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A Princeton legend: Richard Widmark

Editor’s note: The following is the first segment in a series of stories by Princeton resident Bartlett Lee Kassabaum on Princeton’s own Richard Widmark.

Richard Widmark had a connection with the movies from a very young age. His maternal grandmother, Mary Barr, took him to the silent movies at least three times a week. She was nuts about Tom Mix, Thomas Meighan and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

The young Widmark’s favorites were two 1923 releases: “Safety Last” with Harold Lloyd and “Stephen Steps Out,” Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s first movie. He was crazy about Fairbanks and also Boris Karloff movies. He loved to imitate his screen heroes, and his parents had to forbid him to ever be an actor after he ran a rusty nail into his foot at the age of 6, imitating Rudolf Valentino in his backyard.

Richard Widmark was born in Sunrise Township, Minn. His father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved a lot. Richard and his brother, Donald, grew up in a lot of little towns in the Midwest. Until about third grade, he went to school in Sioux Falls, S.D. Then he moved to Henry, Ill., for a year. From the fourth grade through high school, he lived in Princeton until he graduated as senior class president in 1932.

He was inspired as an orator by his freshman English and speech teacher, Doris Fetherston, and he acted in a couple of plays during his high school years. Widmark was a talented and enterprising young man. He was a newspaper carrier for the Kewanee Star-Courier, did babysitting, worked at a soda fountain, a grocery store, his parents’ bakery, and even organized a pick-up band called the Rhythm Kings, for dances in Princeton and neighboring communities. The band was an eight-piece combo including classmates Tom Best playing piano, Gail Castner on the trombone, and Widmark playing wire brush drums. He collected silent era movie magazines and was a doorman at the Apollo Theater while in high school. This gave him the opportunity to watch movies for free.

He said of growing up in Princeton, “It was a great place to grow up and had kind of a Huckleberry Finn atmosphere, swimming in the Hennepin Canal, working at the Apollo Theater, and how his high school English teacher helped a shy kid overcome problems speaking to an audience.”

Widmark attended Lake Forest College where he was in the theater group, The Garrick Players, acting in 30 plays. He was the top orator at Lake Forest. Widmark also graduated as senior class president at Lake Forest and soon headed to New York in 1938 determined to be an actor.

Widmark made his radio debut in 1938 in “Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories” and worked right through the 1940s with Karl Malden, Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Van Heflin, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Walker and Art Carney to name a few. He worked in theater starting in 1943 on Broadway in “Kiss and Tell.” Widmark worked with the best in radio, theater and the movies.

He was a tremendous reader and an equally avid movie-goer. He went to at least two movies a week, which he carefully studied for tips on acting. He was particularly taken with older films and saw every silent movie in the library of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“All my life I’ve been a movie fan. I love them all. Even the bad ones,” he said.

He worked in theater until 1947, when he made his dramatic movie debut in Director Henry Hathway’s “Kiss of Death.” He received an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe for his role as psychotic killer, Tommy Udo. Hathaway didn’t want Widmark for the part of Udo because he didn’t think he was right for it. They fought on the set, and Widmark even walked out during the filming. They patched it up over lunch and eventually became good friends. They made four pictures together; “Kiss of Death” in 1947, “Down to the Sea in Ships” in 1949, “Garden of Evil” in 1954, and “How the West Was Won” in 1962. Widmark was a pallbearer at Henry Hathaway’s funeral in 1985.  John Ford, Elia Kazan, John Sturges and William Wellman were just a few of the great directors he worked with beside Hathaway.

Widmark began in radio and then theater, which he said was the only real way for actors to learn their craft.

“There’s no place to learn to act but in the theater. It gives you a real solid background, but it’s so god-damned regimented! I just hated New York and New York living, the eight performances a week. I don’t like starting to get nervous about four o’clock every afternoon. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but I didn’t like that. You’ve got to dedicate your whole life to it, and I always liked movies. I like the way movies are made. You work your tail off for three months, but it’s done. You don’t have to go back and do it again. I prefer the life of the movies. In movies, you don’t do anything, and you’re a great actor. The less you do, the better.”

He loved and admired Spencer Tracy because of the way Tracy handled his roles. Widmark made three movies with Tracy;  “Broken Lance” in 1954, “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961, and “How the West Was Won” in 1962.

Widmark always gave a good performance; he never failed to impress, even when the material was not that good. He held his own when working with the best — James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Lee J. Cobb, Sidney Poitier, Karl Malden, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Gene Hackman. He shared the screen with talented and beautiful women like Marilyn Monroe, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter, Susan Hayward, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Lena Horn, Shirley Jones, Carol Baker, Faye Dunaway and Angie Dickinson. 

He shared his love off screen with one woman for 55 years, Jean (Hazlewood) Widmark, his wife. He was the real deal. He showed up on time, knew his lines, put in a good day’s work and went home. Widmark shunned the spotlight off screen. He thought a performer should do his work and then shut up.

He had this to say at the end of his career ...

“I suppose I wanted to act in order to have a place in the sun. I’d always lived in small towns, and acting meant having some kind of identity.” 

Richard Widmark found his place in the sun, and as it always sets in the west, well that’s what a quarter of his movies were, westerns. We’ll cowboy up next time and keep the sun at our backs.

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