Richard Widmark — How Phony Can You Get! 🇺🇸

Richard Widmark — How Phony Can You Get! 🇺🇸

November 22, 2021

There are two Richard Widmarks — both as genuine as a three-dollar-bill. But then, there is also another Richard Widmark...

by Carl Schroeder

When Director Henry Hathaway was looking for someone to play that spine-chilling hop-head character called Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, he toyed briefly with the startling idea of getting the genuine article to play the role. He almost had one, too, but the guy couldn’t remember his lines. So he got a phony article.

For, as it happened, along came one Richard Widmark to apply for the job. Trouble with this guy was, he seemed so much like the college professor he’d almost become in real life. But, with a hairpiece pasted on his high forehead that pulled his hairline down to within a couple of inches of his eyebrows, and using an insane, high-pitched chuckle he’d once invented while playing a minor gangster in one of his thousand-odd radio shows, Dick became the perfect, trigger-happy killer.

Thus, a new and arresting personality was on the way to stardom. And to two-level public misunderstanding.

Shortly after the release of Kiss of Death, radio executive Bill Smith took Dick to his first Hollywood broadcast  — on the Lux Radio Theater. When the studio audience caught sight of Dick, they shouted the rafters loose, and after the program they wouldn’t let him go until he’d given out with his by-now famous hysterical laugh.

As Bill and Dick struggled through the mob of fans outside, a youngster called, “Hey Widmark — you don’t look like such a tough mugg!”

Dick grinned. “I’m not!” he called back.

“A heck of a guy you are,” Bill Smith muttered to him. “What do you want to do — disillusion people?“

The boys in the publicity department still laugh over their first experience with the “cold, ruthless, conceited killer.” During his first interview, Dick behaved like a mobster who’d been warned that he’d be bumped off if he talked to the D.A. When the ordeal was over, his hands trembled violently as he lit a cigarette. Perspiration glistened across his forehead.

“I don’t think I can ever go through that again,” he said. “Whew!”

“Scared, huh?”

“You can say that again,” said Dick. “Thank heaven it’s over.”

“Over?” The publicists laughed. “Why, this is only the beginning. You’re in Hollywood now.”

But Dick Widmark has still not taken, to put it mildly, to being interviewed. Writers who’ve tried to manage vivid explorations into his private life have come away saying they’d rather tangle with such notoriously mum characters as Gary Cooper or John Wayne. And so, in trying to “get to him,” writers have given up the effort of attempting to find something about his real life appropriate to the “killer” light in which the publicists first presented him. Instead, the writers have gone to the other extreme: They’ve portrayed Dick as a shy, mousey type who’s content to sit back, take what comes along and, for real contentment, repair the family lawn mower.

And this is just as phony as the first notion.

A glimpse of the real Widmark came while a scene for Kiss of Death was being shot in New York’s St. Nicholas Arena. His performance as the sadistic Tommy Udo had been so realistic that his fellow workers were beginning to feel slightly jittery in his presence. Even Director Hathaway must have felt this way, for at one point, when Hathaway thought Dick was doing some action too fast, he shouted:

“No, no, no! Good Lord, man, slow down that yackety-yak — you’re driving me crazy!”

A hush fell over the arena, its lower seats jammed with 400 extras. Killer Udo would have giggled and proceeded to destroy Hathaway on the spot. Mouse Widmark would have curled up and begged everybody’s pardon. But Richard Widmark  well, he said calmly: “Mr. Hathaway, you don’t have to yell at me. If you’ve something to say about my performance, take me to one side and discuss it with me. But please don’t shove me around. I don’t need a job in pictures that bad.”

Hathaway, the hard taskmaker but also an understanding veteran of many fine pictures, smiled. Then he apologized.

Dick Widmark, neither a conceited killer nor a mouse, has been that way since he was a little shaver. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “my family moved frequently from town to town because of Dad’s business. Every time we hit a new place, my brother and I were a couple of pint-sized strangers. We practically had to fight our way in. You know how. it is with kids, and how clannish they are.”

So wherever the Widmark brothers went, it was “two against the mob.” Finally Dick’s father, Carl Widmark, grew weary of the battles his sons were constantly getting into. He bought a pit bulldog named Scrappy. Every morning the . bulldog walked the kids to school. Every afternoon he was waiting at the schoolhouse to bring them home. Scrappy, with his fanatic loyalty, had them frequently in hot water with his eagerness to take the seat out of the pants of any kids who tried to muscle the young Widmarks around.

“It’s a wonder,” says Dick, “that somebody didn’t slip Scrappy a poisoned dog biscuit. But he lived to a ripe old age. I’ve still got his collar around somewhere. I saved it because Scrappy never cared who was right or wrong. He was for us.”

Let’s take a closer look at the “conceited” part of the killer tag. Conceited? Of course Dick Widmark isn’t — any more than he’s got an inferiority complex.

