Richard Widmark; Film, TV Actor Was Known for Enormous Range

Richard Widmark left, with Jack Webb in
Richard Widmark left, with Jack Webb in "The Halls of Montezuma," was a veteran of more than 70 motion pictures. (Associated Press/twentieth Century Fox)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

Richard Widmark, a self-effacing actor who played cackling maniacs, dedicated public servants and maverick leading men with equal distinction during a five-decade career in film and television, died March 24 at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 93.

His wife, Susan Blanchard, said yesterday that Mr. Widmark had been ill for a long time, and she did not elaborate. "He was a very private man," she said.

A veteran of more than 70 films, Mr. Widmark showed enormous range: strong military men ("Halls of Montezuma," "The Bedford Incident"), obsessed detectives ("Madigan"), Western heroes ("The Alamo") and insolent underworld figures, notably his explosive debut as a cold-blooded killer in 1947's "Kiss of Death."

Mr. Widmark was "a quiet genius" and "the kind of star whose mastery sneaks up on you," Film Comment magazine noted. Director Samuel Fuller once said Mr. Widmark was an ideal choice to play modern, complex heroes. "He could be a heavy, he could be the lead," Fuller said. "He could go either way."

Mr. Widmark had an unconventional leading-man face, almost gaunt with a lock of blond hair falling on his high forehead. It took several years before he was cast as a protagonist, and even then, his good guys were often misanthropes or men fixated on a mission.

His renown initially came from playing streetwise heavies, starting with "Kiss of Death." As Tommy Udo, he elevated his high-pitched giggle to a sinister art form. In the film's most memorable scene, he gleefully tied an old lady into a wheelchair and shoved her down a staircase.

"Kiss of Death" brought Mr. Widmark his only Academy Award nomination, for a supporting role. By many accounts, he stole the show from the nominal star, Victor Mature, as a crook who turns state's evidence and is preyed upon by Udo.

Reviewer Pauline Kael wrote that when Mr. Widmark grins onscreen, "his white teeth are more alarming than fangs."

Although he continued to play bad guys in several more pictures, Mr. Widmark said he did not want audiences to believe his acting was limited to Udo's quirks. "For two years after that picture," he told the New Yorker magazine, "you couldn't get me to smile."

He was the asthmatic gangland boss in "The Street With No Name" (1948); the racist patient who taunts a black medical resident (played by Sidney Poitier) in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" (1950); a doomed American hustler in London in Jules Dassin's "Night and the City" (1950); and a pickpocket who helps uncover a communist spy ring in Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" (1953).

Poitier later wrote in a memoir that Widmark "was the most pleasant and refreshing surprise in my initial exposure to the Hollywood scene. The reality of Widmark was a thousand miles from the characters he played. That shy, gentle, very private person helped me to learn the ropes of filmmaking and was among the first in Hollywood . . . to open his home to me socially."

Mr. Widmark tried to persuade studio bosses to put him in more sympathetic parts. He felt so out of place in "No Way Out" that he kept apologizing to co-star Poitier between takes for the racist dialogue.

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