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Stuart Whitman

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Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2009 12:00 am

Dedicated Professional

By Jim Meyer

Stuart Whitman’s finest film work is seen in his Oscar nominated performance as a psychologically tormented man trying to rehabilitate himself in The Mark (1961). Although he never received another role as demanding as this one, Stuart Whitman managed, through intelligent and dedicated professionalism, to carve out a respectable career in one of the most competitive industries in the world.

Stuart Maxwell Whitman was born February 1, 1928, in San Francisco, California, the eldest of two sons. (His brother, Kipp, born in 1946, was briefly an actor before becoming a real estate developer.) His parents, Joseph and Cecilia Whitman, moved about the country for several years. Young Stuart began his education in New York, in Manhattan and Poughkeepsie. By his high school years, his family settled in Los Angeles where Stuart graduated from Hollywood High in 1945. Whitman recalled, “I went to so many schools—26 in all!—that I was always an outsider. It wasn’t until high school that I could REALLY read . . . I always sat in the back of the room.”

After graduation, Stuart enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Corps of Engineers. A lightweight boxer during his three years in the Army, he won 31 of his 32 bouts. He was honorably discharged in 1948.

He used the G.I. Bill to enroll in Hollywood’s Ben Bard Drama School where he debuted as a boxer in the school’s production of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which ran for six months. Whitman then studied drama at L.A. City College and subsequently acquired membership in The Michael Chekhov Stage Society.

Originally, the 6-foot, 2-inch Whitman had hoped for a career in professional football. While at L.A. City College, however, he suffered a pulled leg muscle in an encounter with Hugh McElhenny, a future NFL star and Pro Football Hall of Famer. The injury did not respond to treatment, ending Mr. Whitman’s athletic ambitions.

Spotted by a talent scout while at City College, the actor made his screen debut in a bit in When Worlds Collide (1951). He followed this with other small parts in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Barbed Wire (1952), One Minute to Zero (1952), All I Desire (1953), The All American (1953), Rhapsody (1954), Silver Lode (1954), and Brigadoon (1954).

To stay solvent between his little acting assignments, Mr. Whitman purchased a bulldozer and rented both machine and himself at $100-per-day. California’s postwar housing boom kept him busy leveling hillside lots, ripping out trees, and digging driveways. This work had a big payoff in that it turned out to be the beginning of an education for his future success in real estate development. Even after his success as an actor, Whitman told an interviewer, “I still own that bulldozer; instead of ‘murdering’ people on-screen, Hollywood might ‘murder’ me!”

In 1952, the actor married Patricia LaLonde. The marriage would produce four children: Anthony, Michael, Linda and Scott. Approximately nine years later, when Whitman was often working overseas, so-called family friends told Patricia that the actor had been unfaithful while in Europe. Whitman strongly denied this, but his wife sued him for divorce. Her remarriage in 1966 resulted in the termination of the $10,200 monthly alimony payments that had been required of him.

By the late ‘60s, Whitman married Caroline Boubis, daughter of a wealthy French industrialist; this marriage produced one child, but this, too, ended six years later. In 1993, Mr. Whitman married the much-younger Julia Paradiz, to whom he is still wed. The couple resides in Santa Barbara, California.

For years, Whitman was still stuck in smallish, often unbilled roles: Passion (1954), the Republic serial King of the Carnival (1955), Diane (1955), and Seven Men from Now (1956). He was slowly getting noticed, however, with Variety noting of Seven Men that the actor “is quite competent in his role.”

He was just biding his time in Crime of Passion (1957), Hell Bound (1957), War Drums (1957), Darby’s Rangers (1958), China Doll (1958), and most memorably as murderess Anne Bancroft’s grief-stricken husband in The Girl in Black Stockings (1957).

Johnny Trouble (1957), for Warners, cast Whitman as a former Marine whom lonely Ethel Barrymore is sure is her long-lost son. For his first leading role, Variety, again, praised “the interesting newcomer’s . . . showy promise.”

Whitman had his finest screen exposure up to that time as a low-life trumpet player in Ten North Frederick (1958), his first film under contract to 20th Century-Fox. Ruth Waterbury in the Los Angeles Examiner noted, “A very special bow due Stuart Whitman as a lad from the wrong side of the tracks . . . keep your eye on this man . . . he’s headed nowhere but up!”

