Sunday, July 23, 2006

Jack Warden - 1920-2006

I started working on this earlier today but I was basically forced to abandon it by other things I had to do. It gave me a little time to think about Jack Warden and his life and times. Another blogger with considerably better credentials than I described Jack Warden as a great character actor. I disagree with about two thirds of that statement - he wasn't a character actor so much as he was a supporting actor, of the sort who never stood out as the star but used to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars before it became populated with "second" stars in a movie or other stars doing a quick cameo, and was really about the guys who put together strong performances in secondary roles in movies, that was Jack Warden. Think about the movies he did: Shampoo (for which he won an Oscar nomination), Heaven Can Wait (another nomination), All The President's Men, Death On The Nile, And Justice For All, The Verdict and so on. Sure he did crap - more than his share in fact - but he was from a generation that came of age in the Depression and took roles because, well it was work.

Jack Warden had an interesting life before he got into acting. Born John H. Lebzelter in Newark New Jersey he was raised in Louisville Kentucky. Expelled from high school, either for fighting or as he sometimes said for being a professional boxer, he once fought on a card at Madison Square Garden along with an equally young Charles Durning. Boxing wasn't particularly lucrative so he joined the Navy in 1938, serving mostly with the Yangtse River Patrol in China. Leaving the Navy in 1941 he entered the Merchant Marine but after a particularly harrowing period at sea he requested service on deck rather than in the engine room of ships. When that request was denied he walked across the street and enlisted in the US Army. Assigned to the 101st Airborne he was injured in a training jump before the invasion of Normandy. So badly injured that he was shipped back to the United States he developed an interest in acting during his recuperation when someone gave him a play to read. He returned to active service in time to fight at Bastogne. After leaving the army as a Sergeant he did a series of odd jobs including bouncer and semi-pro football player while learning his craft.

Of course this blog being what it is, I'm a bit more focused on Jack Warden's television career. He did a lot of memorable roles but looking at his filmography in the IMDB it seems that virtually all of the series he was in never lasted more than a couple of years. People of a certain age (mine) were really introduced to Jack Warden in Wackiest Ship In The Army a sort of World War II comedy with adventure overtones based on the 1960 film of the same name and a real incident during the war. The show only lasted a year but those of us who saw it remember it - and are amazed that it only lasted a year. The truth is though that Jack Warden's TV career began well before that. His first continuing role was as the coach in the 1952 Wally Cox series Mr. Peepers and throughout the 1950s he was a regular presence in the live TV anthology series that were a mainstay of that era. He appeared in Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, The Alcoa Hour, The US Steel Hour and Playhouse 90 among many others. Moving to California as film work increased he was a frequent guest star in series as diverse as The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Naked City and even Bewitched before getting the lead role in Wackiest Ship In The Army. That was followed in 1967 by N.Y.P.D. which lasted two years. That series was followed by a long period of film work which also included his only Emmy win as George Halas in Brian's Song. In 1976 he starred as the title character in Jigsaw John which lasted 15 episodes, and in 1979 he starred in an ill-advised attempt to bring The Bad News Bears to television (26 episodes). Perhaps his best series role was as aging private detective Harry Fox in the 1984 series Crazy Like A Fox opposite John Rubinstein as his very straight laced son. The series only lasted two years but it earned Warden two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actor In A Comedy - he lost to Robert Guillaume in Benson in 1985, and Michael J. Fox in Family Ties in 1986. His last attempt at a series was 1989's Knight and Daye with Mason Adams. It lasted three episodes. Jack Warden's last television role was in an episode of 1999's The Norm Show with Norman MacDonald. His last film role was in 2000's The Replacements with Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman.

Jack Warden died in New York on Wednesday. According to his business manager Sydney Pazoff "Everything gave out. Old age. He really had turned downhill in the past month; heart and then kidney and then all kinds of stuff."

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