of the system such as those embodied by Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films.

Widmark lived and worked among some of the greatest names in film history. He held his own on screen, contributing to the greatness of the films in which he appeared, while maintaining an exemplary life of professionalism and friendship off screen. Although he never did receive another nod of recognition from the Academy of Motion Pictures, in his later years he did achieve a sort of cult status that most of his fellow actors never lived to experience. Later, in 1989, Widmark received a Life Achievement Award from The National Board of Review, and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association similarly honored him in 2005. Perhaps even more telling is the surge in his Star Meter on after his death – a 308,300% increase in popularity. Yes, over three hundred thousand percent! Being a well-respected gentleman from the world of Hollywood obviously has its fans.

The Friday schedule starts at 8 p.m. (PST) with Alvarez Kelly. Widmark plays a ruthless Southerner determined to strike a blow against the North during the Civil War. His plan involves kidnapping a cattle baron and forcing him to steal Yankee cattle. William Holden co-stars in this film from director Edward Dmytryk. Then Take the High Ground! starts at 10 p.m. This taut military drama follows grueling infantry basic training, shot on location at Fort Bliss, Texas. Widmark stars with Karl Malden under the direction of Richard Brooks. And concluding the tribute at 12 a.m. is The Tunnel of Love. Playing one of his few comic roles, Widmark co-stars with Doris Day in the story of a couple enduring mountains of red tape in order to adopt a child. Gene Kelly directed this adaptation of a play by Joseph Fields and Peter de Vries. Gig Young and Gia Scala co-star.

Other upcoming airings of Mr. Widmark’s work includes “How the West was Won” on TCM this Thursday, April 3, and a daytime episode of “I Love Lucy” on Friday, April 4th.

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