9/18/1920 – 7/19/2006. On Wednesday, July 19, Jack Warden, character actor with over 150 credits to his name, passed away at the age of 85. If, after reading this article, you don’t know who Jack Warden is, then you just haven’t gone to the movies very often in the past fifty years. And you certainly don’t have cable. You should know what you’ve been missing.
Jack Warden was a stout and hearty ginger-haired man with a bulldog face and ruddy complexion who usually portrayed an older regular guy with an affable disposition. His Average Joe roles didn’t have all the answers but they were earnest, fair and hard working – the type of guy who would stick by the hero as he struggled through the trenches, no matter how bleak the situation became, and without the air of self sacrifice or a sense of martyrdom. He was just a good guy, plain and simple. Warden’s true talent was his ability to keep these standard character roles interesting, if not down right loveable.
His personal life experiences added to the texture of his tough exterior. He was expelled from high school for repeatedly fighting at 17, turned professional boxer, and worked as a bouncer and lifeguard before signing up with the U.S. Navy. He later served with the Merchant Marines before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1941 and became a paratrooper with the elite 101st Airborne Division (we’re talking a man’s man here). His interest in acting came quite by accident when, while recuperating from a broken leg after a bad jump, Warden read a play by Clifford Odets. He was so moved by the play (demonstrating his soft side of The Man’s Man) that he decided to use his G.I. Bill to pursue a career in acting. He studied for just two years before turning professional, becoming a well sought after character actor from that point on.
With his athletic physique, Warden managed to work regularly at the beginning of his career in bit parts as soldiers, including a turn as the sympathetic barracks-mate of Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. His career really took off after his breakout role in 12 Angry Men when he played a preoccupied juror more interested in making a baseball game than determining the verdict of a boy on trial for his life. After that wonderfully underplayed performance (one that established his trademark delivery and measured technique) he was offered more substantial supporting parts.
Although he did have a type, Warden had an ability to craft just the right nuances into every performance. He utilized that average, good guy character in every realm of the social spectrum from an Emmy award -winning performance as football coach George Halas in Brian’s Song, to an apoplectic judge in … And Justice for All, to a charismatic senior detective in a popular 80’s television show (Crazy Like a Fox), to a calm and reassuring leader of the free world in Being There. One of his final roles was once again as the nice guy who helps the hero through difficulties by providing the friendly voice of sage advice to Sandra Bullock’s romantically confused Annie in While You Were Sleeping.
It was his collaboration with Warren Beatty in two 1970s films that brought Warden to the summit of his career as he displayed a flair for comedy in both Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait. As the faintly sinister businessman Lester and as the perpetually befuddled football trainer Max Corkle, Warden received two Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actor. Other memorable roles in this, his most productive period, were as the Metro News editor of the Washington Post in All the President’s Men, the German doctor in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, and later, as Paul Newman’s loyal law partner in The Verdict. He rose to recognition once again in the 90’s playing Broadway high-roller Julian Marx in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and appeared in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth. Warden’s last film was The Replacements with Keanu Reeves in 2000. He then chose to live in retirement in New York City.
I have always had a great affection for actors who have been able to manage a life-long career, to ebb and flow with the changing styles of the decades, and remain a rare commodity in the entertainment community: a working actor. Jack Warden was one of those rarities, and for good reason. He will be remembered as an actor with an energetic and forceful personality, as well as a fine craftsman who portrayed the Regular Guy who used barking tones to mask the love and concern that lay just beneath a tough exterior.