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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

John Ford and ‘Cheyenne Autumn’

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 1:05 p.m. CDT

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If I knew then what I know now, this one might have been a lot easier. These words are swimming in my head as I write this story on Richard Widmark. I was stationed for a few years at Ft. Monmouth, N.J., at Eatontown, in the U.S. Army. This was 1968 to 1971. On several occasions I made trips to Bridgeport, Conn., with an Army buddy whose home was there. It did not take me long to find out how close all destinations are when in the northeast part of our country. I traveled all over the New England states and up and down most of the East Coast. 

Roxbury, Conn., is less than an hour away from Bridgeport. Widmark had friends in this part of the state and liked the area. The Widmark family bought their almost nine-acre country farm in Roxbury in the mid-1960s. They had homes on both coasts now. The house, built in 1917, was a sprawling, shake shingle, 2,500-square-foot rustic Litchfield home, set in a spacious level open meadow, surrounded by mature gardens. The property also included a one-room schoolhouse on an additional four acres that Widmark and his daughter Anne eventually donated in 1997 to the Roxbury Land Trust in memory of his late wife, Jean Widmark, who died that same year. This is the Widmark Preserve. They purchased and donated another 22 acres later on in 2004. I missed this little bit of “Eden” back then, though I’ve seen the property now on the Internet. I was a different person then, with other priorities, so I didn’t know how close I was to giving my own future something tangible to look back on. The 8.75-acre farm sold for $1,200,000 in 2012. Like I said, this might have been a lot easier.

The genesis for the movie “Cheyenne Autumn” was research Widmark had done in the early 1960s at Yale University (also less than an hour from Roxbury, in New Haven) into the suffering of the Cheyenne Indians. Widmark was a very curious well-read person with an insatiable appetite for news and the hopeful betterment of his fellow man. He showed his work to John Ford, and two years later, Ford sent Widmark a finished screenplay. Ford wanted to do another picture with Widmark after directing him in “Two Rode Together” (1961). 

Ford made “Cheyenne Autumn” in 1964 starring Widmark, Carroll Baker, and a cast that just couldn’t get much better. Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Victor Jory, Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Ben Johnson, Sal Mineo, Deloris del Rio, John Carradine, Mike Mazurki, Patrick Wayne, John Qualen, and the amazing Mae Marsh, along with the Ford Company stock players bring this tale to life. I actually met one of the cast, Karl Malden, on the other coast in San Diego, Calif. Malden and Widmark were good friends since when they were both in radio in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Malden and Widmark made six movies together. In the summer of 1976, my older brother and I made a trek to visit another brother who was living on Coronado Island off the coast of San Diego. We took a southern route out and came back through the northern part of the country. We took in San Diego’s Sea World one day and had these girls diving for pearls for us. I was making a trip along a long pool heading to the restroom. A man in a porkpie hat, loud Hawaiian shirt, and large sunglasses, was coming right toward me. I knew that nose. I just kept staring. I stopped, and the guy says, “Yeah, It’s me, buddy boy.” and he stopped. “Karl Malden,” I said. He nodded yes, I said I was a fan of his work, and I watched his television show. We chatted for probably less than a minute. I was kind of dumb struck and only remember for sure that he was making his TV series, “The Streets of San Francisco,” just up the coast at the time. I thought of all the questions I should have asked him a lot later.  I guess that made me zero for two then.   

“Cheyenne Autumn” takes place in 1878, where chiefs Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) lead over 300 starved and weary Cheyenne on a 1,500-mile journey from their reservation in the Oklahoma territory to their ancestral hunting ground homeland in Yellowstone, Wyo. The government has failed to deliver the meager supplies due by treaty to the proud Cheyenne in their barren desert encampment. The starving Indians have taken more abuse than it’s worth, and so they also break the accord. The government sees this as an act of rebellion, and the sympathetic Captain Thomas Archer (Widmark) is forced to lead his troops in an attempt to stop the tribe.

The press misrepresents the native’s motives for their trek as a malicious act. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson) tries to prevent violence from erupting between the Army and the Indians. During the hunt Captain Archer grows to respect the noble courage of the Cheyenne and decides to help them. James Stewart is cast as Wyatt Earp, and Carroll Baker plays a pacifist school teacher who is Archer’s (Widmark) love interest.

Most of the location filming was done in Monument Valley and Moab, Utah, but the snow sequences were actually shot on the Double Tree Ranch in Gunnison, Colo. The historic mountain valley ranch was discovered by Ford. He filmed part of “The Searchers” (1956) there, and it would also serve as a stand in for the Oklahoma-Wyoming winter landscape in this film.

This was to be Ford’s last western, and he was saying goodbye to the landscapes that he brought to the screen for movie-goers for almost 30 years. He also wanted to direct James Stewart one last time, and so the Dodge City card playing scene with Arthur Kennedy (Doc Holliday) and Ford regular John Carradine (Jeff Blair) is kind of stuck in the movie to offer a little light-hearted relief.  

I previously wrote about the way Ford could be during the filming of any of his movies, and the antics were no different during the making of “Cheyenne Autumn.” Widmark still liked working with Ford, and he knew better than to fall for his little games. He would also not put up with anything that Ford decided to push to the limit. Ford had this habit of picking one actor that he would ride the entire film. Actor Mike Mazurki was the unfortunate goat on this film. He was a former professional wrestler, and his filmography is impressive. He and Widmark had made the film noir classic “Night and the City” (1950) where he played a wrestler called “The Strangler.” His film persona and whiskey voice are instantly recognizable to even the occasional film buff. Ford was shooting a scene, one too many times, with Widmark, an officer, and Mazurki, a sergeant, where they are riding along at the head of a column. Widmark discovers a whiskey bottle in Mazurki’s saddlebag. Ford had been relentlessly picking on Mazurki the whole movie. Widmark was fed up with it. Ford tells Widmark to hold the whiskey bottle “Up higher, so the camera can see it,” and he yelled back at Ford, “You mean like this?” smashing the bottle against a big rock. The contents of the bottle splattered all over the place, scaring the horses, and even making Ford jump. He was telling Ford to let up on Mazurki.  Widmark got off his horse, picked up his chair, walked across the desert, and sat in it. It became deadly silent for a long time. Ford finally spoke in a soft voice with mock awe, “What a terrible temper.” A pot calling the kettle black. Five more minutes of silence went by with Widmark sitting in his chair, back to everyone. Ford finally got up, walked over to Widmark, leaned over him, and with his hand, tickled him under the chin, “Kootchie ... Kootchie ... Koo.” Widmark let go with his famous laugh and came back to work. Ford left Mazurki alone for the rest of the filming. 

Widmark said of Ford later on, “Underneath, he was a very complex guy. He was a nut-ball, but I was fond of him.”

Well, it’s time to get this prairie dust out of our throats for awhile and head back east to Princeton. We can get back to Widmark’s career later. I think a doughnut and cup of coffee are in order, so I’ll take a look at the Widmark bakery, and we’ll see what was going on with him growing up with the movies.

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