Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An American Face

Richard Widmark, who died today at 93, made his movie debut in 1947 as a giggling psychotic who pushed a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in "Kiss of Death."

Nominated for an Academy Award, he went on to play villains over next decade but, approaching middle age, his maturing prototypical American face made him more suitable for roles that reflected cherished American values--as the caring head of a psychiatric hospital in "The Cobweb," Jim Bowie in "The Alamo" and the prosecutor of Nazis in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

Our paths crossed during regular visits in the waiting room of a Manhattan oral surgeon in 1965. I was being treated for excruciating pain from TMJ muscle spasms, and Widmark was there because the doctor, Stanley Behrman, the nephew of a Broadway playwright, was famous for his expertise on facial shapes. At 50, Widmark could not have entrusted his appearance to anyone more sensitive to an actor's needs. He would smile and nod as I nodded back and grimaced

He was in 77 movies, in later years playing senators, generals and judges. Living in northwestern Connecticut with his wife of 55 years, Widmark was a founding member of a land trust to preserve the rural landscape.

On and off the screen, he lived up to that American face.

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