James Whitmore dies at 87

Oscar nominated for Truman role in 'Give 'em Hell, Harry!'

James Whitmore, who played such American icons as Harry Truman, Will Rogers and Theodore Roosevelt, died Friday of lung cancer at his home in Malibu. He was 87.

Whitmore was twice nominated for Academy Awards -- as best actor in 1976 for "Give 'em Hell, Harry!," in which he played Truman, and as best supporting actor in 1950 for the war movie "Battleground."

He also won an Emmy Award in 2000 for a guest-starring role on "The Practice," as well as a Tony Award for "Command Decision."

Whitmore was diagnosed with cancer a week before Thanksgiving. "My father believed that family came before everything, that work was just a vehicle in which to provide for your family," his son Steve Whitmore, who works as spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, told the Associated Press. "At the end, and in the last two and a half months of his life, he was surrounded by his family."

With his craggy countenance and plainspoken manner, Whitmore was once described as the supporting actor's version of Spencer Tracy, for whom he was sometimes confused. His extensive movie credits included such diverse fare as John Huston's crime thriller "The Asphalt Jungle," and the musical "Kiss Me Kate!," where he memorably performed Cole Porter's "Brush Up with Keenan Wynn.

In all, Whitmore performed in more than 75 feature films and his credits were an eclectic range, including 1964's "Black Like Me," where he starred as a white Texan who has his skin darkened and travels the South as a black man, encountering racism first hand. He also co-starred in the original 1968 'Planet of the Apes," playing the president of the Assembly. He played another authority-figure in the "The Harrad Experiment" (1973), playing the head of a progressive college where sexual freedom was practiced. More recently, Whitmore appeared a librarian/lifer who couldn't adjust to the outside world in "The Shawshank Redemption."

He also starred in the TV series "The Law and Mr. Jones" ('60-61), as well as such other shows as ""My Friend Tony" (1969) and "Temperature Rising" (1972-73). During his early acting years in the '50s, Whitmore guest-starred on such acclaimed anthology series as "Alcoa Premiere," "The Desilu Playhouse," "Playhouse 90," "Kraft Television Theatre," "Zane Grey Theatre" and "The Twilight Zone."

But for all his TV and film work, Whitmore was even more closely associated with the theater, where he performed a number of well-received one-man shows. His repertoire of historical characters included: Rogers in "Will Rogers, USA," Roosevelt in "Bully and President; Truman in "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." In ensemble productions, Whitmore also essayed such figures as Oliver Wendell Holes in "The Magnificent Yankee," Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and Norman Thayer in "On Golden Pond."

Whitmore was born on October 1, 1921 in Buffalo, New York. He went to Yale University, intending to become a lawyer. He left Yale to join the U.S. Marines during World War II, completing his Yale degree during boot camp. It was in the military that Whitmore began his performing career with a USO tour through the South Pacific. After his discharge, Whitmore returned to New York City to study acting at the American Theatre Wing and the Actors Studio, which he helped found in 1947.

That same year he made his professional acting debut with the Peterborough Players stock company in New Hampshire. He vaulted to Broadway soon thereafter and distinguished himself by his performance as a military man in "Command Decision." In addition to the Tony Award he received for that performance as Sgt. Evans, Whitmore also won the Theatre World and Donaldson Award.

Two years later, he won more recognition by playing another sergeant: He won his first Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe nod , for his portrayal of a tough platoon sergeant in William Wellman's epic "Battleground." It was only Whitmore's second motion picture.

During his more than 50-year career, Whitman's movie credits also included: "The Eddie Duchin Story," "All the Brothers Were Valiant," "Because You're Mine," "The Red Badge of Courage" (where he provided the narration), "The Restless Years," "Guns of the Magnificent Seven," "Tora! Tora! Tora!," "The Serpent's Egg," "Bully," "The First Deadly Sin," "Nuts," and, most recently, "The Relic" and "The Majestic."

Whitmore is survived by his third wife, Noreen; sons Steve, James Jr. and Dan; and eight grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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