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Screen Legend Richard Widmark Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: In 1950, the Joseph Mankiewicz film "No Way Out" told the story of a hoodlum who is laid out in a prison hospital. This music was from Alfred Newman's score; they used it for the trailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: In those days when they needed someone to play a bad a guy like Ray Biddle, there was an actor on the scene that was perfect. He'd made his debut three years earlier as a killer in "Kiss of Death." And here he was confronted by Linda Darnell, who was playing his sister-in-law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO WAY OUT")

LINDA DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) Why couldn't it be you that got kill him instead of Johnny.

RICHARD WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) That's your favorite question, ain't it? Only the last time, you asked it, it wasn't about being dead.

DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) You scum.

WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) It was why couldn't it be you I'm married to instead of Johnny.

DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) You dirty scum.

WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) Sounded good in the dark.

DARNELL: (As Edie Johnson) I should have killed you.

WIDMARK: (As Ray Biddle) You had other things on your mind.

SIEGEL: David Thompson is the author of the "Biographical Dictionary of Film." He joins us from San Francisco. When we speak of Richard Widmark, what do you think of first?

DAVID THOMPSON: Well, I think you have to remember that debut. He played one of the most vicious killers in American film, even allowing for changes in time and context. But in 1947 in "Kiss of Death," he pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase and then he giggled.

SIEGEL: He giggled. Yeah.

THOMPSON: It went into the nervous system of the nation and it was, you know, it was one of the great villain debuts of all times.

SIEGEL: Widmark, thereafter was cast off and as a - just a nasty guy, at least a tough guy.

THOMPSON: Yeah. For a few years, he could not escape that. And I think that it paint him to a good degree because he was an enormously amiable, decent man - very, very far from this character. But, you know, when you make your first impact like that then everyone wants you to repeat it, forever. And it took a good 10 years before, I think, people understood that he had a very decent side to him, too.

SIEGEL: He acted in several Westerns, and he said the Westerns agreed with him except he couldn't ride.

THOMPSON: Yeah. He had a sort of naturally suntanned face. Yeah, he's (unintelligible) the part, (unintelligible) that Midwestern drawl. He had a very good, deep voice; he'd come from radio. And he looked great in cowboy clothes, playing either villains or heroes. And if he couldn't ride, you'd never notice it.

SIEGEL: Of course, the part for which, I guess I'll remember him most, was from "Judgment at Nuremberg," which is totally different from everything else we've said just now. He was prosecutor at the war crimes.

THOMPSON: That's right. And, you know, he was encouraged in that film by the director, Stanley Kramer, to be very fierce, very tough in the film because Maximilian Schell was the defense attorney. He had the sort of rather more interesting argument to make. And Widmark was quite brutal, quite tough in that film, but did it very, very well. He was typical of the actors of that generation, who could do more than they were normally asked to do, if you know what I mean.

SIEGEL: He was someone who really was a talented actor, limited in terms of what we saw for several years because of that giggle?

THOMPSON: Yes, because of that and because you get typecast and a certain range of parts become available. He was also, I think, compared with many actors; not a tremendous self-promoter, he liked his private life. And he was a very quiet man. He didn't go out and boast about what he could do.

SIEGEL: Mr. Thompson, thank you very much.

THOMPSON: Okay. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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