×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Widmark left indelible impressions

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 …

More Film

  • Calamity Jane

    Indie Sales Acquires Remi Chayé's Female-Driven Animated Feature 'Calamity' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paris-based company Indie Sales (“My Life as a Zucchini”) has acquired Rémi Chayé’s animated film “Calamity – The Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary,” the French helmer’s follow up to his critically acclaimed feature debut “Long Way North.” “Calamity – The Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” tells the story of the 12-year-old Martha Jane who must [...]

  • Scarlett Johansson on 2020 Election, Avengers

    Scarlett Johansson on Running for Office: 'Maybe at Some Point'

    Pres. Scarlett Johansson, anyone? While she may not be running for office at the moment, Johansson says a campaign may be in her future. “Maybe some time in the future,” she says when asked if her political activism has inspired her own aspirations. “I think the greatest way to effect change is in local politics. [...]

  • Circus of Books

    Netflix Acquires Tribeca Doc 'Circus of Books,' Exec Produced by Ryan Murphy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has acquired worldwide rights to the documentary “Circus of Books” ahead of its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rachel Mason wrote and directed the pic, and also produced it along with Kathryn Robson, Cynthia Childs, Camilla Hall and Adam Baron. Ryan Murphy, Josh Braun, John Battsek, Rhianon Jones and Gerald Herman executive produced. [...]

  • Santa Fe Studios Netflix

    Santa Fe Studios Competes With Other New Mexico Stages for Streaming Business

    Albuquerque Studios entered the spotlight last October when it was purchased by Netflix. While the complex is clearly the jewel in the crown of New Mexico’s production infrastructure, with eight soundstages totaling 132,000 square feet, 100,000 square feet of production offices, a large backlot and support space, it’s not the only modern studio facility in [...]

  • Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Someone Great

    'Someone Great' Director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson on Reimagining the Rom-Com

    Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, creator of the MTV series “Sweet/Vicious,” recently made her feature debut with “Someone Great,”  now streaming on Netflix. The film follows three friends as they navigate relationships and work in New York City.  Here, the writer-director opens up on reimagining the rom-com, and women changing the face of Hollywood. The three young [...]

  • Brie Larson Takes On 'Beat Saber'

    Brie Larson Takes on 'Beat Saber' With Jimmy Fallon

    “Avengers: Endgame’s” Brie Larson took to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to play around in virtual reality. After chatting with Fallon about the upcoming Marvel superhero flick, Larson got hooked up with an HTC Vive with the talk show hit to give “Beat Saber” a try. Fallon was first up, who played through a [...]

  • Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan

    Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan Doc Hits Netflix June 12 (EXCLUSIVE)

    You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, but Bob Dylan fans have been waiting for some kind of reliable forecast to know when “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” might be rolling in. Here’s that storm alert: Netflix will be releasing the documentary June 12. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content