The first movie star I ever saw in person was Richard Widmark. He had appeared in perhaps a dozen movies that I had seen mostly playing a bad guy who seemed to take great delight in not just being evil but unspeakably so. Therefore when at the end of the movie and he got his comeuppance it was not just satisfying but cheer inducing.
He was thin and sly. His smile was crooked and it quickly turned into a sneer. He couldn’t be trusted even when he was being sincere. You could tell that from his eyes. They were always darting about searching for corners or dark places. Other performers had strong steady eyes, Widmarks’ was always flashing around nervously. He kept us on the edge of our seats with those eyes because you never knew what he was up to. He was unpredictable and dangerous. But our favorite part was not his eyes but his hair. It was blond and sat relatively lifeless on his head until he was punched or slapped. Then it would come alive. It would fly like a wave breaking over a rock and that would tell us that the blow really hurt. This bad guy was finally getting what he deserved. And if the guy administering the beating was big and beefy as Victor Mature then we really went crazy. “Hit him again!…Slap him, slap him, make his hair fly!” we would scream. And invariably the movie would grant our wish. The hero would punch and slap him, cowardly Widmark would whimper and whine and we loved it. We loved Richard Widmark, loved him more than we loved our own parents and went to see every movie he appeared in.
It was a Saturday afternoon and the sun was as usual high and bright in the sky. We kids were standing in front of The Center Theatre waiting to go in and see the triple bill of action films they were playing when someone, one of our other friends said: “Hey, you know who down on the waterfront?”
“The movie star man. The one who does do the giggle.”
“Who you talking about?”
“Richard Widmark man. Don’t you know nothing?”
“Richard Widmark?! Oh my God!”
And with that we took off running all three of us.
And there he was. There he was in sunglasses wearing a sport shirt with tan slacks. Richard Widmark, our favorite bad guy and God. He was standing there talking to some people and pointing to something out at sea. He wasn’t physically that big but he looked like he looked in the movies kind of wiry and hard. He was saying that he was just on the island for the day and that the island was beautiful. We didn’t want to hear any of that. We wanted to hear him giggle that evil giggle of his. But as he stood there and talked to the small crowd that had gathered around him it was clear that he wasn’t going to unless someone had the daring to ask him. And even then he might not but somebody had to take the chance and ask.
“You ask him……No, you ask him…..Why me? No, you ask him!” We kept pushing each other and quarrelling. Then for reasons I don’t remember it fell to me to do the asking. I couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve at the time. None of us were. It was a tough job but someone had to do it. I borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and asked him for his autograph. And while he was signing his name I said quietly: “Sir, you think you could do that laugh for us?”
“The one you does do just before you beat a woman or kill a man.”
“ You want me to do my evil laugh, huh?”
“Yes, yes that’s it. Your evil laugh.”
“Well”, he said “Heh…heh…heh…heh…heh…heh. I can’t do it for you because it’s in my contract that I can’t laugh unless it’s in a scene and a camera is turning. You follow?” And then he did that incredible giggle again. And we just froze where we were standing, we practically wet our pants because he had taken off his sunglasses and was looking straight at us while he was doing it.
He left after a few minutes because he had someplace to go I suppose but we just stayed there. We forgot about the movie we were going to or that we had already bought the tickets. This was better than any triple bill could be. Richard Widmark standing there talking to us and doing his giggle. We spent the rest of the afternoon going minutely over everything that was said right up to the moment when he did his laugh. For weeks and months after we recreated word for word the whole episode for our friends.
In the course of a long career Widmark did some wonderful work in films and also on TV and not always as the villain. He played many a hero and men of integrity but we liked him best as a villain.
He died in 2008 at the age of 93 and I whispered a quiet “Thank you” that I hope he heard. It went something like this. “Thank you Richard Widmark for your talent and career. And thank you particularly for that Saturday afternoon giggle. You’ll never know what years of pleasure you gave to those three West Indian boys that day.”