Born John Lebzelter, September 18, 1920, in Newark, NJ; died July 19, 2006, in New York, NY. Actor. For more than 50 years, Jack Warden was a staple in the cinema world. A well-known character actor, Warden appeared in more than 100 films, earned an Emmy Award and garnered two Academy Award nominations. One of his most brilliant performances came in the 1971 made-for-TV movie Brian's Song, which recounted the real-life friendship of Chicago Bears teammates Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo as the latter faces death; Warden played Bears coach George Halas. Over the course of his career, Warden also performed on Broadway and appeared on countless television shows, including classics such as Bonanza and The Twilight Zone.
Warden's given name was John Lebzelter. The redhead was born September 18, 1920, in Newark, New Jersey, though he spent his childhood in Kentucky. Warden's family struggled through the Depression, so he took up boxing to earn money. At 17, Warden was a ranked professional middleweight boxer. He fought under the name Johnny Costello—his mother's maiden name. Warden left high school to join the Navy and spent time in China as a watchman on the Yangtze River. After being discharged in 1941, he found work scooping coal on the tugboats that zipped along New York's East River. Next, Warden joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, a contingent of merchant vessels that served as an auxiliary to the U.S. military. As a Merchant Marine, Warden was assigned to work in the engine room of a freighter. He became unnerved when the ship was attacked by German bombs. Worried he might get trapped below deck on a sinking ship, he demanded a different job but was denied. He quit and joined the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, trading work on the sea for work in the sky.
During paratrooper training, Warden jumped from a plane and broke his leg when his parachute failed to open properly. Doctors fixed the leg with a steel plate, but the healing process involved a long hospital stay. To pass the time, Warden read plays at the suggestion of a friend. Warden finally returned to service just in time for the highly deadly World War II campaign known as the Battle of the Bulge.
After his discharge, Warden headed to the East Coast, hoping to launch an acting career. According to the Los Angeles Times, Warden once remarked, "That year in the hospital was the turning point in my life." It was during that time that Warden decided he wanted to become an actor. Warden landed in New York City, took acting classes, and relied on odd jobs to support himself. In 1946, while working as a hotel lifeguard, he befriended Margo Jones, manager of the Dallas-based Alley Theatre. She invited Warden to join the company and he spent the next several years honing his craft onstage.
Warden's television debut came in a 1950 NBC-TV production of Ann Rutledge, which was about the woman who allegedly was President Abraham Lincoln's first love. Afterward, Warden was offered roles in many live television drama anthologies. Another break came in 1955 when playwright Arthur Miller cast Warden in the inaugural Broadway production of A View From the Bridge. Warden played an Italian illegal immigrant named Marco who moves to Brooklyn to seek the American dream.
Soon, Hollywood came knocking and Warden began appearing on the big screen with regularity. Because of his gruff on-screen persona and physical presence, Warden was often offered roles in Westerns and in films involving crime, the military, or politics. He played Corporal Buckley in the 1953 war film From Here to Eternity. The movie won several Oscars and helped advance his career, as well as the careers of his co-stars—Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, and Deborah Kerr.
Warden's first standout film performance came in 1957's 12 Angry Men. In this film, Warden played a sports-obsessed juror who is eager to reach a verdict so he can get to a ballgame. Warden took on the role of an outlaw in 1973's The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and portrayed a cabbie in 1974's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. In 1976, he played hard-driving Washington Post news editor Harry Rosenfeld in All the President's Men, which depicted the Post's coverage of the Watergate scandal, which brought down President Richard Nixon. Warden then played the U.S. president in the 1979 Peter Sellers tragic-comedy Being There. In 1982, Warden starred in the courtroom drama The Verdict, playing a mentor to Paul Newman's attorney character.
Over the years, Warden appeared alongside such movie stars as Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Robin Williams. He also appeared in three Woody Allen films, including 1987's September, 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, and 1995's Mighty Aphrodite. He continued working through the 1990s, appearing in 1992's Toys and 1995's While You Were Sleeping, playing Sandra Bullock's grandfather. One of his last movie appearances was the 2000 football film The Replacements.
Though Warden never won an Academy Award, he received two nominations for best supporting actor—for 1975's Shampoo, where he played a rich businessman, and 1978's Heaven Can Wait, where he starred as a good-hearted, yet often flustered football coach. Both movies featured Warren Beatty. Warden did win one Emmy Award, for best supporting actor, for his role in Brian's Song.
Warden's television appearances included roles on NBC's Mr. Peepers (1952–55), ABC's N.Y.P.D. (1967–69), where he played a detective; NBC's Jigsaw John (1976), and CBS' Crazy Like a Fox (1984–86). His Broadway appearances included 1952's Golden Boy by Clifford Odets and 1969's The Man in the Glass Booth. It was a different Odets play that Warden read while hospitalized that turned him onto theater in the first place.
Warden died on July 19, 2006, at a New York City hospital; he was 85. He had been in ill health for several months. Survivors include his wife, French actress Vanda Dupre, whom he married in 1958 and separated from in the 1970s, though they never officially divorced. Warden is also survived by his son, Christopher, two grandchildren and a companion, Marucha Hinds.
Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2006, p. B14; New York Times, July 22, 2006, p. B10; Times (London), July 24, 2006, p. 53; Washington Post, July 22, 2006, p. B6.