Jack Warden, 85; Prolific Film, TV Actor

Times Staff Writer

Jack Warden, the gravel-voiced character actor and two-time Oscar nominee who appeared in nearly 100 feature films, has died. He was 85.

Warden, who won an Emmy award for his portrayal of crusty football coach George Halas in the 1971 television movie “Brian’s Song,” died Wednesday at a New York City hospital, Sidney Pazoff, his Los Angeles-based business manager, said Friday.

Pazoff said Warden, who was living in Manhattan, had been in failing health for several months. The cause of death was not given.


Warden first made his mark in the movies in 1957 as the sports-obsessed juror in “12 Angry Men.” He received Academy Award nominations for his supporting work in two Warren Beatty vehicles, “Shampoo” (1975) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1978).

His small-screen resume was just as deep, with featured roles in a dozen series and appearances in about 100 shows and made-for-TV movies that stretched back to television’s golden age and included “Mr. Peepers” (1952-55) on NBC, “N.Y.P.D.” on ABC (1967-69), “Jigsaw John” (1976) on NBC and “Crazy Like a Fox” (1984-86) on CBS.

From the moment Warden broke through on Broadway in 1955 in Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” he said, he never stopped working.

“I still panic sometimes when it comes down to 20 minutes between jobs,” Warden told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1984. “I love what I’m doing....”

The gruff yet often engaging characters he became known for could have been lifted from his rough-and-tumble early life.

At 17, the redhead from Newark, N.J., was a ranked professional middleweight boxer who billed himself as Johnny Costello -- the last name was his mother’s -- and reportedly once fought on the same card at Madison Square Garden as another future actor, Charles Durning.


Warden often said he got kicked out of high school for boxing professionally, so he joined the Navy and served in China patrolling the Yangtze River.

He came home in 1941, shoveled coal on tugboats on New York’s East River and a year later joined the merchant marine.

His romance with the sea ended, he said, while he worked in the engine room of a freighter that was repeatedly attacked by German bombs. Every explosion sounded like a direct hit.

After the vessel made it to port, he demanded a job above deck. When the merchant marine wouldn’t comply, Warden said, he went across the street and joined the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper.

“I figured anything was better than being trapped in the boiler room of a sinking ship,” Warden said in 1984.

During a practice jump while preparing for the Normandy invasion, his chute failed to fully open. His broken leg required a steel plate and a lengthy hospital stay that had an unexpected side benefit.


A friend suggested that he read plays, and among the first Warden tackled was Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty.” He identified with the play’s striking cabdrivers and the way the story was told.

“That year in the hospital was the turning point in my life,” Warden told the Herald Examiner. “After eight months of that diet, I thought I was an actor and headed straight for New York.”

It was 1945, and a series of jobs -- bouncer at a dime-a-dance hall, shirt salesman, dockworker, roofer and semipro football player -- would come first.

“Warden’s done it all,” Jack Ging, an actor and friend, told TV Guide in 1979. “He’s the kind of guy that Spencer Tracy played.”

While working as a lifeguard in 1946 at a hotel pool in New York, Warden met Margo Jones, manager of the well-regarded Alley Theatre in Dallas. She asked him to join the company, and he spent five years there.

He debuted on television in 1950 in “The Philco TV Playhouse” production of “Ann Rutledge” on NBC and began appearing regularly in drama anthologies that often aired live.


He found live television exciting -- the next best thing to the stage.

With a bit of bluster, he captured a Broadway role in 1955 that became the springboard of his career.

Weeks went by as playwright Miller, who had cast approval for “A View From a Bridge,” kept calling back Warden and others for readings. Finally, Warden improvised a scene as Marco, the Italian immigrant.

“That’s it! That’s exactly what I want!” Miller exclaimed, according to a 1966 TV Guide article.

The actor also had roles in a handful of other Broadway productions, beginning with Odets’ “Golden Boy” in 1952 and including “The Man in the Glass Booth” in 1969.

Warden worked mainly, and steadily, in television and film through the 1990s, often playing the heavy in movies before inhabiting more comedic roles.

He was the scruffy outlaw in “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing” (1973), the cab-driving father in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974), the hard-nosed city editor in “All the President’s Men” (1976) and Paul Newman’s friend and conscience in “The Verdict” (1982).


Warden played a rich husband in “Shampoo” opposite Beatty, Lee Grant and Julie Christie, and in “Heaven Can Wait” he was a trainer for the Los Angeles Rams. One of his final film credits was in another football movie, “The Replacements.”

“Brian’s Song,” the television movie that earned him an Emmy, was the story of the bond that develops between Chicago Bear teammates Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, when Piccolo learns he is dying.

When he played the suicidal judge in “ ... And Justice for All” (1979), Warden reportedly asked the makeup artist to sharpen the angle of his eyebrows so he would appear more deranged.

The New York Times called Warden a “fine farceur” as twin salesmen in “Used Cars” (1980) and said he played Ryan O’Neal’s father “hilariously” in “So Fine” (1981).

After he portrayed a U.S. president influenced by an unlikely political insider played by Peter Sellers in the black comedy “Being There” (1979), Warden recalled how President Carter told him, over lunch at the White House, how much he liked the performance.

“He thought I’d made the president very human,” Warden told The Times in 1980.

The actor wasn’t as enamored of the performance but said he was rarely satisfied with his work.


His versatility appealed to the creators of NBC’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1965-66), and he was cast as the show’s star.

“Warden can play intense melodrama, yet he plays farce with infallible timing,” said Danny Arnold, who told TV Guide that he wrote the part of the gruff and cynical major on “Wackiest” with Warden in mind.

In 1979, the actor made a reported $40,000 a week to star in “The Bad News Bears” on CBS but said he would rather take the bus to the studio than drive.

Warden was a complex man, several friends from his heyday in TV have said, who used his lightning-quick humor to entertain -- and keep the world at a distance.

Yet he kept a Greenwich Village apartment as a permanent residence, partly for friends to stay in. And the late actor Rod Steiger once pronounced him “one of the few human beings I know who still understands what friendship and honor mean.”

Warden was born John Lebzelter on Sept. 18, 1920. He married Vanda Dupre, a 27-year-old French actress, in 1958. Comedian Red Buttons, who died last week at 87, was best man at the Las Vegas wedding.


“I’m teaching her how to water-ski and fish. She’s teaching me French and cooking. It’s a great basis for a marriage,” Warden joked in 1959.

Within a few years, the couple had a son, Christopher, and had moved from Laurel Canyon to the Malibu Colony. Nearby was a tennis court that Warden owned with Steiger. By the mid-1970s, Warden and his wife had separated, but they never divorced, according to Pazoff.

The actor said one of the benefits of making “Crazy Like a Fox” in the mid-1980s was that he got to see more of his son, then a student at UC Berkeley, because the show often filmed in San Francisco.

Besides his estranged wife, Warden is survived by his companion, Marucha Hinds; his son; and two grandchildren.