His head is today the same size it was when he landed in Hollywood. For those who may think that as time has gone by, he’s been edging toward association with the top upper crust of Hollywood, it may be pointed out that Dick has more excuses for dodging social events than a woman has for buying a new hat. And as for money, Dick is not impressed. Even before he came to Hollywood, he was earning fat chunks of the stuff. Nowadays, what with the increasing bite taxes have taken out of his increasing paycheck, he figures he’s doing only about as well as the day Hollywood beckoned.

People are forever being cynical about the effects of fame on their old acquaintances. Sometimes, though, it’s not the, actor but the old acquaintance who comes up with a stuffy attitude when they meet again — as Dick found out when he recently made a trip back to his old stamping grounds.

“I ran into a guy I used to know,” Dick tells you, “who now is doing very well as the proprietor of a store. We’d never been very pally, but here I was, all ready to be nice and friendly. He wasn’t.

“‘Well, Dick,’ he said, wearing his animosity in his voice. ‘I guess you’re too much of a big, tough, ruthless movie character to think much of Main Street now.’

“I told him it looked just as good to me as it ever did. Only maybe I didn’t smile when I answered his remark — as he hadn’t when he made it. So I’m positive he’s been going around saying, ‘Ba-ruther, did’ that Widmark get a swelled head in Hollywood. He says this town is terrible!”

It’s probably going to take some time; for people to get focused on the real Widmark. Right now, they’ve got firmly in their sights one or the other of the two phonies.

The other day, Dick received a letter from an earnest lady who wrote: “I think it’s a shame the way they make you play those rough, brutal characters when everybody knows that really you’re just a sweet shy, retiring, polite man.”

On the other hand, the same mail brought him a letter from an inmate of a famous prison. “I been thinking,” the inmate wrote, “that after being a dirty crook all my life and thinking I was a right guy, I am really as big a stinker as you are Maybe I’d better go straight when I get out of here.”

Called On Account of Mud

When Dick Widmark was in high school, he played drums for a time in a pick-up band at small local dances. He and his pals would take turns borrowing family cars for transportation. One night, Dick wheedled his dad’s brand new sedan for a dance 20 miles away. It had been raining hard, which turned the road into a sea of mud in places — particularly in that place where an enterprising farmer had dug a special mudhole from which he pulled bogged victims out at $15 a head.

When Dick and his orchestra colleagues hit the hole, the new car promptly sank in up to its fenders. When the farmer “just happened by” with his team of horses, they couldn’t raise the $15 among them, so they simply hooked a ride and left the car stranded.

By unusual coincidence, Carl Widmark chose that time to say to a friend of his, “Dick borrowed the car tonight to play a dance date. Why don’t you get your car out, and we’ll take our wives over and watch awhile.”

The “old folks” too came to the mud hole.

“Whaddya know!” the elder Widmark declared. “There’s a car just like mine. Brand, spankin’ new and sunk up to its ears. Hate to be the guy who owns that.” They got out to look. Widmark found out that he owned it.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Dick remembers. “We were playing our idea of a hot version of ‘Penthouse Serenade’ when I looked up and saw Dad crossing the floor. I never did finish the number. Father and son had a nice long talk —  with no emphasis on the nice... From there on in, I haven’t ever had to figure long when deciding whether my career or personal obligations came first.”

Nice Whiskers

Not long ago, Dick Widmark went East for a personal appearance tour. Coming into New York on the Century, he overslept, and jumped out of his berth only when Grand Central Station was announced. In his haste to get a fast shave, he dropped and broke his electric razor in his compartment.

As he hit the Pullman corridor, feeling tough and looking like a gangster on the lam, his path was blocked by a studio publicity man.

“Hold it, Dick!” he said. “Wait until the people get off. You’ll be mobbed.”

“Look,” said Dick. “I’ve got to get somewhere and get shaved.”

“What for?” the man cried indignantly. “This way, you look right in character. This way, you look just like Richard Widmark!”

Be Nonchalant

They were shooting a scene for Dick Widmark’s Kiss of Death in the Tombs, that big, gloomy prison in New York. The cameras were trained for action when a huge, real-life murderer was led by. Without warning, the man wheeled around, a razor in his hand, slashing wildly.

Guards leaped to one side, reaching for their automatics. The movie crew ducked wildly. For a moment, pandemonium broke loose. One guard was seriously wounded, another slashed across the face, before the prisoner was finally subdued.

As the movie-makers came out from cover, an assistant director called, “Widmark — are you all right?”

“Certainly!” said Dick — who, while the melée raged, had remained calmly leaning against a nearby corner. “I guess I was the safest guy in the place.”

Obviously he had been. Throughout the little riot, Dick had been locked behind bars in a cell.

The End

(Read the screen story of Richard Widmark’s new film, Slattery’s Hurricane, in the September Screen Stories.)

Source: Modern Screen, September 1949