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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tommy Udo (1914-2008)

Here I was, all ready to divulge the fascinating story of why I was late with my weekly missive last week. But then I figured that I owed it to the memory of actor Richard Widmark, who died on March 24, to reflect on his work before another week went by. So, the fascinating story of where I went on Easter holidays will have to wait seven more days.

The name Tommy Udo isn’t exactly a household name, but that is the role that first comes to mind of people who have followed the career of Richard Widmark. Udo was one of those characters that become nearly synonymous with an actor because 1) it was the first time we saw him and 2) it made such an impression. Now, when I say that the role of Tommy Udo was “the first time we saw him,” I am speaking collectively. That was not the first time I, personally, saw him. After all, I wasn’t even born yet when Kiss of Death came out 1947. But I can barely remember reading any article about Widmark or review of his work or, for that matter, obituary that didn’t immediately reference his screen debut in that movie, playing a psychopathic killer with a sinister snicker.

“It’s a bit rough, priding oneself that one isn’t too bad an actor and then finding one’s only remembered for a giggle,” he was quoted as saying once, in his New York Times obituary. The scene where he ties up a woman playing Victor Mature’s mother in her wheelchair and sends her crashing down a flight of stairs was one of the most chilling and indelible in movie history. Not only was it his first movie and to dominate his screen persona for years, but Kiss of Death earned him his only Oscar nomination. (His dark portrayal lost out to the most opposite one imaginable: Edmund Gwenn playing Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.)

As is often the case with actors typecast as evil or crazy people, Widmark was by all accounts the complete opposite. Something of an intellectual, who had acted as a student (and later taught acting) at Lake Forest College in Illinois, He spent a decade acting on the radio in New York City, when he was cast in Kiss of Death. The story goes that the director, Henry Hathaway, turned him down for the part but he got the role through the intervention of Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck. Although he was a gentle and thoughtful man, there was something about Widmark’s eyes that could hint that something was not quite right with the man, that maybe he was just a little crazy. That look served him in scores of roles.

What is striking about Widmark’s roles through the years (the IMDB lists 75 screen roles over 45 years) is how many authority figures he played. But I suppose this is not surprising for an actor who was working well into his 70s. The list of characters he played frequently included such titles as “First Mate” (Down to the Sea in Ships), “CPO” (Destination Gobi), “Sergeant” (Take the High Ground), “Lieutenant” (The Halls of Montezuma), “First Lieutenant” (Two Rode Together), “Lieutenant Commander” (Panic in the Streets, The Frogmen), “Captain” (Hell and High Water, Cheyenne Autumn, The Bedford Incident), “Lieutenant Colonel” (Flight from Ashiya), “Colonel” (Judgment at Nuremberg, Alvarez Kelly), “General” (Twilight’s Last Gleaming) and “Major General” (The Swarm, the best/worst killer bee movie ever made). He also rose in the ranks of law enforcement with such titles as “Sheriff” (A Gathering of Old Men), “Marshal” (Death of a Gunfighter) and “Detective” (Madigan). And he even acquired political titles, like “Secretary of State” (Who Dares Wins), “Senator” (True Colors) and even “President” (Vanished). In a less typical role, he even got to be the dauphin of France in Saint Joan.

Other memorable figures he played: Jim Bowie (alongside John Wayne’s Davy Crockett and Laurence Harvey’s William Travis) in The Alamo and Benjamin Franklin in a 1974 TV miniseries.

His c.v. also included such all-star enterprises as How the West Was Won and Murder on the Orient Express in which, in a cinematic case of karmic payback for his role in Kiss of Death, he is found stabbed twelve times, setting off a classic Agatha Christy mystery. In one of his most unusual departures, he teamed up with the likes of Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott and a very young Nastassja Kinski in the UK/West German horror flick To the Devil a Daughter. He got in touch with his Hollywood film noir roots in the 1984 remake of Out of the Past, Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds. And he got in on the 1970s disaster/terrorist thriller craze (along with Henry Fonda and George Segal) in Rollercoaster. But the movies in which Widmark really excelled were those that made use of his subtle creepiness. One is Twilight’s Last Gleaming, in which he played a somewhat rabid general dealing with a crisis created when Burt Lancaster takes over an ICBM silo to expose the conspiracy that started the Vietnam war. Another is Coma, in which he presides over a hospital that is deliberately putting patients into comas in order to harvest their organs. Inexplicably, when plucky doctor Geneviève Bujold starts to uncover the plot, she winds up going to Widmark and lets him give her a scotch. She clearly had not been paying to attention to his oeuvre as an actor.

Unlike many actors of his generation, for whatever reason, he did not settle into one or more television series in his twilight years. He appeared in only one continuing TV series, and that was the 1972-73 show Madigan, in which he reprised the title role of the Don Siegel cop movie of the same name.

If Murder on the Orient Express was Widmark’s screen persona’s ultimate karmic comeuppance, a close second would be 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock. In that one, he played an airline pilot who gets mixed up with a babysitter who turns out to be psychopathic—a forerunner to a virtual genre in the 1990s. The scary sitter was played by a 25-year-old actor named Marilyn Monroe.

-S.L., 3 April 2008

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