Jack Warden: Lovable Jerk

Some tribute today to character actor Jack Warden (John Warden Lebzelter, Jr, 1920-2006). I grew up seeing Warden in supporting parts, usually as aggressive, assertive types, often as athletic coaches, military men, businessmen and the like. Often his characters were out-and-out assholes, but usually with some redeeming elements. His breakthrough role (pictured above) in Twelve Angry Men (1957) was a case in point, a salesman serving on a jury, one of the last holdouts against another man’s bid to clear an innocent man. That was before my time, however. One of the first places I would have seen him was in his Emmy winning turn as Coach George Halas in the classic TV movie Brian’s Song (1971).

In essence, Warden owed his entire career to his aggressive, belligerent nature. Expelled from school for fighting, he boxed under the name “Johnny Costello” as a teenager and young man, and worked as a nightclub bouncer before serving in three branches of the military. He joined the navy three years before the Japanese even bombed Pearl Harbor, serving on patrol boats in China. When the war came, he served in the Merchant Marine, and finally became an army paratrooper. He was wounded on duty. The G.I. Bill allowed him to study acting after the war. He spent five years as a stage actor, then broke into live TV drama and then films.

Given Warden’s experiences, he was well equipped to be an action hero, but his ordinary looks dictated he be a character actor. Most of his earliest roles were as soldiers or sailors. His early films included You’re in the Navy Now (1951), The Frogmen (1951), From Here to Eternity (1953), Darby’s Rangers (1958), Run Silent Run Deep (1958), and The Thin Red Line (1964). A recurring part on Mr. Peepers (1952-54) as the gym coach began to raise his profile. John Ford cast him in Donovan’s Reef (1963). He often worked repeatedly with the same directors, e.g., Sidney Lumet: 12 Angry Men (1957), Bye Bye Braverman (1968), and The Verdict (1982); Hal Ashby: Shampoo (1975) and Being There (1979); Warren Beatty (who’d starred in Shampoo of course): Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Bulworth (1994); and Woody Allen: September (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995).

This hardly clinches it! Warden was in major westerns like The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), Billy Two Hats (1974), and The White Buffalo (1977). He was in the classic TV movie Raid on Entebbe (1977). Other odds and ends included All the President’s Men (1976), Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (1978), Franco Zeffirelli’s remake of The Champ (1979),  Irwin Allen’s Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), Norman Jewison’s ...And Justice For All (1979) with Al Pacino, the early Robert Zemeckis comedy Used Cars (1980), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981) with Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett, So Fine (1981) with Ryan O’Neal, The Presidio (1988), the Problem Child comedies (1990s), Barry Levinson’s Toys (1992) with Robin Williams, While You Were Sleeping (1995), Ed (1996), Bob Saget’s Dirty Work (1998) with Norm McDonald, and A Dog of Flanders (1999).

That’s only some of it and it doesn’t include his TV work!  He was a regular on or star of the shows Norby (1955), The Asphalt Jungle (1961), The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1965-66), N.Y.P.D. (1967-69), Jigsaw John (1976), The Bad News Bears (1979-80), Crazy Like a Fox (1984-86), and Knight and Daye (1989). He was in several episodes of shows like The Twilight Zone, Naked City, Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip, etc etc.

Warden’s final role was in The Replacements (2000) — his umpteenth football related part. 80 at the time, he chose to retire after this. He passed away six later. I wonder if he will encounter Buck Henry in heaven (that’s a Heaven Can Wait joke, which I’ll probably absent-mindedly make again when Warren Beatty passes, which I hope will be many years from now). By the way, Warden was half German/ half Irish, born in Newark (NJ) and raised in Kentucky.