James Whitmore: Versatile actor at home both as the tough guy and in comedy

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The Independent Online

James Whitmore was an excellent character actor who featured in many films, and a fine stage actor, particularly in one-man shows in which he depicted the lives of Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt. Short and stocky, with a marked resemblance to Spencer Tracy, Whitmore rarely had to carry a film, but he was an occasional leading man in such films as The Next Voice You Hear and Them!

Adept at both tough-guy roles (usually with a soft interior) and light comedy, he visibly enjoyed himself when given the chance to mug as an unthreatening gangster in the musical Kiss Me Kate, and he will be warmly recalled by younger film-goers for his touching portrayal of an elderly inmate unable to contemplate resuming life on the outside in the prison movie The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

He was twice nominated for an Academy Award, first for his supporting performance in his second film, Battleground (1949), and then for his later big-screen recreation of his one-man show Give 'em Hell, Harry (1975) based on the life of Harry Truman. Though he did not win the Oscar, he established a record as the only actor to be nominated for a film in which he was the only player. As well as having a prolific career, he was a devoted family man (although he had three wives) who took an active interest in politics. Last year he campaigned vigorously for Barack Obama.

Born James Allen Whitmore in New York in 1921, he was raised in Buffalo, where his father was chairman of the city's Park Commission, a post he held until the age of 92. Educated initially at the private Choate School, he gained a football scholarship to Yale University, where he abandoned his plan to become a lawyer after acting in college theatrical productions and co-founding the University's radio station.

When the US entered the Second World War, Whitmore joined the Marines before graduation, and received his degree while training. During his service, he toured the South Pacific with the United Service Organization, and after the war he appeared in repertory in New Hampshire, then used the GI Bill to study acting at the American Theatre Wing in New York.

He made his Broadway debut auspiciously, winning a Tony Award as best newcomer for his portrayal of a cynical, wise-cracking sergeant in Command Decision (1947). In his first film, The Undercover Man (1949), he was an assistant and comic foil to a tax detective (Glenn Ford), after which he was signed by MGM. The studio had already filmed Command Decision, with Van Johnson in Whitmore's original role, but he was cast as another sergeant (after Spencer Tracy turned the part down) in William Wellman's Battleground (1949), for which he received his first Oscar nomination. He then played the hunchback who joins Sterling Hayden's criminal gang in John Huston's riveting account of a robbery, The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

In the same year, he was given his first top-billed role as an "ordinary" working man (his character is billed as "Joe Smith, American") in William Wellman's controversial The Next Voice You Hear. A pet project of the producer Dore Schary, who was to take over MGM, it starred Whitmore and the future First Lady Nancy Davis (later Reagan) as a couple who, along with the rest of the world, hear the voice of God on the radio advising them how to live their lives. Wellman, who disliked "message" films, later stated that he accepted the film "because I knew I could do it in three weeks and they had never made a film at MGM in three weeks. There was an ego thing in it."

Whitmore also had a starring role opposite Marjorie Main in a comedy thriller Mrs O'Malley and Mr Malone (1950), in which they played two quirky characters thrown together on a train journey, during which they team up to solve a murder. Planned as the first of a series, it unfortunately lacked the zany charm it strived for and there were no sequels.

Whitmore displayed his comic flair more pertinently in two musicals. In Because You're Mine (1952), he was a sergeant delighted to have a famous opera singer (Mario Lanza) as a recruit, and a comic highlight of the film was his operatic duet with the tenor. In Kiss Me Kate (1953), filmed in 3-D, he and Keenan Wynn played two colourful gangsters who delivered the show-stopping duet, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". Though obviously not a dancer, Whitmore's energetic attempts are beguiling, and Wynn unselfishly lets him steal the number.

In 1954 he moved to Warner Bros, where he was top-billed in Them! as a state trooper in New Mexico who joins a scientist (Edmund Gwenn) to quell the army of giant ants which have been spawned by atomic testing. The Fifties produced many films about monstrous aberrations caused by man's use of nuclear power, but Them! was arguably the best, a beautifully constructed piece that grips from the opening shots of a distraught little girl wandering in the desert clutching a ragged doll, and Whitmore provided its human centre as a decent man who makes the ultimate sacrifice.

The producers of his next film, the musical Oklahoma! (1955), proudly stated that all the actors in the film sang with their own voices, and Whitmore took effective part in the number "The Farmer and the Cowman". He was a sergeant yet again in Battle Cry (1955), and was a reliable best friend to Alan Ladd in The McConnell Story in the same year.

He took the part of Tyrone Power in The Eddy Duchin Story in 1956 and was also a conscientious social worker in Don Siegel's depiction of juvenile delinquency, Crime in the Streets. Later, Whitmore was expert with a knife in Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and in Black Like Me (1964) he starred as a reporter who alters his skin colour with drugs in order to experience racial prejudice in the south.

Between films, Whitmore returned to his first love, the stage, appearing frequently at California's La Jolla Playhouse in such works as The Rainmaker (1954), The Skin of Our Teeth (1957) and Summer of the 17th Doll (1958). He returned to Broadway to star with Dorothy McGuire in Winesburg, Ohio (1959), based on Sherwood Anderson's famous novel, but it ran for only 13 performances.

He was a prolific guest star on television, although he turned down most offers of a series (including Gunsmoke). Later film roles included the initial Planet of the Apes (1968), in which (with simian costume) he was president of the assembly; Madigan (1968), as the chief police inspector; and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) as Admiral Halsey. But the stage became his main outlet as the years passed. In the mid-Sixties he toured with Barbara Barrie in a concert reading of Walt Whitman's The Leaves of Grass, after which he scored an enormous success throughout the country with his one-man show, Will Rogers' U.S.A. After the acclaimed tour, an abbreviated version was televised in 1972, and Whitmore also recorded a double LP of the show.

Whitmore was to have an even greater success with another one-man show, Give 'em Hell, Harry (1975), wittily written by Samuel Gallu, in which he gave an uncannily accurate depiction of the former President Harry S Truman. When the show was expertly filmed by its director, Steve Binder, who shot two performances at a Seattle theatre and edited them into one piece, it gained Whitmore his second Oscar nomination. His spirited, touching and humorous display of acting has become a teaching tool for young performers.

Give 'em Hell, Harry was followed by a solo show based on the life of Theodore Roosevelt titled Bully (1978), but it had less popular appeal than its predecessors. In 1994, Whitmore, thinner and grizzled, played the prison librarian who, after nearly a lifetime's imprisonment, cannot deal with the prospect of freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. He also won an Emmy Award as outstanding guest-actor for his appearance in The Practice (2000).

In 2003, at the age of 82, he gave a vigorous, Emmy-nominated portrayal of a senator's father in the TV series Mister Sterling, and in 2007 he acted in a CSI episode titled "Ending Happy". The same year, he publicly endorsed Obama for President, and in 2008 he appeared in television commercials for the First Freedom First campaign that promoted the separation of church and state and the protection of religious liberty. One of his sons, James Whitmore Jnr, is a successful television director and actor.

James Whitmore, actor: born White Plains, New York 1 October 1921; married 1947 Nancy Nygatt (three sons, marriage dissolved), 1972 Audra Lindley (marriage dissolved), 1979 Nancy Nygatt (remarriage, marriage dissolved), 2001 Noreen Nash; died Malibu, California 6 February 2009.