James Whitmore died the other day and I selfishly thought, “There’s goes another irreplaceable actor that I will never get to meet.” The more I learned about Whitmore, the more it seems he might have been an irreplaceable human being.
Whitmore first entered my consciousness in a Twilight Zone episode that I saw at my grandparents apartment when I was ten years old. He portrayed a well-intentioned, but authoritative leader of a group of people who have been stuck for decades on a barren planet. When the group is able to return to Earth, Whitmore’s character mutates from putting the welfare of his people first to becoming frantic over what will become of him now that his mantle of leadership is removed. It was an amazing portrayal about the unintended outcome of power that left this kid absolutely stunned at the finale and thinking about it the next day… and beyond.
Through the years, I watched Whitmore battle giant ants in THEM!, fight the Battle of the Bulge in Battleground, try to reform John Cassavetes (good luck!) in Crime in the Streets and brush up his Shakespeare two-step with Keenan Wynn in Kiss Me Kate. I can’t remember the jillion episodic television shows he showed up in, but there were also all those cheery Miracle-Gro plant fertilizer commercials that somehow never managed to annoy me.
I am still waiting for Warners or whomever to cough up a print of Face of Fire that reportedly features one of Whitmore’s signature parts.
There were also his one man shows of Will Rogers, Harry Truman and FDR that comprised a unequalled Americana trifecta and his lump in the throat portrayal of the tragic Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption.
James Whitmore was a Yale graduate and a Marine WWII combat veteran (close combat, btw) who returned home to become an actor. He won the Tony Award for his first play, Command Decision and then had to stand by when Metro gave his part away to Van Johnson when they made the movie in 1948. Whitmore shrugged and went out and earned his first Academy Award nomination the next year for Battleground.
Whitmore was also politically active, showing up to emcee part of an Obama event as recently as last month after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was reportedly proudest of his work in Black Like Me a film that kicked up a lot of political dust and took guts in 1964.
I’ll always think of James Whitmore as Gus Manisi in The Asphalt Jungle. Even though he’s a hunchbacked crook who owns a greasy spoon, Manisi is easily the most honorable guy in the picture. When some Neanderthal truck driver makes a disparaging remark about his cat eating on the lunch counter, Whitmore gives him the bum’s rush out the door adding, “If I ever catch you running over a cat, I’ll kick your teeth in!” My kind of straight-up guy and a cat-lover to boot!
Manisi then tries to buck up his down and out pal, stick-up man Sterling Hayden who is a degenerate gambler down on his luck by offering to stake him to whatever money he has.
“Don’t get your flag at half-mast, you’ve always got old Gus.”
My flag is at half mast for James Whitmore. I’ll never get to meet him or see him in anything new, but there is always his great body of work on film which lives on.