Richard Widmark's Plumbing Issues (1949) 🇺🇸
Drop the Gun, Richard!
by Herb Howe
We turn informer — on that menace Widmark, whose passion for picket fences gives a real clue to his character!
Racing on to the screen with a loony cackle, Richard Widmark bowled an old Mom in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, copped an Academy nomination and became the pet of the pedal-pushers, in his first picture.
Even old-timers were taken in by his histrionic hypnosis. They thought of Widmark, himself, as a hood, a skwitch from Hell’s Kitch, or a pal of the mobsters, anyhow.
“I wouldn’t know a mobster if I saw one,” he said, looking guileless.
He despises hoodlums and phonies and wants no parts glamourizing them. He nurses a drink all night at a party, and is almost certain to spill it, if introduced to a gushy woman. When asked to do his Udo cackle, he makes for the nearest door. And, if references are made to the way he almost blasted a blonde into a brunette, in “Street with No Name,” he cringes.
For, although he appears as an old hand at cuffing babes on the screen, he has had only one girl in his life, and he did not smack her — he married her. Jean Hazelwood, daughter of Craig Hazelwood, a Chicago banker. She was Richard’s schoolmate at Lake Forest University. They are matched even to coloring of copper- brown hair and gray eyes.
A big city girl herself, Jean has been converted to the Main Street way of life, traveling from home town to home town with Dick. For Dick isn’t merely a small town boy; he’s a small towns, plural, boy. He has lived in more spots than Washington has slept in. And Jean enjoys with him the “Hi Dick,” that people call from doorways, as though he never had been away.
Of Dick’s home towns, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was the largest. He really grew up on the banks of the Sioux until he was eight, listening to the laughing waters of Minnehaha. (And he did not get his Udo laugh from these, says the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce.)
He did, however, get his phenomenal high brow of culture at Lincoln School, skated on Covell’s lake, got a skinful of malts at the Chocolate Shop, and acquired such a cosmopolitan intellect from reading the Daily Argus Leader, that today he is notorious as the man who does not turn to the sport page first, but reads his New York Times from Section I — “All the News That’s Fit To Print” — straight through the Shopping Guide and Business Opportunities.
Dick’s father is Swedish; his mother is of Scotch-English stock. The Widmarks were able to accumulate their precious stock of home towns, because Mr. Widmark was a traveling salesman for wholesale grocers.
After Dick had given Sioux Falls the first eight years of his life and had run up quite a bill in the Chocolate Shop, he shoved off on his Odyssey. Through a series of small towns, he arrived at Princeton, 111. There, he was graduated from high school with entrance credits for Lake Forest University. On the football field, he was a flash end weighing one hundred and forty pounds. He was also fast on the baseball diamond but couldn’t catch the ball.
He had trouble, too, catching Miss Jean Hazelwood. Though agile of hoof on diamond and dance floor, he is tight with the talk. He took her out twice and gave her two words. She said, “What’s with him?” and left him for fast talkers.
“He didn’t do anything about it,” Jean says. “He could have made me jealous by going out with other girls. He didn’t. Indifferent, but persistent, he hung around.”
Every campus has a solo guy. Dick, athlete and fraternity man, was king of the junior prom, president of the senior class, captain of a debating team and head of honor society. Yet he walked alone. Because he seemed immune to other girls, he fascinated them like Satan, but he never took his hypnotic eye off the Hazelwood wench.
After graduation she went to New York. “Speed” Widmark tailed; threw her two more words; she said yes — and they returned to Evanston for the “I do.”
Two years and a couple of jobs after the wedding, the Widmarks were back in New York where Dick was burning up the airwaves with his radio acting. He was also burning up huge amounts of energy, geysering up and down from program to program. They had to hold elevators for him at NBC in Radio City. Hot from a mike, they dropped him solo, to the street. Running faster than a Checker cab, he legged it to CBS. Another breathless waiting elevator tossed him spieling into “Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Story.” All day, elevators palpitated for Widmark, picking him up and putting him down for Kate Smith, “Joyce Jordan,” “Front Page Farrell,” “Inner Sanctum,” on which, more often than not, he was the good egg.
He grabbed $50,000 a year. A facile non-fluff reader, Dick can read you the phone book and hold you. Then, after five years of radio, he went on the stage, playing leads in five prestige flops and more artistic successes. Five years of this and he had an electric Broadway name.
The secret of his acting genius is concentration. He throws all he has at a part and works with nervous tension. The best release from this, is puttering outside, and building things.
“Hitting a nail on the head is the best relaxation,” Dick avers.
Mrs. Widmark regards this exuberance with quiet resignation.
“I knew he was a fix-it when I married him and was prepared for a life among saws and things...”
Dick, she says, choosing not to be quoted, is a dependable unhandyman who can fix everything around a house so that nothing works.
“We can’t afford to call a plumber every time the sink gets stuffed up,” Dick said, marching to the task with wrench.
An hour later, when Jean and little daughter Ann, aged four, ventured into the kitchen, politely to inquire as to progress, Papa was lying under the sink, and when he saw them, he leered like Udo, “Take Ann away, I’m going to talk to this plumbing.” The Widmark ladies retired, while Papa ad libbed.
His true passion is picket fences. You can almost trace the Widmark Odyssey by the weaving picket fences he left behind. When Jean and he motored back to New Bedford, Mass., for the premiere of “Down to the Sea in Ships,” he made a detour, in order to see a fence he built in White Plains. The sight of it gave him an exultation beyond any picture triumph.
The skill Dick lacks in his puttering is definitely not lacking in his characterizations.
He goes about his picture work with the studiousness and conscience of a fine stage actor. He figures out everything before he starts. He makes others around him good, by association. Shy with words socially, he’s buckety-buck with the crew, getting information toward the day when he may roll his own, directing and producing.
In California, the Widmarks belong with that group of serious actors of stage experience known as Mother Carey’s Chickens, because they foregather at the ranch home of Harry Carey’s widow. They include, beside the Widmarks, the Greg Pecks, Wendell Coreys, Monty Clift, Pete Armendariz, Kirk Douglas, Harry Carey Jr.
The Widmarks were drawn to Hollywood mainly by the opportunity for outdoor activity. Dick is a wizard at finding houses, Jean says. “He can pick them out of a hat.”
The first one he picked in California had rattlesnakes. Dick had to pick another out of the hat quick, and, because he had leased the snakepit, the Widmarks paid rent on two places the first year.
When their lease on the Claude Rains place in Brentwood expired, they were offered a New England-type clapboard, with three bedrooms, situated on canyon acres. No picket fence as yet. “There will be,” says Jean, with some apprehension.
Although he seems an old hand at slapping sirens on the screen, he’s had only one girl in his life — his wife Jean
Source: Photoplay, July 1949