Richard Widmark’s screen debut was one of the most frightening in the history of film. Playing the maniacal sadist, Tommy Udo, in the noir classic “Kiss of Death” (1947), Widmark’s high-pitched laugh, grinning skull face, and gleeful cruelty stamped the actor as a dangerous, explosive presence. It was a performance so memorable that it colored every role he played from then on. Away from the screen, however, Widmark lived a remarkably quiet life for an actor. His long marriage to the screenwriter Jean Hazlewood, and his fierce protection of his privacy, proved him to be as unlike Tommy Uso as can be.
Richard Widmark was born in Sunrise, Minnesota, on December 26, 1914. His family moved around the Midwest, finally settling in Illinois. Widmark attended Lake Forest College with the intention of becoming a lawyer, but acting soon became his main interest. He taught drama for two years after graduation, then moved to New York to pursue a stage career, finding early employment in radio dramas. He moved on to stage work, appearing in the play “Kiss and Tell,” then several productions directed by Elia Kazan. Soon he was off to Hollywood, where the role of Udo won him an Academy Award nomination and the opportunity to pursue a career in movies.
Not surprisingly, Widmark was typecast as a badguy. He toned down Udo’s evil but nevertheless was a heavy in “The Street With No Name” (1948), “Yellow Sky” (1948), and “Night and the City” (1950). Even when he played a hero he had a hard edge, as when he played the prejudiced cop in “No Way Out” (1950). Hollywood’s most iconoclastic directors couldn’t resist the menace bubbling beneath the mild Midwestern looks, and he turned in fine performances in Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets” (1950), as well as Samuel Fuller’s “Pickup on “South Street” (1953) and “Hell and High Water” (1954).
Although he had made his name playing urban villains, Widmark was, in fact, a child of the American Prairie; not surprisingly, he found rewarding work in Westerns, adding his talents to “Backlash” (1956), John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960), as well as two pictures directed by the master of the genre, John Ford: “Two Rode Together” (1961) and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). Ford used Widmark’s trademark intensity to rich effect in these two films.
But Widmark was never content to be typecast. He played the hard-driving prosecutor in “Judgement at Nuremburg” (1961) and the weak-willed dauphin of France in “Saint Joan” (1957). He added producer to his acting responsibilities in “Time Limit” (1957) and “The Secret Ways” (1961). Finally, Widmark was the prototype for Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan in Don Siegel’s “Madigan” (1968) and its TV spinoff.
Widmark has worked in TV and movies throughout the `60’s, `70’s, and `80’s. His schedule slowed in the `90’s but he performed occasionally, notably in “True Colors” (1991). He was a family man who zealously guarded his privacy. But he could not keep his name out of the papers when his daughter married baseball legend Sandy Koufax.