Likeable 'Gilda' thesp dies at 90

Glenn Ford, the durable actor who parlayed his likable “average Joe” persona into a lengthy film and TV career, died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 90.

Failing health forced him to skip a 90th birthday tribute May 1 at the Egyptian Theatre, co-sponsored by Variety. But he did send greetings via videotape, adding, “I wish I were up and around, but I’m doing the best that I can … There’s so much I have to be grateful for.”

Ford’s features included Richard Brooks’ landmark juvenile delinquency drama “The Blackboard Jungle”; the romantic mellers “Gilda” with Rita Hayworth and “A Stolen Life” with Bette Davis and Fritz Lang’s film noir thriller “The Big Heat.”

The low-key Ford, whose naturalistic style made him a leading box office draw in the post-World War II era, was equally at ease as the leading man in a host of Westerns, most notably “The Man From the Alamo,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Cowboy” and the 1960 remake of “Cimarron.”

His most prominent screen role later in life was as Jonathan Kent, the title character’s adoptive Earth father in the 1978 feature “Superman,” starring Christopher Reeve.

On TV, Ford starred in the series “Cade’s County,” as a jeep-riding U.S. marshal, and “The Family Holvak,” as a rural preacher. He also hosted the syndicated disaster series “When Havoc Struck” and appeared in numerous telepics and minis.

Offscreen, Ford was an ardent military man. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years during WWII and later returned to the service in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Naval Reserve, attaining the rank of captain.

Born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford in Quebec, Ford was of Welsh ancestry, the son of a railroad exec and paper mill owner. He took his acting name from the Canadian town of Glenford, the site of his father’s mill.

The family moved to Santa Monica when Ford was 7, and he became active in small theater groups while attending Santa Monica High School. He won his first professional role in a 1935 production of “The Children’s Hour.”

West Coast legit roles in “Golden Boy” and “Soliloquy” led to screen tests and film roles, including a big role in his first feature, 20th’s 1939 B pic “Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence.”

Later that year Columbia put Ford under contract, and he remained with the studio for more than two decades, though he was allowed to freelance intermittently. He appeared for Col in such pics as “Texas,” “Flight Lieutenant,” “The Desperadoes” and “Destroyer” before joining the Marines in December 1942.

He later called his wartime service “three of the best years of my life.” Rising to the rank of sergeant by the end of the war, Ford helped liberate the Fernwald concentration camp in Bavaria in 1945, for which he was honored in 1985 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Ford had a winner with his first postwar role at Col opposite G.I. pinup queen Hayworth in the sexy 1946 “Gilda.”

That same year, he had another hit with “A Stolen Life,” opposite Davis. He then fell back into what he called “the old ‘B’ rut” in such pics as “Framed,” “The Loves of Carmen,” “The Man From Colorado” and “Affair in Trinidad.” Of such fare he later wrote, “Few actors have survived as many bad pictures as I.”

Ford found two memorable roles in 1953, playing the mysterious title character in Budd Boetticher’s Western “The Man From the Alamo” and a cop twisted by revenge in Lang’s searing “The Big Heat.”

He acted again for Lang as a railroad engineer in the 1954 “Human Desire,” based on Emile Zola’s “La Bete Humaine,” and in 1955 he was the idealistic schoolteacher coping with student tough guys in “The Blackboard Jungle,” which also starred Sidney Poitier. That pic introduced rock ‘n’ roll to mainstream movie audiences — its theme song was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets — and struck a nerve with its candid and insightful treatment of the problem of juvenile delinquency.

Ford continued appearing in Westerns, notably Delmer Daves’ “3:10 to Yuma” and Anthony Mann’s epic “Cimarron,” while also appearing in such pics as “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Don’t Go Near the Water,” “Imitation General” and “Torpedo Run.”

Ford served as associate producer on Frank Capra’s last feature, the 1961 United Artists “Pocketful of Miracles,” a remake of Capra’s 1933 “Lady for a Day.” The pic flopped at the B.O., though Ford won a Golden Globe for his role as gambler Dave the Dude. Ford followed “Pocketful” with Vincente Minnelli’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” Blake Edwards’ stylish thriller “Experiment in Terror” and such routine fare as “Love Is a Ball,” “Advance to the Rear,” “The Rounders” and “The Money Trap.”

Ford made his TV acting debut in the 1970 suspense telepic “Brotherhood of the Bell.” He also appeared in such telepics as “Jarrett,” “The Disappearance of Flight 412″ and “The Gift” and in the “Once an Eagle,” “Beggarman, Thief” and “Evening in Byzantium” minis.

He married actress-dancer Eleanor Powell in 1943; the two divorced in 1959. They had a son, Peter, an actor. A 1965 marriage to actress Kathryn Hays ended quickly. In 1977, he married model Cynthia Hayward, 32 years his junior. They were divorced in 1984.

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