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|Also Known As:||James Allen Whitmore Jr.||Died:||February 6, 2009|
|Born:||October 1, 1921||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||White Plains, New York||Profession:||Cast ... actor|
A sturdy and earnest performer on stage, television and in numerous films, James Whitmore was a much-honored character actor and occasional lead whose career stretched from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. Versatile in almost every genre of film, Whitmore was frequently called upon to play can-do, salt of the earth characters like his combat-weary platoon leader in "Battleground" (1949) or the heroic state patrolman fighting giant ants in the sci-fi classic "Them!" (1954). Whitmore was a frequent guest star in television series and TV movies, as well as worked extensively on stage throughout his career, including solo performances as Will Rogers, Harry S. Truman and Theodore Roosevelt, which earned him the moniker "King of the One Man Show." In his seventh decade, he enjoyed a career boost with a moving performance as an elderly prisoner in "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) and a 1999 Emmy Award for "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004). A generation of television viewers also knew him as the on-camera spokesman for Miracle-Gro garden products. The man simply would not slow down, an actor in his soul, performing well into late eighties.
Born James Allen Whitmore Jr. on Oct. 1, 1921 in White Plains, NY, he was the son of park commission official James Allen Whitmore and Florence Crane. He earned a BA from Yale University before joining the United States Marines and serving during World War II. After his discharge, he studied acting on the G.I. Bill at the prestigious American Theatre Wing. While there, Whitmore met the first of his three wives, Nancy Mygott, with whom he had three children, including James Whitmore Jr., who became a prolific television actor and director in his own right.
After making his theater debut in New Hampshire, he quickly graduated to Broadway, where he earned the Tony, Drama Desk and Theatre World Awards for the 1947 play "Command Decision." MGM quickly signed Whitmore under contract for the 1948 film version, but he was replaced by big movie star Van Johnson. Despite the obvious disappointment, he would make his film debut a year later in the crime thriller "The Undercover Man" (1949) and would go on to great demand after his war-weary portrayal in "Battleground" earned him nods for the Oscar and Golden Globe.
Whitmore alternated between featured and character roles and the occasional lead for much of the 1950s and 1960s. He was frequently cast in authoritative roles like the cop in "Them!" or a security officer working on the plans to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in "Above and Beyond" (1952). But he could be enormously sympathetic as well, as his wheel man in noir classic "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) illustrated, or the bewildered family man (married to future First Lady Nancy Davis) who discovers that God is communicating with him through his radio in the campy "The Next Voice You Hear" (1950). He even proved to be a capable performer in musicals, as demonstrated by his crisp duet with Keenan Wynn - another unlikely song-and-dance man - on "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in the MGM musical spectacular, "Kiss Me Kate" (1953).
Whitmore was seen largely on television during the 1960s; among his most memorable turns was "On Thursday We Leave For Home," the best of the hour-long episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1958-1964) as the leader of an interplanetary colony whose strict disciplinary rule unravels with the promise of a return trip to Earth. He also starred in two series during the decade - the first was "The Law and Mr. Jones" (ABC, 1960-62), with Whitmore as a tough but fair lawyer with the unlikely name of Abraham Lincoln Jones. Cancelled after its first season, audiences were so taken by Whitmore's performance that they launched a letter campaign to revive the show, which earned a second season as a result of their response. He was a criminology professor who teamed with an Italian orphan he met during World War II to solve crimes in "My Friend Tony" (ABC, 1969), which lasted less than one season. Whitmore was also onscreen during the decade, most notably in "Black Like Me" (1964) as a Caucasian journalist who disguises himself as a black man to investigate racial prejudice in the Deep South. And his resonant and commanding voice made instantly recognizable, despite layers of make-up, as the President of the Assembly in the original version of "Planet of the Apes" (1968).
Whitmore balanced a busy schedule in films and on television with theater work in the 1970s. He co-starred frequently with his second wife, Audra Lindley, in numerous productions during the decade, but earned greater acclaim for a string of one-man shows which showed his considerable knack for disappearing completely into the complexities of a character. "Will Rogers' USA" found him playing the legendary American humorist, while he tackled American presidents Harry S. Truman and Theodore Roosevelt in "Give 'Em Hell Harry" and "Bully," respectively. All three productions were filmed for theatrical or television release - "Will Rogers' USA" aired on CBS in 1972, while "Give 'Em Hell Harry" and "Bully: An Adventure with Teddy Roosevelt" played in theaters in 1975 and 1978. "Harry" was the most successful of the trio, earning Whitmore his second Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. Whitmore's other notable 1970s appearance included a small role in Ingmar Bergman's "The Serpent's Egg" (1977) and as Civil War general Oliver O. Howard in the 1975 TV movie, "I Will Fight No More Forever," which focused on the U.S. Army's campaign against the Nez Perce Indians.
Whitmore focused his energies on stage work during the 1980s, though there were still quality projects for him during the decade, including the lead in an all-star PBS version of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (1986) and the judge in Barbra Streisand's overwrought legal drama "Nuts" (1987). His movie career got a well-deserved boost in 1994 with "The Shawshank Redemption," Frank Darabont's affecting drama about a friendship that exceeds the bounds of a draconian prison. Whitmore gave a finely nuanced performance as the jail's resident librarian, whose lengthy incarceration has made the idea of living in the outside world too confusing and painful to bear. His critically acclaimed turn led to more work in films and television; he had a recurring role on "The Practice" as mentor to Dylan McDermott's Bobby Donnell, and earned a 1999 Emmy for a story arc that found his character on trial for murder while suffering from dementia. Another Emmy nod came in 2003 as a retired senator and father to Josh Brolin's freshman politico in the short-lived "Mister Sterling" (NBC, 2003).
Whitmore's final feature film role to date was in Darabont's misguided Jim Carrey vehicle, "The Majestic," though he remained active on television and stage for several more years. In addition to his prolific acting career, Whitmore was a longtime spokesman for Miracle-Gro's garden products - due in part to his passion for gardening in his private life - and appeared in television commercials for the First Freedom First campaign, which advocated religious liberty and the separation of church and state in American politics.
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