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Kiss of Death

Remembering Widmark, Scofield and Heston

Nov. 27, 2008
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People like to talk about the demise of famous people happening in threes. And never was this tale more noticeable than during the period of mid-March to early April with the passing of film giants Richard Widmark, who was 93, Paul Scofield, 86, and Charlton Heston, 84.

Each of these actors was renowned for the realism they brought to unforgettable performances in so many memorable movies. All together, the legendary trio appeared in 234 big screen and television vehicles. Indeed, they were actors for the ages.

Widmark appeared in 75 films, beginning in 1947; Scofield (also a noted British stage actor) showed up in 33, beginning in 1955, and Heston was on screen an incredible 126 times, starting in 1941. These three men personified the best in slice-of-life film fare.

Despite a stunning body of work-including a host of villains-the intense Widmark's lone Academy Award nomination was for his riveting role in his first film, as sneering gangster Tommy Udo in 1947's scalding Kiss ofDeath. One of his most notable co-stars was Sidney Poitier, with whom he appeared in three message movies.

As savvy moviegoers are aware, the performances remembered best are by actors playing bad guys. With the exception of the late Jack Palance, the often-menacing Widmark was, perhaps, the screen's all-time villain. And despite his affinity for Poitier, his role as a small-time hoodlum racist who torments Poitier's idealistic young doctor in 1950's No Way Out set the standard for on-screen anti-black bigotry.

In a TV biography special in 2000, Widmark recalled how uncomfortable he was in volatile, race-baiting scenes with Poitier, in which he repeatedly called him "n***er" and mocked his black skin and thick lips. Widmark said that he'd be so embarrassed he would apologize to Poitier after each take-reassuring him that he was only acting.

Widmark, as a Viking seaman, and Poitier, as a Moor, also were at odds in The Long Ships (1964). But their finest pairing was 1965's The Bedford Incident, a chilling drama of the Cold War at sea. Widmark was at his peak as the authoritarian captain of a U.S. nuclear vessel chasing a Russian submarine near Greenland, watched closely by Poitier, as a big-time journalist looking for a story.

For years, Widmark's smoldering villainy and rascally charm endeared him to millions. For example, as the gambler "Dude" in 1948's Western classic Yellow Sky, hustler Harry Fabian in 1950's searing Night and the City and a frontier marshal in Death of a Gunfighter (1969), opposite Lena Horne, he was easy to like and loathe.

Actors for All Seasons

The stately Scofield was best known for his Oscar-winning turn as Sir Thomas More in A Man for AllSeasons (1966). However, my fave was his dramatic portrayal of a World War II Wehrmacht officer in John Frankenheimer's The Train (1964). Determined to transport priceless works of French art back to Germany, he was hounded by railroad man Burt Lancaster in a film featuring great chase scenes and stunning boxcar crashes. In 1973's Scorpio, Scofield portrayed a Russian agent fencing with Lancaster's aging, undercover CIA operative marked for assassination by his young, designated successor, Alain Delon.

In more recent years, Scofield shined opposite John Turturro in 1994's Quiz Show, an engrossing tale of the 1950s television quiz show scandal that captivated the nation. Portraying wealthy Mark Van Doren, father of flawed winner Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), Scofield was an absolute delight.

The burly Heston was very visible in the 1960s civil rights movement and joined Martin Luther King Jr. at 1963's March on Washington. He gained fame as historical and biblical figures and copped an Oscar in 1959's Ben-Hur. Yet, I liked him better in his first lead in 1950's Dark City, along with The Naked Jungle (1954), Touch of Evil (1958), Khartoum (1966), Planet of the Apes (1968) and Number One (1969).

In Number One, Heston was down-to-earth and believable as an aging quarterback for the New Orleans Saints about to lose the starting job to his cocky, young, black heir apparent. Indeed, his ego-driven stoicism made for a compelling character study.

In retrospect, one thing is certain about Widmark, Scofield and Heston: Audiences couldn't take their eyes off of them. Whether playing heroes, anti-heroes, sophisticates, historical icons or villains, each plied their trade with aplomb. They truly will be missed.


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