If Richard Widmark had not gone to an art show given by a friend in Connecticut and been introduced to director Volker Schlondorff, another year would have gone by without him going anywhere near a movie set.
For this star, wealthy from shrewd investments and land deals, now works only when he wants to. And to tell the truth, he doesn’t want to very much. “I wouldn’t miss it if I never acted again,” he said the other day over lunch.
But because of that chance meeting in Connecticut, where he spends half the year, come May 10 he will be seen starring with Lou Gossett Jr. in CBS’ “A Gathering of Old Men,” directed by Schlondorff and written by Charles Fuller (“A Soldier’s Story”) from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”).
The credentials, clearly, are in order and Widmark, 72, feels good about this story of a group of elderly rural blacks who unite and rally to the side of one of their fellows after he has killed a white racist.
“Most of the stuff I’m sent these days is garbage,” said Widmark, who plays the town sheriff. “But this was different. As soon as Volker sent it to me after our meeting there in Connecticut, I said yes. I’ve always admired his work and we have a mutual friend in Arthur Miller,” whose “Death of a Salesman” Schlondorff directed for TV in 1985.
“A Gathering of Old Men” is a two-hour special. Quite long enough, in Widmark’s view, to tell almost any story.
“I think people are starting to get bored with these endless miniseries,” he said. “They’re bombing out. Nobody should need that much time to tell a good story.
“Most of the movies I made in the old days were two hours or less. Studio heads wouldn’t allow directors to become self-indulgent. Of course, those old pirates Zanuck and Warner and the rest had a motive--they wanted to get in five shows a day at the theater. But I think better work came from it anyway.”
Widmark, as any student of cinema will tell you, made his name with his very first movie, Henry Hathaway’s 1947 drama, “Kiss of Death.” In this he played a giggling, psychopathic killer who pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down some stairs.
It was a memorable movie debut, and it established Widmark as the meanest meanie on the screen. For years he resented it. “It’s a bit rough priding oneself one isn’t too bad an actor and then finding one’s only remembered for a giggle,” he told one interviewer years later.
And even today, 40 years after, Widmark’s performance in “Kiss of Death"--which earned him an Oscar nomination--is not forgotten.
Reviewing Gary Busey’s work in the new movie “Lethal Weapon,” NBC critic Gene Shalit said: “Gary Busey, one of the most evil sadists who’s grinned on screen since Richard Widmark.”
If Widmark talks of Schlondorff as “a fine director” and the script of “A Gathering of Old Men” as being one of the best he’s read, it means nothing unless you know what other directors he’s worked for and what other scripts he’s read.
Widmark’s credentials over the years can bear examination. He’s worked for John Ford (“Two Rode Together”), Elia Kazan (“Panic in the Streets”) and Joe Mankiewicz (“No Way Out”). He can also list Jules Dassin (“Night and the City”), Sidney Lumet (“Murder on the Orient Express”) and Lewis Milestone (“Halls of Montezuma”) among his credits.
“I loved making movies,” said Widmark. “I’d been a nut about them ever since I was a kid, since I saw my first film when I was 3 (his grandmother took him).
“When I finally came to Hollywood, I thought I was in seventh heaven. I could hardly wait to get to work at (20th Century) Fox in the mornings. Then I lived just a 10-minute drive away in Mandeville Canyon and I’d whistle as I drove to work thinking, ‘Hot dog, I’m going to make a movie today.’
“But it was hard work. Some years, I’d make as many as four movies. And I kept on working like that for--what?--25 years. Because of that, I’m now financially secure and can enjoy my life.”
So he had been astute with his money?
“Astute?” He laughed softly. “No, just tight.”
After leaving his native Illinois in the ‘30s, Widmark first went to New York City where he almost immediately landed a job on a radio show. For 10 years, he was featured in many soaps and was a regular on “Inner Sanctum.”
Then along came the script for “Kiss of Death,” which he read to the other actors during an “Inner Sanctum” rehearsal. “We laughed like hell,” he recalled later. But after that he was off and running.
Whether at his cottage in Santa Barbara or his home in Connecticut, Widmark spends four hours a day watching the news on TV.
“I’m a news junkie,” he confessed. “I can’t get enough of it. But to know what’s really happening in the world these days, you’ve got to watch more than one station.”
He actually enjoys not working.
“A lot of actors don’t know what to do with themselves when they retire; they have no other life. Me, I love just living. I read a lot, play tennis, work outside, see friends (he was that night dining with director Fred Zinnemann, a former neighbor in Mandeville Canyon who now resides in Britain).
“Some of us grumble at the number of young people in the industry today, but it was always like that. John Ford directed his first movie when he was 18. Irving Thalberg was in his heyday in his 20s. The only difference between then and now is that in those days we tackled more adult themes. There wasn’t all this pandering to the youth market.”
While filming “A Gathering of Old Men” in Louisiana, Widmark struck up a friendship with tap dancer Howard (Sandman) Sims, who plays the role of Uncle Billy in the drama.
“Every Wednesday up in Harlem he runs an amateur show,” said Widmark. “I saw him talking about it on TV in New York the other day, and he showed the interviewer a baseball bat and a hook. He said that some of the amateurs didn’t want to get off, so first he used the bat and then, if that didn’t work, he used the hook.
“That goes for all of us. We’ve got to know when to get off.”