Sunday, February 8, 2009

James Whitmore

One of the most prolific actors of his generation, Whitmore's theatrical career was launched when twin knee injuries sidelined his college football career (he attended Yale on a sports scholarship and was coached by future President Gerald Ford). After a stint in the military during WWII, he landed on Broadway in Command Decision and won a Tony. The project took him to Hollywood, and though he lost his role in the film version to Van Johnson, he soon picked up his first Oscar nomination for his early film Battleground (his performance won the Golden Globe that year).

Whitmore was never out of work, appearing in countless films and television programs. He starred in several short-lived series in the 60s, and on film, appeared in a wide variety of genres. His contract to MGM placed him in the unlikely position of introducing the novelty song "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, in a duet with another non-musical talent, Keenan Wynn:

In 1964, he took a rare starring role in Black Like Me, the filmed version of the non-fictional account of a white journalist who changed his skin pigment with medication and masqueraded as a black man in the south. The movie was his favorite film role:

His resonant voice and cinematic gravitas could not be buried under piles of make-up in the original sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, in which he played the President of the Assembly. Recent audiences know him best for his soulful performance as "Brooks" in the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption, in which he played the librarian who could not face the outside world. This appearance late in his career propelled him to high-profile roles on television, including a three-episode story arc on The Practice, for which he won an Emmy in 1999. He later received another Emmy nod playing Josh Brolin's father on the political series Mr. Sterling.

As with so many actors, Whitmore was most proud of his stage career, to which he returned over and over. He became known as the King of the One-Man Shows for a trio of performances throughout the 70s. As Will Rogers in 1970:

His 1977 performance as Teddy Roosevelt was less successful, but he is most famously remembered as Harry Truman in Give 'em Hell, Harry, a stage performance which is preserved on film. It brought him a second Academy Award nomination in 1975, and placed him in the history books as the only solo-actor in a movie to receive an Oscar nomination.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer late last year, but continued to maintain a television presence as the spokesperson for Miracle-Gro plant food. He died this week at the age of 87.