Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Giant Turns 93

With a palpable intensity and a face that seemed just one empty eye socket from skeletal--hardly the classic look of a leading man--American actor Richard Widmark captured the attention of moviegoers early, with his performance as a cold-blooded killer in Kiss of Death (1947), and maintained it through a variety of film noirs and western pictures over the next 40 years. For his efforts, he received an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yet as he turns 93 years old today, I still remember Widmark best for a film that earned him not a single prize: Madigan, director Don Siegel’s 1968 feature about flawed cops and the inner workings of the New York Police Department.

Widmark was born on this date in Minnesota in 1914, but grew up in Illinois. He evidently fell in love with films early on (“I’ve been a movie bug since I was 4,” he said later in his life. “My grandmother used to take me.”) and went on to study acting at Lake Forest College. He made his Broadway stage debut in 1943, in Kiss and Tell, and followed that with roles in a number of other stage productions in which he “generally played sympathetic good guys,” according to film writer Brian W. Fairbanks. Being cast as giggle-prone, sadistic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death was a marked change of course for him, but a fortuitous one. “Fan clubs for Tom Udo sprang up overnight,” recalls Fairbanks, “and, in addition to an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor (he lost to Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street), Widmark became the first recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. Only two years later, the actor was placing his hand and foot prints in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.”

Kiss of Death won Widmark a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, and he went on to star in dozens of additional feature-length pictures over the next quarter century, among them Night and the City (1950), Panic in the Streets (1950), Pickup on Noon Street (1953), Run for the Sun (1956), The Alamo (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), How the West Was Won (1962), and John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Then, in ’68, Siegel chose him to play opposite Henry Fonda in Madigan.

Adapted from a 1962 novel--The Commissioner, by Richard Dougherty, a onetime deputy police commissioner of New York City and former vice president of the Metropolitan Museum--Madigan follows a pair of parallel tracks. The first finds New York police detective Daniel Madigan (Widmark) and his partner, Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino), losing their guns to a fleeing hood and having to capture that fugitive, even though it’s supposed to be their weekend off. The second story line concerns Fonda, who plays Police Commissioner Anthony X. Russel, a by-the-book reformer who’s unsettled both by rumors that his childhood friend, Chief Inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore), has taken a bribe, and by his married mistress’s announcement that she’s ending their illicit romance. “If [Cheyenne Autumn] was [Widmark’s] best film of the mid to late ’60s,” Fairbanks writes, “Madigan gave him his best role.” The title character is a jaded cop who only fakes a real life away from the precinct; his willingness to risk life and limb on a regular basis and to put in extra hours leaves his beautiful, younger wife (played by Swedish actress Inger Stevens), feeling abandoned. Yet the stoic and ever-lonely Madigan isn’t about to change his ways. That the reward for his dedication is a bullet at this movie’s end, only makes Mrs. Madigan as angry at her hubby as she is at his killer.

Wikipedia notes that Madigan was adapted from Dougherty’s novel “by two writers who had been blacklisted in the 1950s: Abraham Polonsky and Howard Rodman,” the latter of whom is credited under the nom de plume “Henri Simoun.” (Rodman would subsequently write, under his real name, the screenplay for another Siegel film, Coogan’s Bluff, which inspired Dennis Weaver’s crime series, McCloud; and he later created the David Janssen TV serial Harry O.) The film started out moody and gritty, with a piano-heavy theme (by composer Don Costa), and never slackened. A few years back, Mystery Readers Journal dubbed Madigan one of the 10 best New York cop flicks. (You can watch a trailer for that film here.)

In 1968, the year of Madigan’s release, Widmark turned 64 years old. He’d enjoyed some plum roles over the decades, but was starting to see the supply dry up. If he was to continue performing, he figured he had to branch out. Like other aging stars of the Watergate-scandal era--Rock Hudson, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, and Glenn Ford among them--Widmark was lured by the prospect of appearing in one of a new crop of crime dramas spreading across the small screen. He’d eschewed TV work in the past, agreeing only to a guest spot on a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. But in 1971, Widmark accepted the lead in a then rare two-part TV suspenser called Vanished, playing the president of the United States. He went on from there to film Brock’s Last Case, an NBC “World Premiere Movie” in which he portrayed a Manhattan cop who, disgusted with the urban jungle in which he’s fought for so long, retires to a small California farm, where he intends to grow oranges. Predictably, of course, his character, former Lieutenant Max Brock, is soon drawn into an investigation involving a Native American accused of murdering a sheriff. Brock’s Last Case was hardly the worst teleflick of the early 1970s; but it also wasn’t the best, and it didn’t spawn the series that its developers hoped it would. Instead, NBC asked Widmark to reprise his standout role as Dan Madigan.

