Venerable character actor James Whitmore passed away on Friday, at the age of 87; the cause of death was lung cancer. Although well known for a wide variety of roles, including one-man stage shows of Harry Truman, Will Rogers and Theodore Roosevelt, Whitmore also gave memorable performances in a handful of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror films and television shows.
Whitmore played the lead, Police Sgt. Ben Peterson in 1954’s THEM, probably the best of the “giant bug” movies that proliferated during an era when the cinema screen was filled with radioactive mutants. THEM is remarkable for its low-key black-and-white approach, which grounds the film with a firm sense of conviction lacking from most of its contemporaries. The film is also remarkable for doing something arely seen at the time: killing off the hero. Whitmore’s Peterson dies while rescuing two boys who have been trapped by giant ants in a sewer; the unexpected impact of this plot twist retains its power to shock, decades later.
Whitmore gave another great performance as Captain William Benteen in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “On Thursday We Leave for Home.” The plot has Benteen keeping up the moral of a group of Earth people stranded on a distant planet; when rescuers arrive, he finds it psychologically impossible to give up his position of authority and opts to remain behind. The look in Whitmore’s eyes as Benteen realizes his tragic mistake – too late – is more powerful than all of the show’s famous “twist endings” put together.
His genre TV credits include the “Quantity: Unknown” episode from the first season of THE INVADERS (1967), the 1974 TV version of THE CANTERVILLE GHOST, and the 1990 “Tonybee Convector” episode of HBO’s RAY BRADBURY THEATRE. He was the President fo the Assembly in PLANET OF THE APES (1968), and he provides the voice for Will Vinton’s 1986 claymation fantasy film, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. One of his last feature film roles was in 1997’s THE RELIC, a modern attempt to create an old-fashioned monster movie along the lines of THEM.
More details about Whitmore’s non-genre films are available in this excerpt from the AP obituary:
His long-running “Give ’em Hell, Harry,” tracing the life of the 33rd president, was released as a theatrical movie in 1975. Whitmore was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor, marking the only time in Oscar history that an actor has been nominated for a film in which he was the only cast member. His portrait, “Bully,” was also converted into a movie.
Whitmore started both his Broadway and Hollywood careers with acclaimed performances, both as tough-talking sergeants. In 1947, discharged a year from Marine duty, he made his Broadway debut in a taut Air Force drama, “Command Decision.” He was awarded a Tony for outstanding performance by a newcomer.
Two years later, Whitmore was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe as supporting actor in the war movie “Battleground. ”
He followed with memorable performances in scores of films, refusing to be typed. Besides war movies, he appeared in Westerns (“The Last Frontier,” ” “), musicals (“Kiss Me Kate,” ”Oklahoma!” ), science fiction (“Planet of the Apes,” ”Them”), dramas (“ ,” ”The Shawshank Redemption“) and comedies (“Mr. O’Malley and Mrs. Malone,” ” .”)