James Whitmore, the versatile character actor well-known for his appearances in films like Battleground (1949), Them! (1954) and Shawshank Redemption (1994) passed away in Los Angeles on Friday, February 6th. He was 87.
Whitmore was born on October 1, 1921 near White Plains, NY, a son to Florence Crane and James Allen Whitmore, Sr., a park commission official. He was an active boy during his school days, playing school sports and performing in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. His strict Methodist parents disapproved of his ambition for acting but were unsuccessful in confining him.
Whitmore’s acting career spanned six decades and included dozens of films, countless television shows and a handful of Broadway credits, including his solo efforts.
He attended Yale University, studying pre-law on a football scholarship, but two knee injuries ended his football career. Whitmore redirected his attentions on acting and joined the Yale Drama School Players. His insatiable desire for acting prompted him to perform in many school dramas and he later helped found the Yale radio station. After graduation, he served with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II.
Upon his discharge, he studied acting on the G.I. Bill at the prestigious American Theatre Wing. Whitmore debuted onstage in New Hampshire in the play “The Milky Way,” but quickly moved to Broadway. His acclaimed performance as cynical Army Air Forces sergeant Ted Evans in Broadway’s “Command Decision” earned many accolades, including Drama Desk and Theatre World Awards, and a coveted Tony Award for outstanding performance as a newcomer.
Whitmore’s swift Broadway success secured him a contract with movie studio giant MGM, and he headed West after execs expressed interest in a film version of the play. The film opened the following year (1948), but without Whitmore repeating his stage triumph. Reliable box office talent Van Johnson was instead awarded the favored role. Whitmore made his screen debut in a prime role in 1949’s The Undercover Man, an off-balance crime-noir starring Glenn Ford. His second appearance soon followed, in the austere and complicated World War II picture Battleground (1949). The entertaining film, also starring Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban, was a solid hit for MGM, grabbing four Oscar nominations, including a “supporting actor” nod for Whitmore’s convincing turn as a war-weary sergeant. He earned further critical notice the following year with work in the films The Asphalt Jungle and The Next Voice You Hear.
This surprise achievement assured Whitmore’s position in Hollywood, but for much of the 1950s and 1960s his employment was punctuated by featured and character roles. His acting skills cut across numerous genres, including sprawling musicals (Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma), science fiction (Planet of the Apes (1968), as President of the Assembly), low-key Westerns (1956’s The Last Frontier, starring Victor Mature), and well-wrought dramas (John Huston’s scorching noir, 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle; 1952’s Above and Beyond; the 1970 World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora!).
Whitmore also occasionally landed memorable starring roles. Battling giant mutant ants alongside James Arness and Edmund Gwenn in Gordon Douglas’ masterfully done sci-fi/Cold War paranoia film, Them! (1954) – Warner Bros’. highest-grossing film of year, Whitmore’s combination of composure and authority as New Mexico state trooper Ben Peterson was almost as big as the aforementioned ants. He also executed a notable performance in his favorite film, Black Like Me (1964), as a white journalist who disguises himself as a black man investigating prejudice in the racially segregated South.
Film offers were becoming scarce by the early 60’s, so Whitmore chose to often appear on television in reputable series like “Gunsmoke” and “The Virginian.” He could also be seen starring in the series “The Law and Mr. Jones” (1960-1962), “My Friend Tony” (1969) and “Temperatures Rising” (1972-1973). But perhaps his most memorable turn was in “On Thursday We Leave For Home,” a Twilight Zone episode long considered as one of the show’s greatest. As the leader of an interplanetary colony, he helplessly falls apart as the colony’s strict disciplinary rule unravels with the promise of a return trip to Earth.
During the 1970s, Whitmore gave three solo stage performances that underlined his ability reveal the personal and historical nuances of memorable figures. In “Will Rogers’ U.S.A” (1974), the first of these one-man shows, he brought the homespun humorist to vibrant life on Broadway, his only props being a cowboy hat, a rope and a cheekful of chewing gum. The following year he took to the stage as an outspoken President Truman in “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” The show was promptly filmed, and Whitmore received his second Oscar nomination, this time for best actor. To this date, he still holds the distinctive honor of being the only person ever to be given an Academy Award nomination for a film in which they were the only cast member. A few years later Whitmore again captivated audiences, accurately capturing the gruff mannerisms of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1978’s “Bully”.
Throughout the following decades, Whitmore kept busy in television. An avid lover of gardening, Whitmore could be seen regularly by many television viewers as the pitchman for Miracle-Gro’s products and he even earned an Emmy for his work on television’s “The Practice.” Occasionally, he could be seen in smaller roles in big screen productions, and a young generation welcomed his unrelenting talent. As the longtime prison librarian who struggles to survive in the outside world in Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Whitmore embodied the role of Brooks Hatlen with heartfelt regret. However, his portrayal of the wise and kindly friend to Tim Robbins’ Andy sadly went unnoticed by the Academy that year.
Remaining modest about his own acting talent, Whitmore once told Palm Beach Post, “I never thought I was good. I’ve touched the hem of the garment a few times but never grabbed it full-hand.”
Whitmore was most recently embraced by the American public due to his undying championing of President Barack Obama and his support of the First Freedom First campaign, which advocated religious liberty and the separation of church and state in American politics.