Theatre yesterday and today



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For no reason (other than I just finished watching Twelve Angry Men for my umpteenth time), I thought I would write about one of the dozen wonderful actors from that 1957 film: the always pitch-perfect character actor Jack Warden.

As Juror #7, he sits at the other end of the table from Juror #6 (Edward Binns as the foreman), sweating profusely and wearing a summer hat that he rarely takes off. Anxious for a swift verdict, with tickets to that night's ballgame burning a hole in his pocket, his impatience and general lack of intelligence are played to the hilt, though never descending into caricature. It's hard to believe this is the first feature film Sidney Lumet directed, in that he displays a masterful control over everyone seated around that table, even larger-than-life actors such as the formidable Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley.

Jack Warden as Juror #7 in Twelve Angry Men (1957).

John Warden Lebzelter Jr., like fellow Newark, New Jersey-born characters actors Joe Pesci, Alan Garfield and Jason Alexander, was born in 1920. Acting was not on his mind at all growing up, and what with his being expelled from high school for fighting, left him little choice during the Depression other than to try his fists as a professional boxer. Using his mother's maiden name of Costello (she was Irish, his father was Jewish), Warden had 13 welterweight bouts before joining the Navy at eighteen. He was stationed for three years in China with the Yangtze River Patrol, relegated to the engine room. "Constant bombings were nerve-racking below decks,'' he recalled for a 1976 studio biography. When the United States entered World War II, Warden joined the Merchant Marine, later moving to the Army. As a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, the bad luck of landing in a tree and breaking his leg during a nighttime practice jump in Britain, turned out to be an unexpected stroke of good luck, as it prevented Warden from participating in D-Day. ''They sent me back to the States,'' he told the Associated Press in 1988. ''I was in a hospital for nearly a year.'' While recuperating, a fellow soldier (who had been an actor) gave him a play to read—reportedly one by Clifford Odets—and that's all it took. With no training whatsoever, Warden made the decision after the war to go to New York and study under the G.I. Bill while pursuing acting jobs. At at open call, he was chosen to become part of producer-director Margo Jones's company in Dallas, the first modern professional resident theatre in the country. Over five seasons, he did both contemporary and classical plays, providing him with excellent training. Eventually getting a few small roles in feature films, Warden can be seen briefly in the 1950 classic The Asphalt Jungle and with a bit more prominence in the 1953 Academy Award winning Best Picture, From Here to Eternity. By the end of his life, he would appear in more than 100 films.

Jack Warden at the start and towards the end of a distinguished career.

In some nice symmetry, Warden made his Broadway debut in 1952 in a revival of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy (and by way of further symmetry, shared the stage with his future 12 Angry Men fellow Juror Jack Klugman). But it wasn't until 1955, when he was cast in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge (in its original one-act version), that he caught the critics' collective eye as Marco, the young Italian immigrant.

Like so many actors in the mid-1950s, Warden worked non-stop in the early days of live television (which is where he befriended Sidney Lumet, who would cast him time and again in his films). My first acquaintance with Warden’s talents was in my childhood, when I sought his performances on two separate episodes of The Twilight Zone, diligently working to catch them in reruns, long before VCR’s and streaming.

Jack Warden and Jean Marsh in "The Lonely" (1959).

Jack Warden and Abraham Sofaer in "The Mighty Casey" (1960).

Warden also starred in eight TV series including The Wackiest Ship in the Army, N.Y.P.D., Jigsaw John and The Bad News Bears. In the mid-80s, he had a success with Crazy Like a Fox, which ran for two seasons on CBS. His most notable run of great parts in film came in the 1970s, where in addition to being an indispensable member of the brilliant ensemble acting of All the President's Men, he garnered two Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations; one in 1975 for Shampoo, and the other in 1979 for Heaven Can Wait. In fact, over the course of his long career, Warden received just a single major award for his acting: when in 1971 he won an Emmy for Brian's Song, at the time, the most watched made-for-TV movie ever.

For me, whenever Warden showed up on the big screen, always felt like cause for celebration. In addition to working more than once with some of the finest directors (he was a favorite of Lumet's, as well as Hal Ashby, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty's), he could also boast Norman Jewison, Alan Pakula and Robert Zemeckis on his resume. But if I had to pick the best performance that shows off just how good he could be, I would choose Warden in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, where almost every scene he has is with Paul Newman (never better). Warden is so totally and completely the guy he is playing that it becomes that rare thing: watching an actor play reality superbly, without ever pandering to tricks or gimmicks. It doesn't hurt that the words were David Mamet in his prime, in the best screenplay he's ever written. But it's still something to experience Warden knocking those lines out of the ballpark.

Jack Warden with Paul Newman in both my favorite of their performances in The Verdict (1982).

Warden's stage work over the years often came with mixed results. In 1958, The Body Beautiful, a musical he starred in that was the first collaboration of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, ran less than two months. In 1969, he had a short success playing the last seven weeks of the Broadway run as the title character in Robert Shaw's The Man in the Glass Booth (I saw it as a twelve-year-old and visited with him backstage in his dressing room—I hate to admit that I all I can recall about our meeting is that he signed my Playbill with a blue felt-tipped pen). He was cast as Victor Franz in Arthur Miller's The Price in 1967, but left the show during its out of town tryout. He also prominently led the cast of a 1983 Neil Simon comedy titled Actors and Actresses that closed in Connecticut (and was never seen again), and ignominiously starred in a 1978 notorious Broadway flop, Stages, which closed on its opening night (in spite of a gorgeous poster drawn by Maurice Sendak).

All I can say about the play Stages... is that I wish I had seen it.

At age seventy-nine, Warden surprisingly showed up on an episode of the 1999 sitcom The Norm Show, which starred SNL vet Norm MacDonald. I checked out if it was available for viewing on YouTube and sure enough, it is. There you can catch him in terrific form as the father of Norm’s best friend who it turns out has a “thing” for Norm. Watching MacDonald fend off the old man’s overt sexual advances is fun to see, and not only does Warden still possess his impeccable comic timing, but entering into his eighties, he’s still in great physical shape. A year later he was in The Replacements with Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman, which was to be his last gig.

After that, Warden retired from acting and moved to North Carolina. He died six years later, just before his eighty-sixth birthday. I'm sure some people had the response of, "Oh, I thought he was dead," but not me. I knew he was still around, although I also knew that one day I'd wake up and find out that Jack Warden was (as it is said) "no longer with us." And for the reasons I've stated here, that was a sad day.

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