Last Man Standing: A talk with Richard Widmark


Published in The Sunday Herald, June 2002.
A longer version of this interview is included in the collection Supporting Features.

A SLIGHT, FAIR, BABY-FACED FELLOW finds himself alone with an aged invalid in a shabby New York tenement. His lips peel back to make way for a giggle, a ratty staccato, something up from a drain. He rips the flex from a lamp, ties her to her wheelchair. Then, still cackling, he pitches her headfirst down the stairwell. Cinema History.

It was 1947. The film, shot on the streets of Manhattan, was Kiss of Death, the character was Tommy Udo and the unknown actor bringing him to deviant life was Richard Widmark.

Audiences were transfixed. It was supposed to be Victor Mature’s picture, but nobody cared about Mature’s hero. They watched only for Widmark: black shirt, white tie, sharp features framed beneath a fedora wide as a dustbin lid, playing degeneracy like be-bop. Guiltless sadism had never been so ecstatically, chillingly presented. Evil for its own pleasure never seemed so…tempting?

That dark convulsion was Widmark’s movie debut, and the movies – all the fascinating psychos, the Hoppers and Walkens and Dafoes – are still trying to get over it. That’s why, fifty-five years later, eleven since he retired, when I ask him if there was a director he would have liked to have worked with, but never had the chance, his answer takes me by surprise.

“Hitchcock. Yeah, I would have liked to have made a movie with Hitchcock, and I never did.”

A half-beat. He starts to laugh.

“Yeah, I fancied myself as Cary Grant.”

Unbowed at 87, Richard Widmark’s voice is an unmistakable sound, resonant of a lost Hollywood, and it remains as strong today as back when he was leading Cavalry troops through Monument Valley for John Ford. If Ford’s iconic location could speak, in fact, it might sound like this: sand-blasted, lazy and long, filled with space and echoes. Though Monument Valley probably wouldn’t laugh as much.

Widmark will not be remembered as a Cary Grant-type, though he will be remembered as long as movies are remembered, because, when he was working, he was as essential to American cinema as Grant and Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. Not that he’d admit it. Ask about his movies and Widmark’s conversation is alive with the people he worked with; press him on his own intentions, and he deflects the question. “I dunno. I just played what was in the script.”

When I mentioned to people that I was going to talk to Widmark, though, it wasn’t scripts they remembered. One, old enough to recall when he first appeared on cinemas screens as a pale urban Satan in the Forties, remembered this: “You knew he’d kill you.” For another, who first encountered the older Widmark, a leathery western legend co-starring with Wayne on some Bank Holiday TV transmission of Wayne’s pet project, The Alamo (1960), the essential memory is “his sunburned eyes” – a description I wish I could claim was my own.

Widmark never thought much of The Alamo, but, although they were long-term personal adversaries, he reckons Wayne did as well as he could directing it, particularly as Wayne’s irascible mentor, John Ford, turned up unbidden to offer advice. Widmark observed their relationship, one of Hollywood’s cornerstones, up close, bewildered.

“I loved Ford. He was a difficult little guy, but I caught him in his mellower years – I hear he was just terrible when he was younger and vile. But he resented that Duke was directing. So, he’d drive Wayne crazy. It was like a little kid with his father. Ford would holler at him, Wayne was absolutely subservient – it was terrible! But Wayne took it, because he figured Ford had made him, which he had, and made him in Ford’s image. It was very strange that relationship. Wayne kept calling him ‘Coach.'”

By that time, Widmark had long established himself as one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads, someone who could romance Lauren Bacall as easily as Doris Day, or help explain How the West Was Won (1962). He started out, though, under contract to 20th Century-Fox’s fabled chief, Darryl F Zanuck, assigned to the dark places that studio’s famous searchlights couldn’t penetrate.

After Tommy Udo, he continued redefining the psycho across several movies, risking typecasting until his first good guy, in Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), revealed his smile didn’t have to mean murder. Even when playing the hero, however, mania was never far from the surface. It was that ambiguity which led French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton to choose Widmark’s haunted visage to adorn their seminal Panorama du Film Noir Americain, the 1955 book that canonised the uneasy genre of cynicism and paranoia which emerged from Hollywood’s id to reflect the anxieties of the post-war world. If Robert Mitchum – Widmark’s former longtime neighbour (“a complex guy”) – with his slow, blue jams was noir’s soul, Widmark, all hard, driving riffs, was its face. Not that he’d admit it.

“I think the film noir thing is a bit overrated,” noir’s poster boy, noir’s last man standing says. “I mean, most of what they call film noir is down to the fact that we didn’t have the money to make them in colour.”

Still, Widmark was forever marked by those unlit early roles. That scene, where he chucked Mildred Dunnock in her wheelchair down the stairs to death – the first scene he ever played for a movie camera – remains his signature. “It took a long time to get over,” he agrees. “You’re always remembered for the first thing that attracts attention. I’m still remembered mostly for that. It’s been a long road.”

It almost never happened. Henry Hathaway, the film’s legendarily bad-tempered director, hated the test Widmark made, and was determined to give the role to a New York nightclub character he’d met, known as Harry the Hipster. The film’s production manager, though, slipped Widmark’s test upstairs to Zanuck, who took one look and ordered him cast.

“Henry turned out to be a close friend,” Widmark, who carried the director’s coffin in 1985, continues, “but he was a tough cookie. When he worked, he was a maniac, kind of inarticulate. To vent his frustrations, he would take it out on everybody. He was at me all the time. Finally, he insulted me and I said, ‘To hell with this – I quit.’ And I pushed him, and walked off the set. His assistant chased me down the street, and said, ‘Oh, now, don’t do this, come and have lunch with Henry.’ So we had lunch. Henry and I didn’t say a word. We went back to work, and that was the end of it. After that, Henry left me alone. As most bullies do, when the time comes, they see that it doesn’t work.”

