Richard Widmark – A Real Tough Guy

The film world has lost one for its finest actors, Richard Widmark, who has taken his Final Taxi at the age of 93. I remember him for all of his gangster roles as he was typically cast as a villain or tough guy.

Actor Richard Widmark

That type-cast came because of the role he played as Tommy Udo, a giggling, psychopathic killer in the 1947 gangster film “Kiss of Death,” Widmark tied up an old woman in a wheelchair
(played by Mildred Dunnock) with a cord ripped from a lamp and shoved her down a flight of stairs to her death. It was a performance that won Widmark his sole Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actor, which is quite as shame since he played some great roles.

Widmark was born in Sunrise Township, Minnesota, grew up in Princeton, Illinois. He attended Lake Forest College, where he studied acting. He taught acting at the college after graduation, before debuting on radio in 1938 in Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories. He appeared on Broadway in 1943 in Kiss and Tell. He was unable to join the military during World War II because of a perforated eardrum.

Although he played mobsters dripping in evil with an arm around some femme fatale, Widmark was a mild-mannered man who had married his college sweetheart, the actress Jean Hazelwood, and who told a reporter 48 years later that he had never been unfaithful and had never even flirted with women because, he said, “I happen to like my wife a lot.”

Among the 65 movies he made over the next five decades Widmark played a doctor who fights bubonic plague in Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950), the daredevil pilot flying into the eye of a storm in “Slattery’s Hurricane” (1949) and the pickpocket who refuses to be a traitor in Samuel Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street” (1953). Also there was “The Cobweb” (1955), in which he played the head of a psychiatric clinic where the staff seemed more emotionally troubled than the patients; “Saint Joan” (1957) , as the Dauphin to Joan Seberg’s Joan of Arc; John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960), as Jim Bowie, the inventor of the Bowie knife; “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), as an American army colonel prosecuting German war criminals; and John Ford’s revisionist western “Cheyenne Autumn” (1963), as an army captain who risks his career to help the Indians.

Richard Widmark created the role of Detective Sergeant Daniel Madigan in Don Siegel’s 1968 film “Madigan.” It proved so popular that later he played the loner Madigan on an NBC television series during the 1972-73 season.

As his blonde hair turned grey, Widmark moved up in rank, playing generals in the nuclear thriller “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (1977) and “The Swarm” (1978), in which he waged war on bees.

I remember Widmark’s role as was the evil head of a hospital in “Coma” (1978). When I saw that film, I snuck a whole pizza in the theater that night and regretted it with some of the scenes where body part are removed.

Among his many other films were Death of a Gunslinger (1969), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Rollercoaster (1977), Who Dares Wins (1982) Against All Odds (1983) and Blackout (1985). I think he tried to relive the role of Tommy Udo in the Gene Wilder- Gilda Radner film ” Hanky Panky ( 1982).

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Widmark has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2002, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.