Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mr. Warden Has Left the Building

[[O B I T]] * I was sorry to hear this morning that gravelly voiced actor Jack Warden, who played a succession of brusque cops and wise older men on television and in the movies, winning both Academy Award and Emmy Award nominations for his efforts, died on Wednesday of natural causes at a New York hospital. He was 85 years old.

Born John Lebzelter on September 18, 1920, in Newark, New Jersey, Warden was at times in his life a professional boxer, a nightclub bouncer, a tugboat deckhand, and an army paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. (He only escaped the carnage of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, by accidentally shattering his leg during a nighttime warm-up jump in England.) After leaving the military, he moved to Manhattan to take up an acting career, initially performing on stage and taking bit parts on TV shows. In 1952, he joined the cast of that classic Wally Cox TV sitcom Mr. Peepers, playing a sports coach for the next three years. But his “breakthrough role,” as Warden’s obituaries seem to agree, came in the powerful 1957 Henry Fonda film, 12 Angry Men. He inhabited the role of a salesman who was anxious for a quick decision in a murder case.

Warden went on to play a Chicago Bears coach in the 1971 TV tearjerker, Brian’s Song, a businessman in the 1975 Warren Beatty theatrical release Shampoo, a news editor in All the President’s Men (1976), a football trainer in Heaven Can Wait (1978), Paul Newman’s law partner in The Verdict (1982), and, in While You Were Sleeping (1995), an avuncular proponent of Sandra Bullock’s entry into the thoroughly heartwarming family of a handsome but ultimately obnoxious coma patient.

However, my fondest memories of Jack Warden probably come from a pair of TV crime series in which he starred. The first was 1976’s short-lived Jigsaw John, a Carroll O’Connor production in which Warden acted the part of Los Angeles Police Department special investigator John St. John (“called Jigsaw because of his methodical way of piecing together clues,” recalls Richard Meyers in TV Detectives). Introduced in a 1975 teleflick called They Only Come Out at Night, St. John was supposed to be famous for his crime-solving acumen, but audiences didn’t find his escapades quite as awe-inspiring as the crooks he put behind bars; Jigsaw John was cancelled after 25 weeks. Warden, though, came back to series television a decade later in Crazy Like a Fox (1984-1986). Here, he played a seat-of-his-pants, almost-anything-goes, adventure-loving San Francisco private eye named Harrison “Harry” Fox Sr., who was always looking for legal help and free legwork from his son, the far more conservative attorney Harrison Fox Jr. (John Rubenstein). The pairing of these two characters was absolutely terrific, even if the plots of their comedy-drama series tended toward the outrageous at times. All Harrison Jr. wanted, it seemed, was to put food on the table for his wife and young son, while Harry was all about the thrill of the chase and the clever con that would expose a criminal--and inevitably cause his son to cringe before his white-shoe lawyer buddies. For his Crazy Like a Fox work, Warden was twice nominated for Emmys in the category of Leading Actor in a Comedy Series. He should’ve won.

In its report on Warden’s death, the Associated Press quoted his veteran business manager, Sidney Pazoff, describing the actor’s final days: “Everything gave out. Old age. He really had turned downhill in the past month; heart and then kidney and then all kinds of stuff.” What didn’t give out, though, was his public appeal. From a viewer’s perspective, Jack Warden seemed to have been the true professional, elevating each of the roles he inhabited over the decades with wisdom and warmth--two things that can’t be taught in acting classes. He was, in the best sense of the word--and appropriate to his history--a true character.

READ MORE:Versatile Film, TV Actor Jack Warden,” by Martin Weil (The Washington Post); “Jack Warden, 85; Prolific Film, TV Actor,” by Valerie J. Nelson (Los Angeles Times).

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