But where did Udo, that unimaginable sadist, come from?

“The script. I imagined a few other things. The laugh,” he concedes. “I threw that in. I did that – a little too much.”

There it is, that throwaway demystification that serves only to make the acting even more mystifying. Whatever the secret, it caused a sensation. Within days of Kiss of Death‘s release, Tommy Udo fanclubs had sprung up across America. Widmark found himself headed for Hollywood. “Zanuck picked up a seven-year option I had signed. My wife didn’t know I’d signed it.”

He was 33, and took nine years of professional experience with him from Manhattan. Since 1938, he had been one of radio’s busiest actors; his first Broadway success was in 1943. He was in no hurry to get to Hollywood, then, but it was where he’d always wanted to go, because that’s where they made movies.

HE WAS BORN IN SUNRISE, MINNESOTA, ON BOXING DAY 1914. His father was a travelling salesman. His grandmother was a Scot, from Kirkudbright. The family moved constantly for his first few years, until they settled above a baker’s in Princeton. Widmark was already “a movie bug” by then – his grandmother had been taking him to the pictures since he was three.

He went to college to study law, but soon switched to drama. After graduating, he stayed on to teach acting for two years – which is why, the more he claims to have done nothing but follow the scripts, the more I suspect him of being an artist.

Time and again, watching his movies, you see cinema reach boiling point. In Pickup on South Street (1954), Widmark, all furious angles and scorn, perfected an acting style built around insolent movement. It’s ostensibly a Red-Menace propaganda piece, but his contemptuous anti-hero (“Are you wavin’ the flag at me?”) so outraged FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover that he banned the studio from mentioning the Bureau. Even Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), a film about what happens when staff at a psychiatric hospital fall out over new curtains, seems about to explode. Such intensity. Could directors have been responding to something in him?

“In me?” He’s surprised by the question. “No, I don’t think so. They had a script, they put me in it, and that’s the way it came out. I did what they threw at me. No I don’t think there was that behind it at all.”

The only subject to pierce his defences is his vilest creation: the virulently racist killer baiting Sidney Poitier in Joseph Mankiewicz’s issue-picture, No Way Out (1950). Recalling that one, Widmark still sounds uncomfortable, lets slips that, sometimes, it was more than just following the script. Sometimes, he felt it more.

“I didn’t want do that movie. I didn’t want to do that part at all. It was horrible, such a terrible racist. But Joe was a friend, he talked me into it; Zanuck would have put me on suspension if I hadn’t done it. But I didn’t want to do it in the worst way. I kept apologising to Sid every time we did a scene.”

A lifelong liberal, Widmark arrived in Los Angeles in 1947, the same year that the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee opened its circus, and so he had a ringside seat for Hollywood’s darkest days. In 1949, he travelled to a blitz-battered London with director Jules Dassin to make one of his greatest, most fevered films, Night and the City, playing conman Harry Fabian, a weasel-saint martyred on his ambition.

Shortly afterwards, Dassin exiled himself from the States. Fellow director Edward Dmytryk had named him as a Communist, after Dmytryk himself had been named by Elia Kazan, and served a year in jail. Widmark was friends with all three men. Recalling the HUAC witchhunt, his voice suddenly crackles with some of the old fury.

“Those idiots. Those men were afflicted with the worst period in American history, a period we should be very ashamed of. Eddie was a friend of mine. Kazan was an old friend. We used to do radio together, I knew him from the late Thirties. He was the best actors’ director that was ever around. I had total sympathy with all of them, because I was so against what had happened.”

Lines were drawn in Tinseltown. That first year, Widmark went to a party at the veteran cowboy star Harry Carey’s house. That’s where he first met John Wayne.

“Wayne was a little loaded, and I had just made that picture where I laughed a lot. He looked up and said, ‘Well, here comes that laughing sonofabitch.’ That’s how we got started. I mean, we got along fine as professional colleagues. We just weren’t close friends. You know, he was on a different side of the political spectrum – and I was from New York.”

He starts laughing again.

“He didn’t like people from New York.”

THESE DAYS, WIDMARK LIVES mostly on his Connecticut ranch. “I’ve never been too fond of cities,” he muses.

An intensely private man, he’s always shunned publicity. Not long after we finish talking, though, he and his second wife, Susan, who was once married to Henry Fonda (Widmark’s first wife, Jean Hazlewood, passed away in 1997) will head into New York, from there to travel to London, to attend an extensive Widmark retrospective the National Film Theatre is holding across July. Typically, he laughs the honour off.

“I think, well, a retrospective – do they know something I don’t? My God, I still think I’m 30 years old, and all of a sudden I’m 87. I figure maybe they’re throwing me a bone. We’re gonna go over on the QE2. Sort of my last lap. I’ll never be on another ship, so I figured, as long as I’m going, I’m gonna take this last ship ride.”

A giant still walks in Connecticut, denying he’s a giant, denying he ever did more than follow the script. His last appearance came as the senator looking disapprovingly on John Cusack’s ambitions in True Colors (1991). Then he stopped making movies.

“There’s nothing could tempt me back. I’ve had it, and I had a great time doing it. I always wanted to make movies. I have no regrets. But then, as you get older, the parts aren’t very good. You play the same old goat, and it’s no fun anymore. The whole process now – I’m outta touch. I’m not too much interested in digital effects and screaming aliens.

“You know, what I enjoy most? A little television show, with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer. As Time Goes By. Yeah, they’re playing that over here on Saturday nights. I love that. That’s better than most movies. I never miss it.”