After The Decks Ran Red (1958) and These Thousand Hills (1958), he appeared in the screen version of the William Faulkner novel, The Sound and the Fury (1959), a story about the decay of a family in the Deep South. He vividly enacted a cowardly carnival roustabout, about whom the Los Angeles Examiner wrote, “Whitman’s isn’t a pleasant character, but he plays it with a male dominance that makes Joanne Woodward’s (unfortunate) attraction to him seem perfectly natural.” The Hollywood Citizen-News noted, “Whitman plays a romantically inclined rogue with considerable magnetism.”

Hound-Dog Man (1959) was an enjoyable, likable homespun comedy-drama with Fabian starring in the title role. Howard Thompson in the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Whitman, the most realistic hillbilly here, steals the picture as a strutting, happy, lusty extrovert.” The Saturday Review agreed, calling Whitman, “The Real Star of this picture, with his persuasive portrait of a marriage-shy bachelor.” Variety praised his “great vitality,” claiming his was “the film’s most interesting role.”

Whitman was “very happy” to replace Stephen Boyd, in the role of Boaz, in the Biblical film The Story of Ruth (1960). Boyd had liked the script, but felt he “could bring little” to that role; Whitman, on the other hand, said, “This gives me my first chance to display warmth and a spiritual side. I’m proud to be in this, because I’ve played four heels in a row!” James Powers (The Hollywood Reporter) wrote: “Whitman is the most commanding actor in this, moving with dash and authority.” Elana Eden was well-cast as Ruth, and Viveca Lindfors as a sometimes sinister, sometimes amusing Pagan high priestess, Peggy Wood as Ruth’s Hebrew mother-in-law, and Tom Tryon, as Ruth’s first tragic husband, were favorably reviewed.

Not as memorable, but still worthwhile, is The Fiercest Heart (1961), dealing with the Boer settlement of South Africa, amid violent native uprisings. Whitman received his first above-title billing as Steve Bates, a footloose fugitive from a South African stockade. He joins the Boer pioneers trekking to what they all hope is their “promised land.”

Lavish pageantry is the main attraction of the reverent but not always persuasive Francis of Assisi (1961), with Bradford Dillman in the title role, Dolores Hart (as a nun) and Stuart Whitman as Paolo, nobleman and close friend of Francis. Critic Philip K. Scheuer (The Los Angeles Times) wrote, “Dillman gains stature steadily in his role, but Stuart Whitman and Miss Hart seem to belong to a later time.”

Mr. Whitman’s next, the British-made The Mark (1961), really put him into the big league of motion pictures, for a short while at least. For his sensitive performance, he earned justifiable raves:

The Commonweal: “Whitman plays the ex-con with a strength and sensitivity he has NEVER displayed before.”

Playboy: “Mr. Whitman fulfills the promise he flashed in some Hollywood flim-flam with a dark, lonely, dignified performance.”

Ruth Waterbury (Los Angeles Examiner): “Whitman gives a wonderfully shaded, subtle, troubled performance.”

Abe Weiler (New York Times): “Whitman’s performance is largely laconic but he does convey the turmoil inherent in this physically strong but mentally-sensitive man.”

Lawrence H. Lipskin (The Hollywood Reporter): “Mr. Whitman turns in a superbly-shaded performance as one who subtly, slowly emerges from a deeply-felt insecurity to some semblance of virile dignity.”

Whitman would garner his only Oscar nomination for The Mark. At the time, screenplay author Sidney Buchman humorously wired the actor: “Clean yourself off! You may win an Oscar!” But Whitman later said, “I couldn’t get anyone at my studio to see it!” Shortly after Whitman’s Oscar nomination, syndicated columnist Sheilah Graham wrote, “If Whitman wins this award, I hope he will stand on that stage and say, ‘I did it all myself . . . I don’t have to thank anyone!’ This actor reached this height not only unaided, but with a personal campaign that cost him money and heart-breaking effort!”

In The Mark he plays a convicted sex offender trying to battle his dark urges with the help of his new girlfriend (Maria Schell) and a sympathetic psychiatrist (Rod Steiger). The subject matter was very touchy, and it could be argued that it did not help him in the long run, despite the fact that the Oscar nom cemented his reputation as a serious actor. Regrettably, he was never to have another such artistic success in films. Enough praise cannot be lavished on the brilliant director, Guy Green, who flawlessly helmed this truly memorable 127-minute film, and guided Whitman in his finest screen performance.

Next, he turned to the excellent, action-packed Western The Commancheros (1961), playing opposite John Wayne as a gambler. This lively actioner earned him good reviews: “Whitman, with his usual grace and solidity, gives strength and charm to this fugitive New Orleans aristocrat,” reported James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter. Michael Curtiz directed, neatly bringing out all the humor inherent in the fine screenplay by James E. Grant and Clair Huffaker. Whitman would appear again with Wayne the next year in the star-studded WWII epic The Longest Day (1962).

