Joseph Wiseman: Actor of stage and screen who played the title role in the 1962 James Bond movie 'Dr. No'
Tuesday 27 October 2009
The Canadian actor Joseph Wiseman had a long career in which he gave distinguished performances on stage, screen and television, with particular success in roles of deception or villainy. With his gaunt demeanour, narrow eyes and thin lips, he conveyed an air of menace with an unsettling instability, and was rarely to be trusted.
In his first screen role, in Detective Story (1951), he repeated the role he had created on stage on Broadway, that of a highly-strung "four-time loser" being held in a police station but watching for the first opportunity to break free. But he will be remembered best for his portrayal of the title character in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). He was not the first choice for the role – Noël Coward had turned it down, allegedly replying, "Dr. No? No, no, no!" It was certainly not a large part – he does not appear until the film is more than half way through – but the character has by then been discussed often enough to provide a star build-up, and Wiseman does not disappoint when he arrives, giving a performance of chilling menace.
Born in Montreal in 1918, he moved to the US as a child, and made his stage debut at the age of 18 as Moses in Three Men on a Horse at the New Barn Theatre in Saugerties, New York. His Broadway debut came in 1938 as a soldier in Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographical drama, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, starring Raymond Massey as the young Lincoln.
Two small roles in Maxwell Anderson's biblical drama Journey to Jerusalem (1940), in which a young Sidney Lumet played the 12-year-old Jesus, preceded his portrayal of a Nazi officer in Anderson's Candle in the Wind (1941), which starred Helen Hayes as a French movie star who comes to acknowledge the value of love in the face of totalitarianism. Hayes later described it as Anderson's attempt to "shake America out of its complacency and to build support for Britain and France", but it was judged slow and talky, and it prompted Hayes' writer husband, Charles MacArthur, to comment, "No war was ever won by a bad play".
Another play by Anderson, Joan of Lorraine (1946), in which Wiseman played Father Massieu, was a much bigger hit, since the star was Ingrid Bergman at the height of her pre-Rossellini film fame. A Broadway production of Antony and Cleopatra (1947), starring Katharine Cornell and Godfrey Tearle, with Wiseman as the eunuch Mardian and Charlton Heston making his Broadway debut as Proculeius, was also a hit – the first time that Shakespeare's play had succeeded in New York.
Wiseman was then given the important role of Charlie, a psychopathic burglar and drug addict, in Sidney Kingsley's Detective Story (1949), set entirely in a New York police station where a collection of criminals are scrutinised by the fanatically idealistic and unforgiving plainclothes Detective McLeod (Ralph Bellamy). At the play's climax, Wiseman snatches a cop's gun, and McLeod, struggling with him to retrieve the weapon, is shot dead.
Wiseman stayed with the play for nearly a year, then was given one of his finest roles, that of the malevolent Iago-like schemer Juan de Escovedo in Kate O'Brien's That Lady (1949), which starred Katharine Cornell (with a decorative eye-patch) as the Princess of Ebolli in 16th-century Spain, and Henry Daniell as Philip II, who loves her but refuses to marry her as it would bring no political advantage. After playing Edmund to Louis Calhern's King Lear (1950), Wiseman went to Hollywood as one of the three original cast members of Detective Story to be retained by director William Wyler in his acclaimed screen version, along with Lee Grant as a neurotic shoplifter, and Horace McMahon as the officer in charge of the precinct. Wiseman was generally praised for his performance, though some critics suggested that Wyler should have toned down his manic hysteria for the cinema screen.
Having made his television debut in the 1950 drama With These Hands, Wiseman was to divide his career henceforth between films, stage and television. On screen he was the superbly Machiavellian schemer who betrays Marlon Brando's Zapata in Elia Kazan's stark biographical account of the Mexican revolutionary, Viva Zapata! (1952). He also played Genflou in Les Misérables (1952), a priest in The Silver Chalice (1954), a crafty beggar in The Prodigal (1955), a hoodlum in The Garment Jungle (1957), and was allowed to chew the scenery as a one-eyed evangelist in John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn. On Broadway, he played the homosexual gangster Eddie Fuselli in a 1952 revival of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy (Elia Kazan played the role in the original 1937 production), and was the Inquisitor to Julie Harris' Joan of Arc in Lillian Hellman's translation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark (1955), in which he also toured with Harris after a successful run in New York.
It was the producer Harry Saltzman who cast Wiseman as James Bond's sinister adversary, the half-German, half-Chinese Dr. Julius No, an appointment based on Wiseman's performance in Detective Story. With his black metal hands (having lost both hands in a radiation accident) in stark contrast to his white jacket, he made an indelible impression as the power-hungry member of SPECTRE, an organisation he describes as "headed by the greatest brains in the world". "Correction," replies Bond, "Criminal brains," to which No's retort is, "The successful criminal brain is always superior. It has to be!"
Wiseman later confessed that he was unaware when taking the part that it would have more impact than the other villains he had portrayed, and in fact feared that it might damage the reputation he had built up in the theatre. "I had no idea that it would achieve the success it did. I know nothing about mysteries. I don't take to them. As far as I was concerned, I thought it might be just another grade-B Charlie Chan mystery." Dr. No opened at the London Pavilion in October 1962, and was the first film in a franchise that is in its 47th year – Quantum of Solace was the 22nd film in the official series. Wiseman was billed third in Dr. No, after stars Sean Connery and Ursula Andress (as Honey Ryder, still considered the quintessential Bond girl), but did not appear in another film for six years.
He made his London stage debut in 1963, starring in Pirandello's Naked at the Royal Court Theatre with Diane Cilento, then returned to Broadway as a member of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, appearing in Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy (1964) as LeDuc, a Jewish psychotherapist. In 1969 he played the title role in In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer both in New York and Los Angeles, winning a Drama Desk award as best actor for his depiction of the nuclear physicist who was instrumental in developing the atom bomb, and who was later stripped of his security clearance and accused of being a communist because of his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb.
Later, Wiseman starred on Broadway in Enemies (1972) and The Tenth Man (1989). His sporadic screen roles included The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968), Lawman (1971) and The Betsy (1978), and his television appearances included guest roles in The Untouchables, Twilight Zone, Wagon Train and, most recently, Law and Order, along with dramatic productions including Macbeth, Billy Budd and Arrowsmith. He had a recurring role as a Sixties crime lord, Manny Weisbord, in the television serial drama Crime Story (1986-88). In 1994 he played off-Broadway in Tony Kushner's Slavs!, playing Prelapsarianov, "the world's oldest living Bolshevik".
Wiseman, who once said that he would prefer to be remembered for his stage work, acted for the last time (at the age of 83) in a Broadway production – an adaptation by Abby Mann of his screen drama Judgment at Nuremberg (2001), in which he played Dr Wickert, a witness for the prosecution. The following year he gave readings in a gala concert, Yiddish in America, at the New York Town Hall.
Joseph Wiseman, actor: born Montreal, Quebec 15 May 1918; married 1943 Nell Kennard (marriage dissolved, one daughter), 1964 Pearl Lang (died 2009); died New York 19 October 2009.
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