Glenn Ford, the rangy, laconic actor who in a long and prolific career in films and television portrayed characters from gallant leading men to saddle tramps, died Wednesday. He was 90.
Ford, a top box-office draw in the 1950s whose career spanned more than five decades and more than 100 films, was found dead at his Beverly Hills home by Fire Department paramedics just before 4 p.m.
Largely out of the public eye since the early 1990s, Ford was saluted by American Cinematheque at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre in May on his 90th birthday. Ford, who had suffered several strokes, had been expected to attend but ultimately missed the event because of fragile health.
In his prime, Ford posted a string of memorable credits that included “Gilda,” “The Big Heat,” “The Blackboard Jungle,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” “Don’t Go Near the Water,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” “Pocketful of Miracles” and “The Rounders.”
He could play an ambitious, crooked gambler with a soul-saving sense of honor (“Gilda”) or an idealistic yet tough-minded teacher (“Blackboard Jungle”).
As a youth, Ford portrayed a Depression-era store clerk who hitchhiked west in “Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence,” his first feature picture in 1939. As a middle-aged character actor, he was the surrogate father of “Superman” (1978) in the first feature-length film treatment of the comic book character.
And although he was never nominated for an Oscar, he was a longtime Hollywood favorite.
Ford, who was under contract to Columbia Pictures for many years, got along well with studio chief Harry Cohn, who was famous for his parsimonious purse strings and flaming temper.
Ford recalled in a 1981 interview that Cohn had sent for him when he left Columbia after his contract had expired and that the studio boss shook his hand fondly and said: “You know why we always got along together, Glenn? Because you never were afraid of me.”
In the 1970s, Ford began concentrating on television, portraying Sheriff Sam Cade in “Cade’s County”; the narrator of the children’s series “Friends of Man”; and the Rev. Tom Holvak, a poverty-stricken preacher, in “The Family Holvak.”
The last character, in the 1975-77 series, was based, Ford told The Times in 1975, on his grandfather, Thomas Ford, a rural minister in Quebec, Canada, the actor’s native land.
He was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford on May 1, 1916, the son of a railroad executive and mill owner and nephew of Sir John MacDonald, a former prime minister of Canada and a descendant of Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States.
Ford spent his earliest years in Glenford, site of the family’s paper mill, from which Ford took his professional name.
By the time his family moved to California when he was 7, he had already developed a taste for performing. At Santa Monica High School, he ran track, played lacrosse and excelled in English and drama.
Ford worked with numerous little theater groups and California touring companies as an actor and stage manager before joining the Broadway-bound play “Soliloquy,” starring film actor John Beal, in 1938.
But when the play reached Broadway, it closed after only two performances. Ford returned to Los Angeles, and 20th Century Fox hired him for a fourth-billed role in the low-budget “Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence.”
It was not the most auspicious of debuts.
In a 1985 interview with The Times, Ford recalled that the film’s director, Ricardo Cortez, told him he would never make it as a movie actor. But soon after, Ford was signed by Columbia. Roles in a string of B pictures followed, until World War II service intervened.
Ford enlisted in the Marine Corps in December 1942, after having been a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary for a year. After his discharge in 1945, he returned to the screen the next year in three notable pictures: “Gilda”; “A Stolen Life,” in which he played opposite Bette Davis; and “Gallant Journey,” a film biography of 19th century flight pioneer John Montgomery.
In “Gilda,” where Rita Hayworth performs one of the steamiest dances in movie history, Ford was praised by Variety as “a far better actor than the tale permits.”
In 1953, Ford had his Columbia contract rewritten so he could work for other studios. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer featured him as the doctor-husband in “Interrupted Melody,” the story of opera star Marjorie Lawrence, a polio victim. That picture and others, such as “Ransom” and “Don’t Go Near the Water,” brought him rave notices about his “recent mature and thoughtful performances” and his “sly and adept” comedy.
Off-screen, Ford played polo -- he had learned to ride while taking care of Will Rogers’ polo ponies as a teenager in the 1930s -- and was lifelong friends with William Holden and Hayworth. He also worked with Actors and Others for Animals, an animal-rights group.
He was married four times. The first marriage, to dancer Eleanor Powell in 1943, ended in divorce in 1959. They had a son, Peter. Ford married actress Kathryn Hays in 1966, but the marriage lasted only a year. In 1977, he wed actress Cynthia Hayward, a union that ended in divorce in 1984. In 1993, he married Jeanne Baus.
As a commander in the Naval Reserve, Ford spent a month in South Vietnam in 1967. Accompanied by a Marine Corps camera crew, he filmed combat locations for “Global Marine,” a documentary training movie for recruits.
“People who come out here for a visit and go back with pat opinions about how the war is going to be won are fools,” Ford told The Times at the end of his trip to the war zone.
“This is a vicious war, a unique war, with no simple answer, but I think the complicated problem we face here cannot be appraised and judged by anyone who has not been here.”
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Ford created three quality film roles that enriched his reputation: the footloose cowboy in “The Rounders,” the good cop gone bad in “The Money Trap” and the frontiersman trying to recapture his family from Indians in “Day of the Evil Gun.”
If Ford gravitated toward a single genre in his later years, it was the western, where the simple plot lines and sparse dialogue suited him. “You don’t have to speak English to understand what’s going on,” he once told The Times. “I’ve always said the talking pictures talk too much anyway.”
Besides, he added, “I’m out of place doing sophistication. I’m so uncomfortable in a tuxedo.”
Information about survivors and funeral plans was unavailable late Wednesday.