A career shaped by steely edge

Veteran actor was best at bad guys, flawed heroes

Richard Widmark, the fledgling radio actor who won instant immortality for shoving a crippled old woman down a flight of stairs, died Monday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 93.

His wife, Susan Blanchard, said the long-retired actor had fractured a vertebra in recent months and that his condition had worsened, the New York Times reported.

Widmark, then 32, received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work in 1947's "Kiss of Death." He played Tommy Udo, a laughing psychopathic murderer who pushes a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock to her death because she won't talk.

An acting student in Lake Forest, Ill., the Minnesota native landed a radio job in New York on a show titled "Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories" in 1938 and made his Broadway stage debut five years later in the classic comedy "Kiss and Tell."

His big break came when his agent took him to meet producer Henry Hathaway, who was looking for someone to play a villain in an underworld thriller. Hathaway took one look at Widmark, the Times reported, and politely said, "Sorry, too well-bred, too intellectual."

But Widmark picked up the script for "Kiss of Death" and began silently to read the part of Udo, the moronic killer. "Read it aloud," Hathaway said, "then you'll see what I mean about the part being unsuitable."

The actor found a menacing voice and began reading. During the killing scene, Widmark threw in that macabre chuckle. He got the part.

"The sadism of that character, the fearful laugh, the skull showing through drawn skin and the surely conscious evocation of a concentration-camp degenerate established Widmark as the most frightening person on the screen," critic David Thomson wrote in "The Biographical Dictionary of Film."

Widmark then signed a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox. His early films included bad-guy roles in fare like "Road House" (1948) with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde. He was particularly chilling as a nasty racist in "No Way Out" (1950), constantly goading a young intern played by Sidney Poitier.

He was the good guy in Elia Kazan's "Panic in the Streets" (1950), then made his mark again as the cynical hero of Samuel Fuller's "Pickup on South Street" (1953). His gritty persona also suited him well for Westerns, playing in such John Ford films as "Two Rode Together" (1961) and "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964).

In the latter, he played an army captain who risks his career to help the Indians. Widmark had done research into the suffering of the Cheyenne. He showed his work to Ford, and two years later, the director sent Widmark a finished screenplay.

Widmark was at his best with characters that had a steely edge. He played a range of these types in a number of genres, including the war story "Halls of Montezuma" (1950), the romantic comedy "The Tunnel of Love" (1958) and the Westerns "Yellow Sky" (1948) and "Broken Lance" (1954).

Actually, the Times reported, the intense actor was a mild-mannered former instructor who had married his college sweetheart, the actress Jean Hazelwood, and who told a reporter 48 years later that he had never been unfaithful and had never even flirted with other women because, he said, "I happen to like my wife a lot." Hazelwood died in 1997.

During the late 1950s, he began to produce films under his own banner, Heath Prods. The first of these was the courtroom drama "Time Limit" in 1957. He subsequently produced a spy thriller, "The Secret Ways" (1961), written by Hazelwood. During that period, Widmark also performed in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961) and "The Bedford Incident" (1965).

Although his career ebbed in the early '70s, he starred in the 1972-73 TV series "Madigan," based on the highly regarded 1968 Don Siegel movie in which he starred. Widmark began again to garner solid screen roles in such big movies as "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974), "Rollercoaster" (1977) and "Coma" (1978). He also was featured in 1984's "Against All Odds," directed by Taylor Hackford.

In later years, Widmark appeared sparingly in films and TV. He explained to Parade magazine in 1987: "I've discovered in my dotage that I now find the whole moviemaking process irritating. I don't have the patience anymore. I've got a few more years to live, and I don't want to spend them sitting around a movie set for 12 hours to do two minutes of film."

When he wasn't working, he and his first wife lived on a horse ranch in Hidden Valley, Calif., later on a farm in Connecticut. Their daughter, Ann, became the wife of baseball's Sandy Koufax.

Duane Byrge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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