By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Joseph Wiseman, 91, an acclaimed Broadway performer once called "the spookiest actor in the American theater" because of his menacing stage roles, and who was best known as the villainous scientist with metal hands in the 1962 James Bond film "Dr. No," died Oct. 19 at his home in Manhattan. He had suffered an aneurysm that contributed to declining health.
Over a career spanning nearly seven decades, Mr. Wiseman worked with some of the leading figures in theater, including Arthur Miller, Helen Hayes and Julie Harris. Although he portrayed a variety of characters -- including a rabbi ("Zalmen or the Madness of God") and a grand inquisitor ("The Lark") -- critic Robert Brustein singled out the actor for his expertise in reptilian parts and said he "would be ideally cast as Dracula."
Mr. Wiseman reached his breakthrough as the vicious burglar in Sidney Kingsley's 1949 police melodrama "Detective Story," a role he repeated onscreen. As an opportunistic journalist in the movie "Viva Zapata!" (1952), he conveyed what reviewer Pauline Kael likened to "some sinister mixture of Judas Iscariot and a junkie." He betrays the Mexican revolutionary, played by Marlon Brando.
Mr. Wiseman is forever linked to "Dr. No," the film that launched the Bond action-spy movie franchise and made a star of Sean Connery as the British secret agent.
Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli had initially wanted British entertainer Noel Coward to play the title villain, who tries to interfere with U.S. rocket launches with a beaming device from his island lair near Jamaica. Coward rejected the part, with a cable that read, "Dr. No? No! No! No!"
Broccoli hired Mr. Wiseman to play Julius No, who is identified in the film as "the unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family."
Many years after filming, Mr. Wiseman told the Los Angeles Times: "I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I had no idea it would achieve the success it did. I know nothing about mysteries. I don't take to them. As far as I was concerned, I thought it might be just another Grade-B Charlie Chan mystery."
Joseph Wiseman was born May 15, 1918, in Montreal to an Orthodox Jewish family and grew up in New York. He began performing in summer stock at 16 and turned professional, much to his parents' dismay. "My father wanted me to be something like a lawyer," he told the publication Jewish Week. "And what did I bring home but unemployment?"
An early marriage to Nell Kinard ended in divorce. Mr. Wiseman later married dancer and choreographer Pearl Lang, who died in February. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Martha Graham Wiseman of Arlington, Vt., and a sister.
Mr. Wiseman moved to New York to improve his chances at work and made his Broadway debut as a soldier in Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1938), starring Raymond Massey.
In the 1940s, Mr. Wiseman appeared in a series of Maxwell Anderson plays, playing the beggar and money changer in "Journey to Jerusalem," a German soldier in "Candle in the Wind" and a priest in "Joan of Lorraine," with Ingrid Bergman in her Tony Award-winning role as Joan of Arc. Mr. Wiseman also portrayed the eunuch Mardian in a revival of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" staged by Guthrie McClintic.
Mr. Wiseman's work in "Detective Story" brought him greater renown. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that the actor "gives an extraordinarily colorful and biting performance that is full of whining and treacherous attitudes."
Atkinson said Mr. Wiseman's "brilliant character acting . . . seems all the more remarkable" because of his earlier work in the Anderson and Shakespeare plays. "Most professional burglars do not have so wide a repertory," the critic wrote.
Onscreen, Mr. Wiseman was also convincing as a crazed wanderer in "The Unforgiven" (1960) opposite Burt Lancaster, as a 1920s burlesque owner in "The Night They Raided Minsky's" (1968) and in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974) as the moral scold to his scheming nephew, played by Richard Dreyfuss.
Mr. Wiseman won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding performance in "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (1969) as the atomic bomb pioneer. He also played a Frenchman detained by German occupiers in Miller's World War II drama "Incident at Vichy" (1964) and the "world's oldest living Bolshevik" in Tony Kushner's "Slavs!" in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Wiseman's final Broadway appearance was in a 2001 revival of Abby Mann's "Judgment at Nuremberg," about the Nazi war crimes tribunal after World War II.
The actor, playing a prosecution witness, told the New York Times: "A life being enacted onstage is a thing of utter fascination for me. And acting, it may begin out of vanity, but you hope that it's taken over by something else."
Then he said with a laugh, "I hope I've climbed over the vanity hurdle."