“I can’t figure you out. You’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other,” a puzzled Jed Towers tells the deranged young woman who caught his eye. The film, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952); the stars, Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe. Widmark, who died today at the age of 93, might have been describing his screen persona: abrasive and easily frayed if you rubbed him the wrong way. There is another side, as well, to Widmark’s career as an actor. He started out being all voice, invisible to his audience. He was an established radio actor who hit the big time in pictures with his breakout performance in 1947 with Kiss of Death (revived on the air in this Lux Radio Theatre production from 12 January 1948).
Widmark (shown here during a Theatre Guild broadcast, an image freely adapted from David R. Mackey’s Drama on the Air ) entered broadcasting in the late 1930s. By the early 1940s, he had made a name for himself in daytime serials (Front Page Farrell, Joyce Jordan, MD) and proven his versatility in a number of plays produced by the prestigious Columbia Workshop. On Words at War, he was the narrator of “Gunners Get Glory” (9 May 1944), a dramatized account of a merchant ship torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. He was frequently featured on Cavalcade of America (here, for instance, in “The Man with the Cargo of Water” [12 September 1950]), Inner Sanctum Mysteries (in thrillers like “Make Ready My Grave” [23 April 1946]), and Suspense, where he was cast as “Mate Bram” (14 April 1952) in a chilling true-crime story of an amnesiac serial killer on the high seas who contemplates the horrors of the deed he cannot recall committing:
They put me in irons, locked in my own quarters. And here I’ll stay. There’ve been no more murders in the three days past, which does not stand in favor of another killer being aboard, and my being innocent. What I’ve written, my good friend, is the whole truth [. . .]. In my own mind, I am not convinced that I am guilty. For one reason, that however violent I’ve been, I have never killed before . . . before! Never . . . killed . . . before!
A few months later, after his performance in ”How Long Is the Night” (13 October 1952) Widmark was presented with the first annual “Golden Mike” award, being named “best actor” of 1951 by his peers, the regular radio performers who supported the guest stars on Suspense.
Like most film stars of the 1950s, Widmark continued to make occasional return trips to the broadcasting studio in adaptations of Hollywood movies (such as this Hollywood Soundstage production of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” [24 January 1952]); but aside from such standard fare, he was also heard in prominent parts of literary distinction, including the roles of anti-hero Winston Smith in an adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on the Theatre Guild program (26 April 1953) and Iago in a two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello that aired on Suspense (4 May and 11 May 1953).
In 1979, long after radio drama had become pretty much a thing of the past, or at any rate a marginal and neglected field of the performing arts in American culture, Widmark once more returned to the medium in which his acting career originated, performing in a number of plays soundstaged by the Sears Radio Theatre. Listening to his voice—”silk on one side and sandpaper on the other”—you can easily figure out why he was truly at home behind the microphone . . .