Moviecrazed
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HE LAUGHED WHEN THEY SAID HE HAD TO PUSH A LADY IN A WHEELCHAIR DOWN THE STAIRS


I felt a shiver in 1977 when I began my New York Times interview with the meanest man in all of the movie world. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Richard Widmark was in fact Mister Nice Guy. --GUY FLATLEY


Thirty years ago, Richard Widmark was propelled to stardom when he pushed the crippled mother of a stool pigeon down a flight of stairs in “Kiss of Death.” At 62, Mr. Widmark is still pushing people around, even presidents of the United States. In “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” he casually instructs his troops to gun down a troublesome group that happens to include the panicked President, and in the coming “Domino Principle,” he springs a sharpshooter from prison for the purpose of presidential assassination. On a more plebeian plane, he will stalk a spoilsport who threatens to blow up an amusement park in “Rollercoaster.”

His parts are skimpier than in the days when he was under contract to 20th Century-Fox, a period when he was systematically sapped of his potential, typecast first as a sniveling sadist and later as a jaundiced, stiff-lipped hero. Yet he seems content with his career, even if it has not measured up to the expectations of the critics who hailed the chillingly decadent, smoothly sinister recruit from such innocuous Broadway baubles as “Kiss and Tell” as a strikingly original talent. Today, he looks back with special fondness on his frantic 1940’s phase when he careened from one radio dilemma to another, from “Gangbusters” to “Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories.”

“That was the best time of my life,” Widmark recalls. “It was a very nice living, and completely anonymous. I worked with some marvelous people – Joe Cotten, Arlene Francis, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles, Art Carney. It took me the longest time to realize that Art Carney was funny, because we were always doing ‘Gangbusters’ together on Saturday night.”

One afternoon, he was summoned to an interview with some visiting moviemakers, a meeting from which he emerged with a script tucked under his arm. “That night, between breaks of a radio show called ‘Inner Sanctum,’ I was reading the script and suddenly I said, ‘Hey, listen to this. This guy pushes a lady down the stairs in a wheelchair!’ We all laughed, but I got the part and did it in 13 days, with no idea it was going to be anything special.”

It was special enough to turn off his radio anonymity and tune him in to Hollywood, where he whiled away his time menacing – and occasionally being menaced by – such Fox favorites as Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Anne Baxter, Susan Hayward and a nervous newcomer named Marilyn Monroe. “I liked Marilyn very much. She was a nice girl. But it was difficult working with her in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock.’ Darryl Zanuck wanted to make her a dramatic actress, even though acting scared her to death. So we had a lot of trouble just getting her out of her dressing room.”

In the midst of all the movie madness, Mr. Widmark must have longed for the sanity of the legitimate theater. “I hate to say this, but I don’t like that life,” says Widmark, a family man who splits his year between a cozy home in Connecticut and a sprawling ranch in California. “Early on, I decided the kind of life I wanted, and that’s what I got, right or wrong. I was never so crazy about acting that I wanted to dedicate my life to it. I’m very lucky to be living the kind of dumb life I like to live. I hate cities, and I love farming and a million other things that have nothing to do with the theater.”

Could it be that Widmark is burning to do one more major movie, to deliver a performance that will justify the faith of those fervent critics back in the 40’s?

“I wish I could answer yes, but at this stage I just go along if someone wants me and it looks enjoyable. Just say that I’m not a true artist. Hell – look at my age; I’m grateful if I wake up in the morning and I’m still breathing.”