William Goldman remembers the acting icon

I only met Richard Widmark once, and briefly, a third of a century ago, but I’m not going to forget him.

I was in London, working with the director John Schhlesinger on a novel and screenplay of mine, “Marathon Man.” Schlesinger, unquestionably brilliant, had won the best directing Oscar a few years earlier for his work on “Midnight Cowboy.” He had also been nominated for “Darling” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”

And he was, at this time, terrified he was dead in Hollywood. He had finished a movie, “The Day of the Locust,” that he was convinced would destroy him. So he accepted “Marathon Man” — a thriller — for salvation.

We had a marvelous cast — Dustin Hoffman, Roy Scheider, William Devane — and the very great Laurence Olivier.

Who was sick, and maybe dying.

I asked our producer, Robert Evans, if Olivier was set and he replied: “Is he set? Is Oliver set? He’s so set you wouldn’t believe it.” Then he paused, finished up with this: “Of course he isn’t set-set.”

OK, I am staying at a hotel, working in Schlesinger’s house, and I ring his doorbell on this special day, and he answers, looking very surprised indeed.

“Richard Widmark is coming over — he wants to read for Szell,” the Olivier part.

I was excited to meet Widmark. He had gone to Lake Forest College, just a couple of towns north of where I was brought up in Illinois, had taught there, then came to New York, worked on Broadway, became a radio star.

Then, at 33, he made his film debut.

He arrived at Schlesinger’s on time. He was well dressed, obviously a gent, said this: “Thank you for seeing me. I know you want Larry for the part. I hope he plays it. But I just thought, as long as we were all three here, I might give it a try. I promise I won’t take long.”

With that we moved into the library. He had a copy of the screenplay, took it out, cleared his throat, started to read.

A few things I should remind you of:

(1) the part of Szell is the villain, a sadistic Nazi dentist, who, among other things, tortures the star, Hoffman, with dental tools, all the while asking this question over and over: “Is it safe?”

(2) Widmark’s debut film, “Kiss of Death,” which got him an Oscar nomination, was the one where he played the sadistic Tommy Udo, who, among other things, pushed a crippled old lady down a staircase to her death.

Now, in that London library, Tommy Udo came alive again.

I cannot tell you how thrilling that was.

I can still see Widmark turning the pages of the script, and his voice was so frightening. He was not repeating his most famous role, but you knew that evil son of a bitch was somehow still lurking, still inside him, ready and willing to kill you but, more than that, anxious to put you in agony.

He finished, got up, thanked us. We chatted briefly and pleasantly. At the time, his daughter was married to Sandy Koufax.

And at that moment, I was surrounded by heroes …

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