Richard Widmark, Dead at 93

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Hollywood actor Richard Widmark, who became an overnight star for his portrayal of a psychopathic killer in 1947 classic "Kiss of Death," has died after a long illness, US media reported Wednesday.

Widmark died at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut on Monday aged 93, his wife Susan Blanchard told The New York Times.

Blanchard told the paper that the actor's health had declined after he suffered a fractured verterbra in recent months.

Widmark made more than 60 films in a career that spanned five decades which saw him carve out a reputation for playing villains and tough guys.

But it was his debut Oscar-nominated performance as the gangster Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" that was to be his most memorable role.

The film features a chilling scene where Widmark's character ties up an old lady in a wheelchair with a piece of cord and then shoves her down a flight of stairs to her death, as her killer cackles dementedly.

Born in Minnesota on December 26, 1914, Widmark grew up in Princeton, Illinois, and after finishing high school attended Lake Forest College on a scholarship, where he studied drama.

He taught acting after graduation, directing and starring in several college productions before heading to New York in 1938 to work in radio dramas. With the outbreak of World War II, Widmark repeatedly tried to enlist but was turned down three times because of a perforated eardrum.

Instead of going to war, Widmark found himself on Broadway, starring in his first stage play in 1943 in "Kiss and Tell", where ironically he played an army lieutenant.

A further role in the controversial play "Trio," which was closed after 67 shows because of its sexual themes, earned Widmark glowing reviews and alerted Hollywood to his talents.

His big break came in the gangster flick "Kiss of Death." Director Henry Hathaway had initially rejected Widmark for the role of Udo, but the film-maker was overruled by Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox.

Film critics described Widmark's performance in the film as one of the scariest ever seen on screen.

The success of "Kiss of Death" earned Widmark a long-term contract with Fox, and over the course of seven years with the studio he became known for playing psychotic villains in films such as 1948's "The Street with No Name" and "Road House."

Anxious to avoid being typecast, Widmark badgered his studio bosses to allow him to play other parts, and he was granted his wish with 1949's "Down to the Sea in Ships", where he played a sailor on a whaling ship.

Yet even when not playing villains, Widmark's characters had a flawed quality, as evidenced in 1949's "Slattery's Hurricane" where he played a world-weary pilot who flies a plane for drug smugglers.

Another notable role came in Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning film noir, "Panic in the Streets," where he starred alongside Jack Palance as the police officer attempting to track down a killer infected with bubonic plague.

After leaving Fox, Widmark chose to work outside the studio system for the remainder of his career, appearing in several westerns and social dramas.

Notable later films included a role alongside John Wayne in 1960's "The Alamo" and a memorable performance as a prosecutor in "Judgement at Nuremberg," where he shined amid an all-star cast.

Widmark also worked with legendary director John Ford in two westerns, 1961's "Two Rode Together" and 1964's "Cheyenne Autumn."

Widmark's last movie role came in the 1991 political thriller "True Colors."

Widmark was married to his first wife Jean Hazlewood from April 1942 until her death in March 1997. The couple had one child, a daughter. Widmark married Susan Blanchard, Henry Fonda's third wife, in September 1999.