Versatile Film, TV Actor Jack Warden

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jack Warden, 85, the veteran movie and television actor who put a gift for portraying physical force and gruff irascibility to good use in both drama and comedy, died July 19 in a hospital in New York.

In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Sidney Pazoff, his business manager for 27 years, said that Mr. Warden had been ill for a while and that "things were breaking down."

Among Mr. Warden's memorable roles were those of an impatient juror in "12 Angry Men," a football coach in "Brian's Song" and a hard-driving top editor at The Washington Post in "All the President's Men."

Those who saw him as bluster, bluntness or even physical menace saw only one side of his abilities and did not perceive his true personality, Pazoff said. "He was a very fine actor" and was also "a kind and gentle man."

Harry M. Rosenfeld, the Post metropolitan editor played by Mr. Warden, recalled last night how the actor "sat in my office" in the newsroom, watching him at work as part of his preparation.

"I play a part," Rosenfeld recalled Warden telling him. "I don't play you."

"All the President's Men" was based on The Post's pursuit of the story of the Watergate scandal.

The editor described Mr. Warden as a skilled performer and a splendid fellow who possessed a strong personality and yet seemed "rather shy" for an actor.

While in Washington, Rosenfeld said, Mr. Warden made friends quickly and beat the editor badly at tennis. He said news of the death left him "deeply saddened."

Over a career that lasted 50 years, Mr. Warden made more than 100 movies. For two of them, "Shampoo" (1975) and "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), he received Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category.

He won an Emmy Award for his performance as George Halas, coach of the Chicago Bears, in "Brian's Song" (1971), a made-for-TV movie.

He also appeared in "The Replacements" (2000), another football film.

Mr. Warden was widely sought for roles in westerns, crime movies and films with political or military themes that demanded a display of physical presence or domination.

He played the president in "Being There" (1979). He was 1st Sergeant Welsh in "The Thin Red Line," based on the James Jones novel of World War II. In "From Here to Eternity" (1953), also based on a Jones novel, he was Corporal Buckley.

He made television appearances in such series as "Wagon Train," "The Virginian" and "Tales of Wells Fargo." He was Detective Lt. Mike Haines on "N.Y.P.D.," which ran on ABC from 1967 to 1969, and was a police sergeant, lieutenant and captain in three made-for-TV movies.

Although he was often on the side of law and order, he was also known for his villains and heavies. The qualities that made him successful in such roles also helped him succeed in comedy.

It was said that his lead role in the "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" TV series in the 1960s was written to exploit his comedic qualities.

He played in the "Mr. Peepers" comedy series, one of television's first.

He had also acted on stage, notably in Arthur Miller's "A View From a Bridge."

He was born Jack Warden Lebzelter in Newark in 1920.

As a high school student during the Depression, he earned needed cash in the boxing ring. He had 13 fights as a welterweight.

He joined the Navy, then did a stint in the Merchant Marine and, shortly after the nation entered World War II, enlisted in the Army.

While in the 101st Airborne Division, he broke a leg during a practice jump. In the hospital, someone pressed a copy of a play on him. That, it was said, kindled his interest in acting. "That was the story," Pazoff said last night.

"I think he just tried it, and it was one of those natural type of things," Pazoff said. "He had a knack for it."

He returned to active duty in time to serve in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, he pursued acting, which took him to classes, to a theater company in Texas and to roles on Broadway.

He had a home in Malibu, Pazoff said.

According to the Associated Press, he was married in 1958 to Vanda Dupre, and they had a son, Christopher. They separated in the 1970s but never divorced, the AP reported.

Survivors also include two grandchildren.