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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,653

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This is the grave of Jack Warden.

Born in 1920 in Newark, John Warden Lebzelter grew up fairly well off, mostly in Louisville. His dad was an engineer. He was a little punk. He loved fighting and got expelled from school. He ended up as a professional boxer for awhile actually, fighting under the name of Johnny Costello, which if you were to make up the name of a boxer is pretty much exactly what you’d use unless you wanted to go by Kid Costello or something like that. Anyway, he was OK, but not good enough for any kind of real career. So, being a self-styled tough, he got a job as a nightclub bouncer. He did a few other things too and then joined the Navy in 1938, which is exactly where a kid like that should be.

Warden served in the Navy for three years, mostly in China along the Yangtze River. He then was in the Merchant Marine briefly, but didn’t like being on the open water for such long stretches. So in 1942, he joined the Army. He became a paratrooper in the 101th Airborne. He was supposed to be involved in the D-Day invasion. But shortly before the invasion, he broke his leg in a practice jump in England. It was a bad break, compound fracture. So he had 8 months of recovery. Bored, he started to read. He picked up a Clifford Odets play and really got into it. He started reading more plays and decided his future would be acting.

After the war, Warden used his GI Bill benefits to go to New York and study acting. He actually found work pretty quickly. He had uncredited roles in both the TV show The Asphalt Jungle (totally unrelated to the 1949 film by the same name) and Sunset Boulevard and also got a bunch of early TV roles. The first thing I’ve seen Warden in (that I recognize anyway, not counting the uncredited roles) is in From Here to Eternity, where he played one of the enlisted men. Then he was in 12 Angry Men, where he had the key role of the guy who didn’t care if the dude was guilty or not, he was angry and wanted to go home. Of course, that’s basically a perfect film and Warden was awesome as Fonda’s foil. I really love his work in that film.

Warden was in Martin Ritt’s 1959 adaptation of The Sound and the Fury, which I have not seen and seems completely unadaptable as a film. He was Ben Compson in the film, with Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward in the lead roles. Generally, it was not well-received. Other key roles for him in the late 50s through the 60s included Sidney Lumet’s His Kind of Woman, Joseph Newman’s 1961 adaptation of The Asphalt Jungle with a name change to The Lawbreakers that moved Warden to the lead role, and Andrew Marton’s 1964 adaptation of The Thin Red Line, completely forgotten about today with Terence Malick having made the definitive version in the 1990s.

But mostly Warden was a TV guy in these years and mostly in supporting roles too. Like Walter Matthau, he was basically a character actor who looked a character actor. He provided that deep character work with a distinctive face that made everything better. But his career was honestly kind of stalled out until the 70s. He got work, and plenty of it. It was a good living. He was well-respected. But it felt like it could be so much more.

The end of the studio system was good for a guy like Warden. The deep character studies of the 70s that didn’t require every lead player to look like a star opened doors to better scripts and better films with a better chance of getting funded. His roles improved later in his career. He started coming back to more attention with his role as George Halas in the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song, one of the most important TV movies ever made. He won an Emmy for that role. Then he was Harry Rosenfeld is All the President’s Men. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the 1975 Hal Ashby movie Shampoo and then again for the 1978 Warren Beatty movie Heaven Can Wait. Oddly I have seen neither of these films. He became just a super reliable supporting actor in these years. He was in The White Buffalo, …And Justice for All, The Verdict, many quality films. He was the president in Being There. Given my age, his role in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper might be the first time he came to my attention.

Warden also got some quality TV work in these years. He was the star of the TV adaptation of The Bad News Bears. He was also the star of Crazy Like a Fox and actually received a couple of Emmy nominations for that too. He worked a lot of TV over the years, especially earlier in his career when he needed whatever work he could get.

Among his later work, Warden was excellent in some of the better 90s Woody Allen films, both in Bullets over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite. At some point, we will be able to discuss this era of Allen with some objectivity as he will be dead and we can somewhat put aside what a scumbag creep he was by this time, but there are some good films in there and these are two of them. He was also in Bulworth, speaking of odd 90s films that I think are much better than a lot of people think. I really should watch that again, I wonder how it looks in 2024. He also had a major role in one of the worst movies ever made, the Carrot Top vehicle Chairman of the Board, which is more famous for the infamous Conan O’Brien episode featuring Norm and poor Courtney Thorne-Smith trying to promote a movie she knew was terrible, and Norm getting bored himself and went full insult comic in one of the funniest bits of TV I have ever seen. His final film was the terrible The Replacements, where he and Gene Hackman break a strike of football players. Comedy gold. I swear to God this movie is on in every other sports bar.

Warden retired from acting in 2000. His health was getting questionable at best. He died in 2006 of heart and kidney failure. He was 85 years old.

Jack Warden is buried in Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for Oscars in 1976, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Burns, who won Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys, is in Glendale, California and Sylvia Miles, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Farewell, My Lovely, is in Woodstock, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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