Next came Convicts 4 (1962), in which Mr. Whitman played a most humane, progressive prison warden, staunch supporter of the real-life convict-artist John Resko (Ben Gazzara) who won a reprieve from death row. Whitman plays his role skillfully, but audience attention was largely given to Gazzara, Ray Walston, Vincent Price and Broderick Crawford, in this film expertly directed by Millard Kaufman.

Far better for Whitman was The Day and the Hour (1963), in which he plays an American pilot downed in Nazi-occupied France; Simone Signoret plays a courageous Frenchwoman who helps Whitman cross the border into neutral Spain. Variety observed, “Whitman has the spontaneous charm to give dash to his role,” while John G. Houser (Los Angeles Herald Examiner) noted, “Whitman turns in a physically hard and commendable performance [which has] the toughness and the interesting moodiness and intelligence to be credible throughout.”

At first, Whitman thought he would intensely dislike working with Signoret who seemed to delight in insulting the actor, calling him (and other American actors) “too domesticated, like sheep-dogs!” She sneered at his approach to their love scenes. Whitman wanted “to choke her, but I was determined that this was one Frenchwoman who would learn that American men are not like that!” Happily, once Signoret realized that he was far more professional than she had at first believed, she began to act more professional herself and became more agreeable. Whitman despised her foolish behavior, but generously stated, “Simone is a great actress, and all woman! With that combination, a man just has to make concessions.”

Whitman was announced to film the life story of boxer Gene Tunney, but the film was never made. Instead, he starred in Shock Treatment (1964). Although it could have been a better film, Whitman gave an excellent performance, one of his all-around best. In this, Whitman plays an out-of-work actor who is persuaded to fake mental illness, enter an asylum and become friendly with a man (Roddy McDowall) who may have hidden a million-dollar fortune belonging to a murdered elderly woman. Variety punned that “Whitman is not on ‘The Mark’ here but gives it the old college-try.” On the other hand, The Hollywood Reporter thought he performed “handsomely.”

Consistently lively and entertaining, Rio Conchos (1964), a Gordon Douglas-directed Western, had Whitman totally sympathetic as a cavalryman burdened with two convicts supposedly trying to help him track down a load of rifles before they can be delivered to renegade Indians. Whitman once told an interviewer, “Rio Conchos was the most difficult film I’ve ever done,” and one can well believe this after seeing the grisly, horses-and-rope scene required of him, Richard Boone and Jim Brown.

The British-made Signpost to Murder (1964) had Whitman as a man wrongly accused of murdering his wife; he escapes from an asylum for the criminally insane and takes refuge in a woman’s (Joanne Woodward) home. Though it drew etched-in-acid reviews, Films & Filming thought that “By underplaying, Whitman registers strongly.”

Next came a hit film. The comic spectacular Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) proved enormously popular and deservedly so. The extravaganza dealt with a 1910 air race between London and Paris and was full of splendid scenes of aerial hijinks.

Although not overly-popular, Sands of the Kalahari (1965), filmed in what was then British Southwest Africa, is a riveting adventure yarn. Whitman plays a seemingly civilized adventurer who rapidly degenerates after he and his fellow passengers crash land in the desert and struggle for survival. To make matters worse, they are menaced by baboons who are so convincingly scary that some critical wags claimed this film “makes monkeys of all the actors.”

George Peppard originally was cast in Sands of the Kalahari, and worked two days on the film before he ducked out, leaving producer Joseph E. Levine scrambling for a replacement. Whitman made a very strong bid for the role, but the producer at first showed no interest. Whitman later told columnist Louella Parsons, “I got Joe Levine on the phone and said, ‘You’ve promised me a role for years! You promised me Jonas Cord in The Carpetbaggers; and then Nevada Smith! I don’t care how big you are or how much bigger you get—if I don’t get Kalahari, I’ll never work for you!’ The next day I was told the role was mine and I flew out immediately for Africa.”

An American Dream (1966) was, in many ways, far superior to the bestselling novel on which it was based. Whitman, as a prominent newscaster-muckraker, had his best role in far too long. The Chicago Tribune thought he “effectively conveys this complex character” and Abe Greenberg (Hollywood Citizen-News) found him “believable in an incredible role, and his performance is testimony to his ability as an actor.”

