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Column

Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Persons of Influence — Becoming Richard Widmark

He arrives by cab and gets out with the look of a jackal that has found the den of an injured and weakened prey. He enters the building and spots the name on the mail box — Rizzo. He buzzes and the door opens. The hall is dark and the stairs darker. He walks up to the second floor landing. He knocks. A woman’s voice says, “It’s open.” He enters the apartment. The woman is in a wheelchair. He is looking for her son. He checks out the apartment. No one is there but himself and the woman in the wheelchair. He has some conversation with the woman, asking after her son, and is still looking around. He is laughing almost like cackling - maniacal.

“Back after dinner sometime, huh? Double-crossing squealers, both of you. What’s the matter? I don’t know nothing. So the yellow squirt beat it, huh? Took a powder, huh? That rat. Where is he? Where’d he go? I’m asking you, where’s that squealing son of yours? Huh.”

He laughs and leers at the woman in the wheelchair, who is petrified with fear. “You think a squealer can get away from me, huh? You know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly ... so they can roll around for a long time, thinking it over.”

He is looking at the phone wire along the floor. “You’re worse than him ... telling me he’s coming back.” He is grinning, showing lots of teeth, laughing that maniacal laugh again, and is ripping the phone wire from along the baseboard of the wall.

“You lying old hag. Huh.” He is tying her to her wheelchair with the phone line. He doesn’t want her get out of the chair.

“No! No. I’m sick! Let me go. No,” she begs and is beside herself with fear. She is trapped by a madman. He is pushing her out of the apartment.

“On a train, huh? Hey. Where you going?” They are heading for the landing. “No! No!” she is almost screaming.

“This is for knowing a squealer” he shrieks.

“Not outside! I can’t move! I’m sick,” she begs with desperation in her voice.

“You ain’t sick,” he whips back at her with the words and shoves her down the stairs.

She is screaming all the way down, “No! No! No!” The screen fades to black.

The scene was from the movie “Kiss of Death” released Aug. 13, 1947, and the frail looking maniacal character was Tommy Udo portrayed by Richard Widmark. It was Tommy Udo pushing Ma Rizzo (Mildred Dunnock) down the stairs tied in her wheelchair.

I was about 18 days old at the time and wouldn’t have my first encounter with the actor, playing such a sinister person on the screen, for about 10 years yet. This encounter would be seeing “The Law and Jake Wade” in 1958 with Widmark as outlaw Clint Hollister. There is a more refined bit of the Tommy Udo character in the Clint Hollister character, and it actually makes him kind of likeable. You want Tommy Udo to get what’s coming to him, but you don’t really want to see Clint Hollister get his due. Richard Widmark was really a master at slipping the best aspects of his many faceted characterizations into whatever role he was called upon to portray. The malevolent monster that was Tommy Udo could show up in some form or another, and to one degree or another in any character that Widmark was enveloped in.

The Tommy Udo character was Richard Widmark’s first screen role and not really that big of a part. It was, however, a memorable part and would garner him a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Edmund Gwenn would win that award, though, for his portrayal as the gentle Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street,” but Widmark’s effort had made him an overnight sensation.

We first see Udo in the movie in a jail cell that he shares with Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), the star of the movie, and get a real feel for the low life that Tommy is.

“Look at that cheap squirt, passing up and down. What for? They have to keep passing up and down here all the time? For a nickel, I’d grab him ... stick both thumbs right in his eyes ... and hang on till he drops dead.”

Nick is sitting next to a monster. and he knows it right away. We get another nasty taste of Tommy later in the film at a match in St. Nicholas Arena where Udo yells out to one of the fighters in the ring, “Rip his eye out. Rip it out of his head! Rip it out of his head. Tear it out. Come on. Rip the other eye. Come on. Rip the other eye ... Tear it out of his head.”

This is as vile a creature as has ever been put on the movie screen. The language is violent, but it is acting and this is just a movie. Movies let us get close to creatures like Tommy Udo in the safety of the movie theater, eating popcorn.

Richard Widmark didn’t think too much of his performance though — for a while anyway. He was interviewed, when he was 70 years of age about the role and the movie from back in 1947.

“I didn’t pay much attention to the role. It was an interlude between plays I was doing and my radio work. Unbeknownst to my wife, I had signed an option — never thinking they’d pick me up. They did, and we had to go to California. The first time I saw ‘Kiss of Death’ was after we moved there. I had never seen myself on screen — even in rushes. I was shocked! It was a kind of goofy looking guy up there. It wasn’t me! I didn’t want to look at myself. For a couple of years afterwards. I was very self conscience about even smiling.”

Widmark’s performance was anything but goofy as to the effect it had on the general public. “I used to get slugged regularly, hit like a gong! But especially in Texas! At the Old Shamrock Hotel in Houston, I was sitting, eating my dinner. All of a sudden, I looked and a big guy grabbed, turned me around, and belted me! I’ve walked down streets in Texas and Nebraska — and ladies have grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, you little squirt.’ I always stayed away from bars; I’ve never drunk anyway. Playing those parts in those days, you were too wide open. I don’t think it makes a difference today. In those days, you played a mean part — you were a mean bastard!”

The studio chiefs at 20th Century Fox thought it was wonderful though — that Widmark was the most hated man on the lot. He was just the same guy though, that he was before he brought Tommy Udo to life on the screen. Richard Widmark was an actor who was good enough to fool a very lot of people. That’s acting — getting the audience to believe in the character you are playing.

Where did this all spring from? How did this actor take a small movie role and turn it and himself into a major movie star who could have this kind of effect on that many people. I’ll be digging into this in the coming weeks to find out who were these “Person’s of Influence” that helped a young boy become Richard Widmark, the actor, who would thrill and entertain movie audiences for over forty years.

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