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Rediscovering Richard Widmark

Published: Monday, Aug. 27, 2012 3:34 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Aug. 27, 2012 3:37 p.m. CST
Caption
Hollywood star Richard Widmark, who graduated from Princeton High School in 1932, appeared in his first movie 65 years ago. "Kiss of Death," in which Widmark, then 32, played villain Tommy Udo, opened Aug. 27, 1947. Widmark went on to perform in more than 60 movies. Photo courtesy of Fox Movie Channel.
Caption
An advertisement from the Bureau County Republican on Feb. 26, 1948, promotes "Kiss of Death," Richard Widmark's first appearance in a Hollywood movie. The film, whose violence made it adult fare in those days, apparently did not play in Princeton when it was released on Aug. 27, 1947. However, after Widmark was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor on Feb. 15, 1948, the Apollo Theater showed the film on Feb. 29 and March 1-2. Image courtesy of the Princeton Public Library.

Note to readers: "Kiss of Death," Richard Widmark's first movie, premiered on Aug. 27, 1947 – 65 years ago. Widmark, a 1932 Princeton High School graduate, received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as the gangster, Tommy Udo. The film's anniversary provides an opportunity for Princeton residents to rediscover Widmark's life and legacy.

Richard Widmark (1914-2008), a major Hollywood star who appeared in more than 60 films from 1947 to 1991, got bitten by the acting bug in Princeton.

The 1932 Princeton High School graduate performed on the PHS stage, was senior class president, spoke at his graduation, and played high school football.

He later performed on radio shows, on the Broadway stage and on television, but Hollywood is where Widmark made his mark.

Was Widmark a big enough star that his hometown – Princeton – should commemorate his career and celebrate his life?

Yes, he was.

Widmark won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Academy Award.

He starred with a host of A-list actors: John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Sidney Poitier, Gregory Peck, William Holden, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper, Lionel Barrymore and Robert Wagner.

He starred with many A-list actresses: Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Judy Garland, Gene Tierney, Lena Horne, Debbie Reynolds and Carroll Baker.

His movies ran the gamut from film noir to war pictures, from dramas to westerns, from adventure films to horror flicks.

Some of his films are "Kiss of Death," "Yellow Sky," "Night and the City," "Panic in the Streets," "No Way Out," "Don't Bother to Knock," "Slattery's Hurricane," "Pickup on South Street," "The Cobweb," "Time Limit," "The Law and Jake Wade," "The Alamo," "Judgment at Nuremburg," "The Bedford Incident," "Two Rode Together," "How the West Was Won," "Cheyenne Autumn," "Madigan," "Murder on the Orient Express," "Swarm," and "Coma."

Widmark was very supportive of actor Sidney Poitier's career. Poitier helped break Hollywood's color barrier in the 1950s, just as Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Dodgers in 1947. Widmark's friendship with Poitier lasted the rest of his life.

Widmark has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame.

Yes, this durable, versatile actor deserves to be recognized by posterity. Princeton should step forward, claim the mantle as Widmark's hometown, research his career and tell his story.

The hometowns of other actors and actresses of Widmark's era have stepped forward to honor their Hollywood heroes, such as Winterset, Iowa (John Wayne); Indiana, Pa. (James Stewart); Dennison, Iowa (Donna Reed); Smithfield, N.C. (Ava Gardner); Grand Rapids, Minn. (Judy Garland); and Jamestown, N.Y. (Lucille Ball).

What could Princeton do?

The possibilities are many.

• Create an exhibit of Widmark's life and career. The history of Princeton of the 1920s and 1930s could figure prominently in a portion of it.

• Find a permanent place for the Widmark exhibit to be housed.

• Accumulate a collection of Widmark's movies that the public could check out at the Princeton Public Library. This would help promote greater appreciation of Widmark's work among current residents of his hometown.

• Accumulate a collection of any books, magazine articles, reviews, obituary notices, interviews, photographs, etc., that would shed light on Widmark.

• Partner with existing theatrical and fine arts groups, artists and genealogical groups, historical groups and community development groups, to maximize the opportunities to celebrate Widmark's life.

• Contact the Widmark family to see whether mementos could be contributed. Widmark's second wife and his only child by his first marriage are still alive.

• Interview local people who were friends of Widmark; preserve their recollections and photographs for posterity.

• Organize a Richard Widmark Film Festival.

• Commission a Richard Widmark statue.

• Create Widmark art murals on building interiors or exteriors.

• Assemble a collection of Widmark movie posters, to be displayed as part of an exhibit.

• Explore the Widmark-Poitier friendship, in context with the struggle for civil rights in the United States in the mid-20th century.

• Bring in stars who appeared with Widmark; they could speak, sign autographs, etc.

• Create an exhibit that recognizes other Illinois-related film stars: Dick Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Jack Benny, John Malkovich, Joan Allen, even Ronald Reagan, and more.

• Create a website to promote Widmark's connection to Princeton.

Local people, assembled in a cooperative and collaborative effort, could do their community proud.

By honoring Richard Widmark's memory, Princeton would create a new, compelling, exciting reason for people to visit.

Widmark was born Dec. 26, 1914, in a small Minnesota town. His parents later moved to Illinois and lived in several towns, but Princeton is where Widmark got his high school education and an inkling about what his future might hold.

Princeton residents should set the year 2014 – Widmark's 100th birthday – as their target date to create and execute a plan to celebrate his life and legacy.

Frankly, why wait until then?

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