Tough, mean, devious and smart; all words that could be used to describe the sort of characters Richard Widmark was identified with. From his earliest roles, Widmark became an archetype, typically playing hoods, thugs, tough-minded cops or determined, flawed authority figures. Over the span of 50 years and 75 movies, he built a career of playing men capable of casual cruelty and offhand violence. Even the more positive roles he played tended towards a high-strung, neurotic intensity that became a trademark. Off-screen, though, the real Widmark was in complete contrast to the roles he excelled at.
Born Dec. 26, 1914 in Princeton, IL, to a traveling salesman of Swedish descent, young Widmark moved around to South Dakota, Missouri and the Chicago, IL area in his early years. His grandfather was taking him to moving pictures as early as age four, where Widmark became a fan of Boris Karloff and the Universal stable of monsters. He was elected class president in high school, where he developed the ability to sweet-talk his way out of trouble. Later years found him enrolled at Lake Forest College in the Chicago area. He was headed towards pre-law when he was sidetracked by debate, football and drama. Nervy and charismatic, he auditioned for the lead role in "Counselor at Law," a popular 1930s play, seeing that playing an attorney onstage was more enticing than actually working as one. Widmark stayed on at Lake Forest until 1938 as a drama instructor, before moving on to New York and radio dramas. His first role was in "Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories," a 15-minute radio soap opera popular at the time, before starring as a tough-talking reporter in his own radio drama, "Front Page Farrell." By the early 1940s, he was appearing on several radio programs a day and pulling down an astonishing depression-era $100,000 a year.
Widmark tried to enlist in the military after the outbreak of WWII, but was rejected for a perforated eardrum. He turned instead to the stage in 1943, and his name was soon splashed across Broadway marquees, appearing in productions such as "Kiss and Tell," "Dunnigan's Daughter" and "Kiss Them For Me." He forged an early relationship with director Elia Kazan during his Broadway run, but it was the postwar years that saw him in his first movie roles. He made his movie debut in "Kiss of Death" (1947) and his giggling, dapper psychopath Tommy Udo instantly became one of film noir's more indelible villains, handily upstaging the top-billed Victor Mature. The movie's pivotal scene finds Udo lashing an elderly woman into her wheelchair and gleefully pushing her down a flight of stairs as he leers and sniggers at her demise. Of the Udo role, The New Yorker dryly noted that he had the ability to "make a perfectly good set of white teeth appear more alarming than any prop-department fangs Boris Karloff ever bared." In fact, audiences and critics were sufficiently floored by Widmark's performance to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
More notable movie roles soon followed: "Road House" (1948); "The Street With No Name" (1948); and Kazan's riveting "Panic in the Streets" (1950), with Widmark playing against type as a public health officer racing against time to head off an outbreak of bubonic plague in New Orleans. It was "No Way Out" (1950), however, that provided a good angle on Widmark's off-screen nature. The actor was decidedly liberal in his personal politics, only avoiding the HUAC dragnet of the early 1950s by keeping his views close to his vest and not joining organizations. This near-forgotten drama cast him as a race-baiting thug bent on avenging his brother who died while being treated by a black surgeon (Sidney Poitier). The script had Widmark's character spewing vile racial slurs at every turn. He was so uncomfortable in the role that he reportedly apologized to Poitier - in his feature film debut - after shooting every scene. Today "No Way Out" would be considered well-meaning but heavy-handed, but it was an early attempt by Hollywood to address problems of race, and its ugly and inflammatory dialogue is still harsh and unnerving by modern standards.
Other early work that reflected indirectly on Widmark's politics included Sam Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" (1953), a Cold War-era crime/espionage movie with Widmark as the reluctant and ambiguous antihero. One of Fuller's bigger box-office successes, "South Street" was often misinterpreted as a right-wing McCarthy-era screed, but its "hero" is a petty pickpocket with motives that are more personal than patriotic. Fuller was adept at weaving subtexts into his stories; he slyly poked at the Red-baiters in a scene where two FBI men earnestly try to appeal to Skip's (Widmark's) sense of duty to country. For their trouble, Widmark sneers, "Are you guys waving the flag at me?
The elephantine flop "The Alamo" (1960) had Widmark playing a pragmatic Jim Bowie opposite hyper-patriot John Wayne's Davy Crockett. Reportedly conflicts between the stars were rife on-set (although publicly Widmark blamed them on Wayne's lack of directorial skills). Widmark also produced "The Bedford Incident" (1965), a Cold War thriller with the actor as a Queeg-like destroyer skipper bent on a confrontation with a Russian sub caught inside territorial waters. The Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in the public's minds by 1965, and this underrated, near-forgotten movie ratcheted up the tension throughout. The decidedly anti-war Widmark saw the movie as a perfect vehicle for pointing up the futility of Cold War escalation.
The Sixties and Seventies saw Widmark more choosy about his roles, often playing more generous characters. "Madigan" (1968) was a first-rate cop drama directed by Don Siegel, with Widmark as a jittery, determined police lieutenant. It was successful enough for him to break his boycott of TV work as it spun off into a short-lived but excellent series by the same name (NBC, 1972-73). The Seventies also found him as a general in Robert Aldrich's excellent political conspiracy thriller "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1977) and a nefarious surgeon in "Coma" (1978). His political views were again reflected in TV projects like "All God's Children" (ABC, 1980) and "A Gathering Of Old Men" (CBS, 1987). He also lent his voice to narrate several wildlife documentaries.
Widmark kept a low profile in his personal life, married to playwright Jean Hazlewood from 1942 until her death in 1997 (a daughter, Anne, came along in 1945). As his wife's health failed, his interest in acting declined and Widmark became more private and reclusive. In 1999, he married Susan Blanchard, ex-wife of longtime friend Henry Fonda, and remained married to her until his death. Declining interviews, talk-show appearances and such, Widmark lived a quiet life until his death on March 24, 2008, after complications from a fall. Over the span of 50 years, he went from being a film noir icon to an actor with a broader range and scope, but still brought a readily-identifiable style to each movie he was in.