RIP: Heston, Widmark, and Pran

With Richard Widmark’s passing at 93, and announcement of Charlton Heston’s recent death, we’ve lost two more silver screen legends.

As for Heston, one sad bit is that his recent fame (or infamy, depending on your views) working for the National Rifle Association, has overshadowed his legacy of early civil rights activism. And unfortunately, because of the close timing, we have already moved on from honoring Richard Widmark.

Born in Minnesota, Widmark got his start as an radio actor in New York and Chicago — first with a friend, then working steadily in shows like Gangbusters and Inner Sanctum. For him, the big gamble was to walk away after ten years of radio work, to even bigger potential in a little Hollywood film noir called Kiss of Death. While Don Ameche thrived after moving from radio to Hollywood, it hadn’t always worked out for other radio and stage stars: Les Tremayne had trouble finding equivalent success; and arguably the film world, post-Citizen Kane, was not so kind to Orson Welles. Well, the rest is history, with a string of excellent performances in movies like the unusual Panic in the Streets, Halls of Montezuma, Road House, Judgment at Nuremberg and The Bedford Incident.

While Widmark will probably be popularly remembered as a nasty hoodlum from Kiss of Death, in real life he was a stand up character. Sidney Poitier, his costar in No Way Out (1950) still notes Widmark’s warm hospitality and friendship in welcoming him to Hollywood. When they later costarred in Bedford Incident (1965), the ink that signed the federal Civil Rights Act into law was still wet on the paper, and Martin Luther King was now a household name encouraging interracial dialogue… but Poitier and Widmark were already old friends. Widmark was indeed a good egg.

Speaking of friendship, there’s another person of note who passed away recently, whose real life was as heroic and complex as any of Widmark’s greatest roles.

Dith Pran, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist from Cambodia, who helped tell of the “Killing Fields”, died last Sunday of pancreatic cancer at 65. Born near the historic and beautiful temples of Angkor Wat, Dith first trained as a translator, then began working closely with journalists, learning along the way to take photos. In 1972 he met Sidney Schaumberg, a journalist for the New York Times. They worked together for some time, even as the situation in Cambodia deteriorated, and became close friends. At one point Dith saved Schaumberg’s life by convincing soldiers not to shoot. When Phnom Penh, the capital, was overtaken by Khmer Rouge forces, Schaumberg was thrown out of the country, lucky to have survived in one piece. Other journalists, both Cambodian and foreign, were killed under the new regime.

Dith managed to survive the next four years as a virtual slave in the countryside, while Schaumberg agitated for his release and to get news out to the rest of the world of Cambodia’s misery. Under the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had begun again at “Year Zero”, and between 1 and 2 million Cambodians – figures vary – died of genocide or starvation. Fifty of Dith’s relatives died during the genocide.

Miraculously, in 1979, Dith was able to escape to Thailand, then with Schaumberg and the New York Times’ help, he started a new life in the United States. His story was chronicled in the movie The Killing Fields.

To the last, with his new organization, and another one he was trying to build, Dith wanted people to know what had happened in Cambodia, and wanted the surviving members of the Khmer Rouge to be brought to justice.

The New York Times has put up a short video called “The Last Word” . It’s worth taking ten minutes out of your day to watch. Dith Pran was a true hero.

Another insightful WGA strike article…

This one at the New York Times. ’70s TV pioneer Norman Lear warns that writers may be in for a rough ride, but Bruce Villanch has a message for those of us who hate the teleprompted jokes at the Oscars: “People who complain about the humor on awards shows should wait to see what they’re like without writers.”

More at the New York Times.

On the bright side: turn off the crummy reality TV that gets produced during this strike, and you’ll have more time to catch up on your favorite audio dramas, new audio dramas being produced on- and offline, books, older movies that you haven’t had a chance to see. At least, that’s what I’m hoping I can do!

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