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A Princeton legend: Richard Widmark

Westerns — ‘Make-believe and pretending’

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 1:32 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 1:35 p.m. CDT

Richard Widmark’s distinctive voice, laugh and looks were part of his repertoire. They helped him win a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination in 1947. 

When Widmark and brother Donald went to the movies as kids, if it was a comedy, his laugh could cause an, “Uh-oh, the Widmark boys are here” at the Apollo. He played football at Princeton High School, getting his letter in 1930. He was a tough if underweight end on the team. He played football in college also and was the lightest man they fielded. He had a physicality that he earned as an outsider from a young age.

“When I was a kid, my family moved frequently from town to town because of Dad’s business. Every time we hit a new place, my brother and I were a couple of pint-sized strangers. We practically had to fight our way in. You know how it is with kids, and how clannish they are.” 

So with the Widmark brothers, it was them against the mob. Carl Widmark was tired of the fights his sons were constantly getting into. He bought them a pit bulldog named Scrappy. The bulldog went to school with them in the morning, and in the afternoon, he was waiting at the schoolhouse to bring the boys home. Scrappy’s fierce loyalty often got them in hot water with his wanting to rip the pants off of any kids who tried to muscle the brothers to the ground. 

When you watch Widmark in his movies this physicality is simmering just below the surface of many of his characters. He learned to be a good orator in high school and was the best at Lake Forest College. His Midwestern voice, the laugh that could erupt at any moment, his blue eyes, blond hair and good looks, with his lean almost 6 foot height were a feast for movie audiences. It was an easy step to take his film noir movie success into the western genre.  

The Western could easily be thought of as the successor to film noir in American cinema. It is hard to easily define film noir, but we usually think of harsh shadowy images, neon, dark alleyways and wet streets, whether in the big city or the small town.  The westerns of the late 1940s and all of the 1950s were film noir moved into the small dust-covered towns of the Old West. The western genre was big in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and Widmark’s lean frame and sculpted features inhabited such westerns as “Yellow Sky” (1948), “Garden of Evil” and “Broken Lance” (1954), “Backlash” and “The Last Wagon” (1956), “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958), “The Alamo” (1960), “Two Rode Together” (1961), “How the West Was Won” (1962), and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). 

His talents worked well in Westerns. One would easily rank him in the Top 10 western actors in what many consider the golden age of western movies, the late 1940s through the late 1960s. The number of westerns as a major or lead character, quality of the script, and level of the movie release would have to be included in the criteria. John Wayne did 84; Randolph Scott, 56; Joel McCrea, 30; Gary Cooper, 21; Richard Widmark, 19; James Stewart, Glenn Ford,and Robert Mitchum, 18; Henry Fonda, 15; Clint Eastwood (later) and Kirk Douglas, 14; Gregory Peck, William Holden and Alan Ladd, 11; it’s hard to argue with the numbers. I include his modern day “When The Legends Die” (1972) in which he delivered an Oscar worthy performance as drunken rodeo horseman, Red Dillon, who mentors a young Ute Indian on the rodeo circuit. He based his character in part on his real life father.  

His first western was “Yellow Sky for William Wellman” who also directed “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943), “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951), and “Track of the Cat” (1954).  Widmark played the greedy outlaw, Dude, working with one of his favorite actors Gregory Peck. You knew when watching him on the screen that the evil Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death” was lurking in his character.

Widmark had worked on a Montana ranch during a summer while in college. He obviously did not learn to ride a horse working on the ranch.  While filming “Yellow Sky.” he found the mounted horse scenes a painful experience that brought amusement to cast and crew.  

“We were in Death Valley in July. It was 120, 130. Jesus, it was awful. I had to do a little scene with the horses, and I was new with horses at the time. I got my foot in the stirrup and it slipped. Wellman said, ‘That’s it — you’re not doin’ it again.’ In the picture, you see me stick my foot in, and then there’s a cut, and I’m already on the horse.”

The Widmarks were living in their modest ranch home off Mandeville Canyon, Calif., when Richard made “Backlash” (1956) for Director John Sturges. Sturges made great western movies — “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957), “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958), “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), and “Hour of the Gun” (1967). 

Widmark had the look for westerns now. Working outdoors on his ranch property had him tanned and fit. His athletic youth, bicycling across the European continent in 1938, and more riding at the Riviera Club were paying dividends for him on screen. His look and distinctive nasal laugh had gotten him roles as villains, but they worked equally well for him as the hero with a cross to bear.

He gives a great performance as Jim Slater opposite Donna Reed as Karyl Orton, whose looks kind of burn up the screen. They slowly get together in the movie after some violent behavior toward each other; Slater smacks Orton right in the kisser for putting his life in danger, and Reed perversely reciprocates when sealing up his wounds with a heated knife. John McIntire as Slater’s estranged father is his usual snake oily self. Darn good stuff.

Richard Widmark had the stuff that sticks to the spoon. He brought all his talents from childhood, high school, college, radio and theater to the screen. For all his menace, toughness and physicality he portrayed in his characters, he was honest about himself.

“Playing a menace does have its compensations. You can be as brave as you want.  Have you ever seen a screen heavy who couldn’t fight his way out – regardless of the odds? I just hope that audiences don’t think I really act that way at home. I’ve never handled a gun, never slapped a girl and never talked out of the side of my mouth, until I got in the movies. I’m as brave as the next, but I don’t lay claims to being any Samson.

“The other day I was out riding my weary 12-year-old horse. She bolted slightly and in reaching for the horn of the saddle I sprained my finger. Now does that sound like a screen iron-man?”  

He said of actors, “They have their child like attributes. I think actors always will have them, which probably is why they can make a go of it. After all, the business is make-believe and pretending.”

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