Richard Widmark, who made a sensational film debut as the giggling killer in “Kiss of Death” and became a Hollywood leading man in “Broken Lance,” “Two Rode Together” and 40 other films, has died after a long illness. He was 93.
Widmark’s wife, Susan Blanchard, said the actor died at his home in Connecticut on Monday.
The steely eyed actor became an instant star in 1947’s film noir “Kiss of Death,” playing the sadistic, falsetto-voiced psychopath Tommy Udo, who pushes a wheelchairbound old woman down a flight of stairs. The role earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination and seemed to propel him toward a career as a bad guy. But Widmark had other plans, as his leading-man roles in such films as “Pickup on South Street,” “The Alamo,” “The Bedford Incident” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” attest.
Yet he was never as good as when he was playing bad. Even his protagonists were laconic, terse and nervy. And when he cut loose in films such as “No Way Out” and “The Street With No Name,” his performances were on a par with those of Cagney and Bogart.
A quiet, inordinately shy man, Widmark often portrayed killers, cops and Western gunslingers. But he said he hated guns.
“I know I’ve made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence,” he remarked in a 1976 Associated Press interview. “I am an ardent supporter of gun control. It seems incredible to me that we are the only civilized nation that does not put some effective control on guns.”
He was born in Sunrise, Minn., and attended Lake Forest College in Illinois, initially to study law. But football and acting distracted him. He stayed on after graduation in 1936 to be an acting instructor and left for New York in 1938. His bold, distinctive voice served him well in the heyday of radio, landing him regular work in soap operas.
In 1943, Widmark made his Broadway debut in “Kiss and Tell,” the comedy that inspired the radio serial “Meet Corliss Archer,” and then segued into the short-lived William Saroyan play “Get Away Old Man.” Turned down for military service because of a perforated eardrum, he was courted by MGM for the film “Bataan” in 1944 but resisted signing a contract.
He continued to work on Broadway in “Trio,” “Kiss Them for Me,” “Shore Leave” and Elia Kazan’s “Dunnigan’s Daughter.” In 1946 he starred in the Chicago production of “Dream Girl” with June Havoc and a summer production of “Joan of Lorraine.”
Widmark finally capitulated to Hollywood, signing a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox and landing his starmaking role in “Kiss of Death.” “Street With No Name,” “Road House” and the Western “Yellow Sky” furthered his ascent to full-fledged stardom.
Widmark earned his first star billing playing a hero in the adventure “Down to the Sea in Ships” and then in “Slattery’s Hurricane,” one of Veronica Lake’s last screen roles.
By 1950, he was the best actor Fox had to offer, working for the likes of Kazan, Joseph Mankiewicz and Jules Dassin in such pics as “Panic in the Streets,” “No Way Out” and “Night and the City.” Then in 1951it was back to heroism in “The Halls of Montezuma,” “The Frogmen” and “Don’t Bother to Knock,” in which he starred with Marilyn Monroe.
His first comedy was “My Pal Gus,” but more memorable was his slightly shady hero in Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street.” “Broken Lance” gave him the chance to appear opposite one of his favorite actors, Spencer Tracy, and he appeared opposite Gary Cooper in “Garden of Evil.” He only did “Hell and High Water” because he had to and resented his leading lady Bella Darvi, then studio chief Darryl Zanuck’s mistress.
Widmark refused to sign a new contract with Fox and floated around in roles in films including “The Cobweb” for Vincente Minnelli, “The Last Wagon,” “Run for the Sun” and the disastrous “Saint Joan” for Otto Preminger. “Time Limit” (1957) and “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958) were fine examples of the courtroom drama and Western, respectively.
United Artists forced Widmark on John Wayne for “The Alamo” (Wayne thought Widmark was too slight to play Jim Bowie). “Two Rode Together” and “Cheyenne Autumn” gave him the opportunity to work with John Ford. In “Judgment at Nuremberg,” he joined the ensemble of one of the most important movies of 1961.
War and Westerns kept him fairly busy for most of the decade, from “How the West Was Won” (1962) and “The Bedford Incident” (he also produced the latter) to “Alvarez Kelly” and “The Way West.”
But his most memorable role of the period was in Don Siegel’s terse cop drama “Madigan,” which Widmark took to TV for six telepics in 1972-73.
The roles then slowly got less appealing, except for “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which he played the man everyone wanted to kill — and did, and “When the Legends Die,” a personal favorite, which didn’t get much attention.
He turned to TV in “The Last Day” and “To the Devil a Daughter.” Best of all was Fletcher Knebel’s 1971 miniseries “Vanished,” which brought an Emmy nomination.
There was also Western telepic “Mr. Horn” and TV suspenser “Blackout.”
Lending his presence brought class to otherwise marginal efforts like 1977’s “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” 1978’s “The Swarm” and “Coma” and 1984’s “Against All Odds.” His final film was 1991’s “True Colors,” starring James Spader and John Cusack.
When he wasn’t working, Widmark and his wife lived on a horse ranch in Hidden Valley, Calif., and on a farm in Connecticut.
He is survived by Blanchard and a daughter, Anne, who was at one time married to baseball great Sandy Koufax.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)