Next Whitman made the move to series television. He already had done quite a lot of TV work in the 1950s, including a stint as a highway patrolman in the popular long-running series Highway Patrol starring Broderick Crawford. In the 1967-8 season, he returned to the small screen in a big way for what probably is his best-remembered role today as U.S. Marshal Jim Crown in Cimarron Strip. Whitman also produced this series of 90-minute Western programs on CBS-TV, and it was so good that it should have run for more than just one season. As a result of his work in this and other Westerns, he would receive a Silver Spur Award at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, on October 12, 2007, for his work in the genre.

Over the years, Whitman appeared in many other TV productions, including Dr. Christian, Zane Grey Theatre, The Roy Rogers Show, Death Valley Days, Time Trax, Superboy, Murder, She Wrote, Hotel, Hardcastle and McCormick, Tales from the Darkside, Cover-Up, Fantasy Island, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Most Wanted, Quincy M.E., Harry O, Ellery Queen, S.W.A.T., The F.B.I., Night Gallery, Cannon, Hec Ramsey, Ghost Story, Police Story, The Streets of San Francisco, Mr. Adams and Eve, Have Gun-Will Travel, Knots Landing, The Color of Evening, and many others. Typical of other actors of his generation, he worked often on the small screen early on. Then as he built his career, he worked in big budget theatrical films. But as movie attendance declined and TV viewership grew, he would find himself working more and more on the small screen in the last phase of his career.

Although his was a small role, Variety noted that he gave his part in the movie Jailbird (1969) “an estranged, painful air in keeping with his symbolical meaning.” Also favorably reviewed were Sterling Hayden, Susan Strasberg, Maureen McNally and Andrew Hayden.

Only moderately effective as drama is The Man Who Wanted to Live Forever (1970), an ABC-TV Movie of the Week, about a brilliant heart surgeon (Burl Ives) who hopes to have the heart of one Dr. Purvis (Whitman) to replace his own faulty one. Naturally, the Whitman character does not care for this idea, so he and a doctor, played by Sandy Dennis, escape from Ives’ Canadian mountain retreat. The best part of this film is their superbly photographed escape on skis.

The lively, colorful adventure film The Invincible Six (1970) focused on six fugitives who save a small village (in Teheran) from savage bandits and are reformed in the process. The Last Escape (1970), filmed in Munich, deals with Allied efforts during World War II to smuggle a German missile scientist out of Soviet territory. Though breaking no new ground, this film progressed very well until an absurd climax. Whitman performs intelligently and with great vigor as the commander (disguised as a Nazi officer) in charge of this operation. City Beneath the Sea (TV, 1971) cast Whitman as Admiral Matthews, whose no-good brother (Robert Wagner) is involved in this futuristic sci-fi about the 2053 City of Pacifica; conflict involves nuclear reactors.

Around this time, Whitman told British newsman William Otterheim-Hall, “I left Hollywood because it was getting to be a mad mess! There are only about two really good scripts going around and they always go to the industry’s two top stars. I thought that in Europe, something better might come my way—and it did! I’ve made mistakes in the past, but I kept bouncing back. I always thought that an actor is destined to act, but I now realize that if you do one role well, you get stuck with it!” It was a very perceptive statement; one that seemed to define Stuart Whitman’s career on film.

Whitman had trouble maintaining the status he had in Hollywood in the ‘60s, but he made up for that with hard work and a consistent work load of films. He did Captain Apache (1971), a spoof on Western-spoofs; Revenge (TV, 1971), a thrilling tale about a mad woman (Shelley Winters), a well above-average thriller; Walt Disney’s Run, Cougar, Run (1972), shown in two parts on Disney’s Sunday TV program; Night of the Lepus (1972), a horror film hardly worth the name and talents of Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh and Rory Calhoun; and The Man Who Died Twice (1973), which focuses on an artist (lost at sea, seven years earlier), who lives an indolent, drunken life in Spain.

Whitman then appeared in a series of quality TV movies, appearing with other former stars: The Woman Hunter (1972), The Cat Creature (1973); and Intertect (1973), in which Whitman plays an FBI agent who helps London “Intertect” agent Bernard Fox rescue the kidnapped young son of Pamela Franklin and her husband, Robert Reed.

The mid-1970s onward saw Stuart appearing in such films as Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Las Vegas Lady (1975), The Billion Dollar Fire (1976), Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), Call Him Mr. Shatter (1976, but filmed two years earlier), Shadows in an Empty Room (1976), Ruby (1977), The White Buffalo (1977), Eaten Alive (1977), The Ransom (1977), Run for the Roses (1977), and many others.

