Born 100 Years Ago Today: James Whitmore, the Damnedest Will Rogers

Born 100 years ago this day, actor James Whitmore (1921-2009).

I chose the photo above because his Whitmore’s greatest role was probably his one man show about Will Rogers, which he performed on and off from roughly 1970 through 2000, on tour, on Broadway and on TV. He was almost as closely identified with the part as Hal Holbrook was as Mark Twain. I’d sub-headed this “the DAMNEDEST Will Rogers” for I’ve always found it hard to imagine anyone LESS like the Oklahoma comedian. Whitmore was the epitome of the Northeasterner, a fast-talking “coastal elite” from the NYC suburb of Westchester, a product of Choate and Yale. He was also on the short side and had a very different kind of face. By contrast, Rogers was the essence of the West, a cowboy, slow-talking and laconic. The kind of guy who pauses on purpose with a twinkle in his eye and makes you wait for his joke. That said, it speaks to the magic of the theatre that Whitmore SOLD it. Your disbelief was suspended. He got the guy’s personality across somehow. I only ever saw him do it on television, but it seems to me it was his most memorable creation. He also had a pretty successful Harry Truman show in his repertoire, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, working Ed Flanders’ side of the street. Truman was more like Whitmore in terms of body and personality type. He sold that one pretty well, too.

Whitmore’s choices for characters to play are significant, I think. Despite that posh upbringing, he had an appeal I would call “democratic”. He seemed like a regular guy. One of the first roles I knew him in was the 1954 horror classic Them! where in he plays a likeable beat cop whose job description expands one day “to protect and to serve” the public against an invasion of giant atomic insects. “It’s all in the line of duty, ma’am”. A World War II combat vet, Whitmore wore a uniform like he belonged in it, and was frequently cast as dogfaces in things like Battleground (1949), and The Command (1954). He was also in more than his share of westerns, e.g. Across the Wide Missouri (1953) and The Last Frontier (1955), and TV shows like Zane Grey Theatre, making it seem natural I guess to step into the boots of Rogers. John Huston employed his talents in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Red Badge of Courage (1951). Whitmore also appeared in musicals like Kiss Me Kate (1953) and Oklahoma! (1955). From 1960 through 1962 he starred in the TV series The Law and Mr. Jones, a sort of combination legal drama/mystery.

Whitmore’s later screen roles included parts in the films Black Like Me (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Split (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Chato’s Land (1972), , a TV version of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1987), Nuts (1987), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Relic (1997), The Majestic (2001), and the 2005 remake of Fun with Dick and Jane. His last screen credit was a 2007 episode of CSI — when he was 86 years old.