James Whitmore

Actor James Whitmore, whose career spanned nearly 60 years, died on Friday at his home in Malibu, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 87.

Whitmore embodied the role of Brooks Hatlen in Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) with rueful grace and heartfelt regret. As the longtime librarian, he was a wise and kind friend to the initially floundering Andy (Tim Robbins). But he had absolutely no idea how to live outside the prison walls. This scene (link to a big spoiler if you haven't seen the movie) with just the right touch in the narration by Whitmore as he writes to his buddies, is heartbreaking, and I found it impossible to watch all the way through after hearing the news of his passing.

My personal, sentimental favorite remains Them! (1954), the greatest giant ant movie ever made. Whitmore played a New Mexican police Sergeant who finds a little girl wandering in the desert, and soon finds himself courageously facing down nature gone amuck. He was so friendly and calm, yet authoritative, that I never doubted for a moment that giant ants were a serious threat to mankind.

He was much more fiery in Give 'em Hell, Harry! (1975), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. The film was an adaptation of a one-man stage play about President Harry S Truman. I was spellbound in the movie theater for 100 minutes, held captive once more by Whitmore's authority, but also by the sparkle in his eyes as his moved brusequely around the stage.

I started looking out for movies and TV shows in which he appeared (Where the Red Fern Grows, I Will Fight No More Forever, The White Shadow), and slowly began to appreciate the consistency of his performances. Eventually I caught up with his other Academy Award-nominated performance in William Wellman's Battleground (1949), in which he played a tough Sergeant who never complained about his frozen feet while his squad was trapped in the forest during the Battle of the Bulge.

He remained committed in his personal life, giving speeches early in behalf of Barack Obama. He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before Thanksgiving last year. His son Steve Whitmore said that his father was surrounded by family during the last months of his life. Film critic Joe Leydon remembers Whitmore as "a very gracious and gregarious gent." And that's the way he always came across on screen.

Feel free to share your memories in the comments section. (Planet of the Apes, anyone?) Here's a clip from TCM in which Whitmore recalls how John Huston directed him in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The actor does a nice little imitation of Huston's voice about midway through.

categories Cinematical