Although Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979) was called “smutty and sleazy,” critic Vincent Canby noted: “Of this cast, only Mr. Whitman makes any sense. He is effective enough to make one wonder what might have been accomplished with a script and director [Rene Cardona Jr.] bold enough to aspire to mere adequacy.” Of his role in this, Whitman stated, “This part really got to me! I don’t think there has even been a more evil man portrayed on film! When I wasn’t having nightmares, I just couldn’t sleep at all. People who knew Jim Johnson are shocked at how closely I resemble him. There aren’t that many actors in Hollywood who come that close, physically to Johnson . . . I really think he was a worthwhile person when he started out; he was doing some positive things for the needy and the poor . . . then he became possessed by his power and it turned him into a monster!” [Editor’s Note: Whitman is referring here to the man whose story inspired the Guyana movie, Jim Jones, a communist-turned-preacher who perpetrated one of the worst slaughters in history by ordering the suicide of 900 of his followers at his Jonestown settlement in Guyana in 1978. Whitman refers to Jones as “Johnson” because that was the character’s name in the Guyana movie.]

By the 1980s Whitman began to see a decline in the quality of his roles in such films as Cuba Crossing (1980), The Monster Club (1980), and Magnum Thrust (1981). Possibly Whitman’s most interestingly offbeat casting was as a Roman Catholic priest in Demonoid: Messenger of Death (1981). Sometimes suggestive of The Exorcist, this suspenser dealt with excavators plagued by “The Devil’s Hand.” Although not a distinguished production, it at least provided Whitman with a meaty, intriguing role.

In November 1981 Whitman played the dissolute actor Frank Elgin in a Los Angeles stage revival of Clifford Odets’ classic The Country Girl. Daily Variety wrote, “Whitman suitably plays the drunken Elgin, giving the character a sense of longing under his cruel lies, while Robert Maine is strong as director Bernie Dodd, [but] had Elizabeth Sanders been able to capture the enigmatic spirit and determination of her title role as Georgie Elgin, this might have been much better.”

It is greatly to be regretted that such fine talents as Stuart Whitman, James Franciscus, Orson Welles, and Lois Nettleton are involved in Butterfly (1982). Ostensibly a vehicle for the short-lived career of Pia Zadora, this thinly-veiled tale of incest involving father (Stacy Keach) and daughter (Zadora) has Whitman in a single scene as Rev. Rivers, a hellfire-and-damnation preacher.

His next films, many going straight to video, gave him relatively short parts: Deadly Intruder (1985), The Treasure of the Amazon (1985), First Strike (1985), Deadly Reactor (1989), Omega Cop (1990), Mob Boss (1990), Improper Conduct (1995), Second Chances (1998) and, his last to date, The President’s Man (TV, 2000). He was better served in the ‘90s on episodic television, where he made himself a presence.

Whitman once observed: “I get a lot of mail from young guys who want to become actors and ask how to do it . . . I wish I could give them a tried-and-true formula (which no one has ever had). But the real word is, ‘WORK!’ Pursue acting, yes! But have something else to fall back on, during lean times. I washed cars, was a carpenter’s helper, delivered packages for the post office at Christmas time, have sold newspapers and magazines, driven a cab, and the first dollar I ever earned was as a dishwasher for a funny little cafe in Venice, California.

“I’ve often heard that The Star System is defunct, so much so that this has become a cliche! Since there are now so few actors under studio contract, a performer must use his own devices, to build his image! I read somewhere that Joan Crawford still takes three hours to prepare her make-up, hair and wardrobe—even just to go to the supermarket. God bless her, and rightly so! She is still the Queen of them all, to her fans.”

Although Whitman put a lot of thought and energy into acting, he was also a smart and gifted investor. Over the years, he amassed a personal fortune, mostly from real estate, running into tens of millions of dollars. This, in part, might explain why he accepted less prestigious roles later in his career since he certainly did not need the money. Meanwhile, he simply learned to content himself with working at his craft, no matter the size of the role.

As his career wound down, he became less recognizable to the younger generation, despite his large body of work. Once, he confided to a friend that when applying for an upcoming role, he found himself face to face with a very young woman who began the job interview by saying, “Now, Mr. Whiteman [sic], tell me what you’ve done.” To anyone with a good knowledge of film and TV in the last half of the 20th century, that question is a shocking—but all too common—proof of the ephemeral nature of the business.

For those of us who do care about the actor’s craft, the name Stuart Whitman remains well known and respected. Thanks to his unique combination of skillful acting, rugged physique, and sensitive, intelligent face, he was able to make a strong impression on a legion of fans who, to this day, appreciate the sterling performances he has given us on film and television.