The fact that the character had gone to his grave at the end of Madigan, the movie, didn’t even slow the TV spin-off down. Widmark’s man wasn’t only resurrected, he was promoted to sergeant. And on September 20, 1972, Madigan debuted as one of three detective series rotating under the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie umbrella title (the other two being Banacek, with George Peppard as a roguish Boston insurance investigator, and Cool Million, in which James Farentino played a jet-setting former CIA agent turned private eye).

Madigan was somewhat darker and more urban than the usual Mystery Movie fare. As TV Guide described the graying-blond Dan Madigan in its September 1972 “Fall Preview” issue,
He’s a tough New York City cop, soured by years of unrewarding toil as a detective sergeant. You can imagine how thrilled he is when they assign him a new partner who’s a recent sociology graduate, eager to “build bridges” to the troublemakers on their beat.
Reactions to the series were mixed. Shortly after it premiered, The New York TimesRobert Berkvist described Widmark’s protagonist as being “in a class by himself. Funny thing about Madigan and his way of life,” Berkvist remarked. “You can tell he thinks about what he’s been asked to do, and worries about doing it right, and tries to hold down the wear and tear. The thing is, the wear and tear is there in his eyes and on his face, that great face lined like a map of the soul. You can practically hear his ulcer bleed.” Just a month later, though, and also in the Times, novelist and former New York deputy police commissioner Robert Daley chided Madigan for its “stupidities,” particularly its ignorance of real police procedures. “At another point,” Daley wrote in his critique of the show,
Madigan-Widmark reads the Miranda warning to a suspect before tossing him for weapons. Is Madigan attempting to commit suicide, or what? There isn’t a cop in New York who doesn’t know enough to start with a quick, brutal toss, followed by pinioning the prisoner’s arms behind his back; on go the handcuffs, and after that perhaps the Miranda warning. It’s legal that way. And also much safer.
“Short-tempered and blunt to the point of rudeness, Widmark’s detective was a breath of fresh air on network television,” critic Fairbanks opines now. That novelty wasn’t enough; only six 90-minute episodes of Madigan were broadcast before the series was canceled. “The Park Avenue Beat,” the final installment, showed on February 28, 1973. I’ve never been able to find this series again, either on cable-TV or on DVD (commercial or bootlegged). However, I have sat through the 1968 film Madigan several times over the last 20 years, and continue to be impressed by its depth--a reminder of what the series could have offered, perhaps in different hands.

Richard Widmark went on to appear in a variety of theatrical releases, from Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), to Bear Island (a 1979 film adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel by that same name) and the teleflick Cold Sassy Tree (1989). He never again appeared in a TV series. According to the International Movie Database (IMDb), his last theatrical performance was in the 1991 film True Colors, starring John Cusack and James Spader. Wikipedia says that Widmark has been married to theatrical producer and socialite Susan Blanchard since 1999 (his previous wife, with whom he’d stayed for almost 55 years, died in 1997), and that he currently lives in Roxbury, Connecticut. In 2005, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave him its Career Achievement Award.

Although numerous others with whom he came up in Hollywood have long since passed away--including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Jack Palance, and Barbara Stanwyck--Widmark remains. On this, his 93rd birthday, do yourself a favor: go out and rent, or buy, Madigan. It’s worth the effort.

READ MORE:A Cult Figure Now, With His Gallery of Reprobates,” by Stuart Klawans (The New York Times).


August West said...

Thanks for the post. Widmark is an American Treasure. He could play any role and like Lee Marvin-he spits on hair dye.....
Many great films....

Bedford Incident
The Law and Jake Wade (from the Marvin Albert novel)

dick adler said...

Lovely piece. I'm pretty sure I wrote the TV Guide piece on the cover you use at the top. I remember a long, lovely lunch at the Bel Air Hotel -- lots of talk about books, history, ideas, favorite movies (none of them his own). A true gentleman.

Dana King said...

Richard Widmark has always been a favorite of mine. I'll have to add Madigan to my Netflix list. Thanks for reminding me of him, and for the complimentary profile. It's always good to learn that someone you're a fan of is worth the attention.

Ali Karim said...

Excellent peice - brought back a wonderful memory of meeting Richard Widmark on one of his rare trips to London -

He was / is a true Gentleman - Thanks for the peice and happy birthday