Sunday, February 08, 2009


Great actors often don't become huge stars. But their work always enhances the material they perform, making everyone around them look better -- sometimes much better than they deserve.

Great actors often don't get much publicity either. They don't make good tabloid fodder because the discipline and professionalism they bring to their craft usually imbues the rest of their lives. They're often generous, courteous and aware that everybody on a set has a contribution to make. Perhaps they've just extended the first lesson they teach in theatre school -- there are no small parts, only small actors.

One of the greats made his final exit this week. James Whitmore was the kind of actor other actors looked to when they needed an example of excellence. His work was always impeccable, precise and perfectly nuanced. Like a martial arts master, there was never an once of wasted energy, never a moment when an expression or inflection could be interpreted to have a different meaning.

Whitmore learned his craft in the theatre, debuting on Broadway in 1947 and winning a Tony award in his first professional role. He made his film debut in 1949's "Battleground" receiving a Supporting Actor nomination for that first performance.

From there he never stopped working and appeared in everything from literate classics to schlock where he battled giant ants to one of the most bizarre and riveting films ever to come out of a Hollywood studio, 1950's "The Next Voice You Hear".

He moved seamlessly from films to live and then series television, never considering whether or not his choices might impact the audience's perception of his marquee value or his salary quote.

To Whitmore all those showbiz sideshows had nothing to do with acting -- which they don't. His concern was simply to deliver a believable performance each and every time out. And he never failed in that regard.

Rather than relax between films, Whitmore returned to the theatre at every opportunity, joining the Peterborough Players, where he'd gotten his amateur start, for a summer stock performance virtually every single summer of his professional life.

He also mounted and performed a series of one-man shows, sometimes performing them after a day's shooting or whenever he had a day off. These were always about American heroes he personally admired, Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1975, the Truman show was filmed as "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" winning Whitmore another Oscar nomination, the only one ever made in recognition of an actor who was a film's lone character.

There's no better example of the practiced precision of a great actor's work than almost any of James Whitmore's performances. So I've put together a short double feature for this week's video offering. The first clip is the opening scene from "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" (the entire film is available on Youtube). And the second is his final moments as Brooks in "The Shawshank Redemption".

I hope you'll appreciate just how good this guy was. And enjoy your Sunday.

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