He had skin cancer, said his son Justin Whitman.
With his tousled dark hair, roguish smile and boxer’s physique, Mr. Whitman was a half-century staple of film and television, appearing in studio blockbusters and John Wayne epics as well as exploitation films and horror schlock.
He played an Army paratrooper in the D-Day movie “The Longest Day” (1962), a brash pilot in the British comedy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) and a misguided zoologist in “Night of the Lepus” (1972), a box-office dud — now a cult classic — in which his character unleashes a race of mutant, bloodthirsty bunnies that seemed to anticipate the killer rabbit in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Mr. Whitman turned to acting after serving in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he spent his free time sparring and compiled a near-perfect record as an amateur light heavyweight boxer. Returning to Los Angeles, he rented out a bulldozer to supplement his meager acting income, then abandoned the construction business when he began to have more success on-screen in films such as “Darby’s Rangers” (1958).
Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper speculated that he might be the heir to Clark Gable, calling Mr. Whitman “a fresh personality with tremendous impact.” Officials at Twentieth Century Fox, where Mr. Whitman was on contract, suggested in 1960 that based on the number of fan letters he received, Mr. Whitman was primed to be “the next big young male star.”
Indeed, he starred as the upstanding Marshal Jim Crown in “Cimarron Strip,” which premiered on CBS in 1967 and ran for one unconventional season, with weekly 90-minute episodes that reportedly cost a staggering $350,000 to $400,000 each. But he thrived playing heels, vagabonds and seductive womanizers, including in the 1959 William Faulkner adaptation “The Sound and the Fury.”
“I like those kind of guys I suppose because I can’t be that way myself,” Mr. Whitman once told columnist Joe Hyams. “If I was, it would shatter a few things — namely my wife and four children.”
In 1961, he starred as gambler Paul Regret in “The Comancheros” (1961), the last feature film by “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz. The role had already been assigned, Mr. Whitman said, but he talked his way into the part after a 20-minute conversation with Wayne, who played the movie’s Texas Ranger hero. The duo became chess partners, playing games in between takes.
Mr. Whitman “always considered himself a bit of a cowboy,” his son Justin said by phone. He went on to portray an Army captain in the 1964 Western “Rio Conchos,” which featured football star Jim Brown in his movie debut, and starred as a big-game hunter who survives a plane crash and turns against his fellow passengers in “Sands of the Kalahari” (1965).
Yet he also pushed back against that image, notably in “The Mark” (1961), an exploration of sexual deviance in which Mr. Whitman played a convicted sex offender who seeks guidance from a psychiatrist (Rod Steiger). He once explained that he had taken the part to test himself, telling the Chicago Daily News: “I wanted to find out if I was in the right business.”
Decades later, he acknowledged that he had put off reading the script until he arrived in London, in preparation for shooting in Ireland. “My first thoughts were ‘I can’t do this,’ and [I] tried to think of an excuse to get out of it,” Mr. Whitman told interviewer Nick Thomas. “Later, I got a call from Steiger, who wanted to meet and rehearse at his place. We worked our way through and it turned out fine.”
Mr. Whitman received an Academy Award nomination for best actor but lost to “Judgment at Nuremberg” star Maximilian Schell, whose sister, actress Maria Schell, played Mr. Whitman’s love interest in “The Mark.”
“I had a tough time breaking my image in that movie,” Mr. Whitman told the Chicago Daily News in 1967. “I’ve been a psycho three times since.”
The older of two children, Stuart Maxwell Whitman was born in San Francisco on Feb. 1, 1928. The family moved frequently because of his father’s work in real estate, and Mr. Whitman said he attended 26 schools before graduating from Hollywood High in Los Angeles. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers after World War II and attended Los Angeles City College on the GI Bill.
Defying his father, who threw him out of the house when he learned Mr. Whitman was pursuing a career in show business, Mr. Whitman made his professional stage debut in a touring production of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.” And he took bit parts on screen, beginning with the 1951 sci-fi disaster film “When Worlds Collide.”
His marriages to Patricia LaLonde and Caroline Boubis ended in divorce. In 2006 he married Yuliya (sometimes spelled Julia) Paradiz. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage, Linda Whitman van Hook and Anthony, Michael and Scott Whitman; a son from his second marriage, Justin Whitman; a brother, actor Kipp Whitman; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Whitman played a tempestuous college student in “Johnny Trouble” (1957), actress Ethel Barrymore’s last movie; had a recurring role as Broderick Crawford’s sidekick on the 1950s crime drama “Highway Patrol”; and starred as Boaz, an ancestor of King David, in the biblical drama “The Story of Ruth” (1960).
On television, he played Superman’s adoptive father on “Superboy” and had guest spots on shows including “Fantasy Island,” “The A-Team,” “Knots Landing” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
But his film career suffered, he said, after the release of “Night of the Lepus,” which New York Times movie critic Roger Greenspun described as a rabbit-based thriller about “big-eared monsters who neigh like horses, stampede like cattle, roar like lions and breathe very heavily — especially when they are going to do something awful, like chew up the keeper of the general store, so as to get at the lettuce in the back room.”
“Several friends have asked how you can make a rabbit seem scary,” Greenspun continued, “and I must confess that ‘Night of the Lepus’ in no way answers their question. It doesn’t even reasonably try.”
Mr. Whitman soldiered on, playing Cloris Leachman’s former lover in “Crazy Mama” (1975), the second feature by director Jonathan Demme; a sheriff in horror master Tobe Hooper’s “Eaten Alive” (1976); and a Jim Jones-like priest in “Guyana: Cult of the Damned” (1979), a docudrama inspired by the Jonestown massacre.
“I was bankable for a while,” Mr. Whitman told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, “then I did a couple of shows that didn’t make any money. Then I wasn’t bankable.” He added: “As an actor you’ve got to keep working. You’ve got to do something to feed the family, put the kids through school.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries