Cops, Crooks & Clowns – Richard Basehart (1914 – 1984)

Posted in Rewind by - January 18, 2016
Cops, Crooks & Clowns – Richard Basehart (1914 – 1984)

One of the first American actors to explore European cinema, the serious-looking Richard Basehart gave many top drawer performances from both sides of the law. A diverse actor, he was also noted for his deep voice which he put to use in numerous productions, especially in his later years.

Born in Ohio on August 31st, 1914, Richard’s screen career got off to a strong start when he gave a superb performance as a cop turned killer, in the excellent thriller ‘He Walked By Night’ (’48), the first of his memorable run of noir roles. Anthony Mann took over directing duties on the picture and directed Richard again the following year in ‘Reign of Terror’ (’49), where he was a would-be dictator desperate to track down a book of names which he believes will help put him in power.

After more villainous parts in ‘Tension’ (’49) and ‘Outside the Wall’ (’50), Basehart appeared in four excellent pictures in what would be a milestone year for him; 1951. First, he was terrific in Henry Hathaway’s minimally-plotted but gripping suspenser ‘Fourteen Hours’, playing a suicidal young man threatening to jump from a narrow hotel ledge. Although the movie had a happy ending, tragedy struck during production when Richard’s first wife Stephanie sadly died from a brain tumour. Next was the twisty thriller ‘The House on Telegraph Hill’, where he met and married his co-star Valentina Cortese. He was then a wounded officer in the anti-war drama ‘Decision Before Dawn’, and finally, in Sam Fuller’s gritty ‘Fixed Bayonets!’ a timid corporal reluctantly taking command in wintery Korea.

After playing an alcoholic priest in the 1953 version of ‘Titanic’, Basehart went to England to co-star with Laurence Harvey in Lewis Gilbert’s enjoyable London-based heist flick ‘The Good Die Young’ (’54). Another milestone in Basehart’s career came when Federico Fellini, having been impressed with his acting from his noir days, cast Richard as ‘The Fool’ in his masterful circus drama ‘La Strada’ (’54). Basehart was excellent as the tragic comic, needlessly killed by Anthony Quinn’s sadistic strong-man. The following year he was with Fellini again, this time playing a small-time crook in the under-rated ‘Il Bidone’ (’55), which featured a brilliant performance by Broderick Crawford as an aging crook finding redemption through his love for his daughter.

Back in Hollywood, Richard was the wandering sailor Ishmael, taking to the seas with Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab, in John Huston’s well-made take on Herman Melville’s epic tale ‘Moby Dick’ (’56). After playing Lee J. Cobb’s son, who later confesses to his murder, in Richard Brook’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (’58), Richard had a small but memorable role in the hard-to-find POW drama ‘5 Branded Women’ (’60), as the German lover of Jeanne Moreau’s ejected Yugoslav. Basehart was back in German mode when he played the title role in ‘Hitler’ (’62), and was very effective in a rather difficult part, though the movie itself was mostly dismissed by critics and public alike.

To a certain generation Basehart will always be remembered for his role of Admiral Nelson in Irwin Allen’s long-running Sci-fi series ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ (’64), taking over Walter Pidgeon’s role from the 1961 movie. An enjoyable movie at this time was John Sturge’s ‘The Satan Bug’ (’65), which had Richard as a megalomaniac madman threatening germ warfare, in a fun sci-fi thriller which has built a cult following over the years. After a small role in Michael Winner’s ‘Chato’s Land’, Basehart was a physician siding with George C. Scott’s nerve gas victim, in ‘Rage’ (both ’72), a decent conspiracy thriller directed by Scott himself.

Along with many television appearances, Richard made the fashionable foray into TV movies. He was German politician Willy Brandt in ’21 Hours at Munich’ (’76), a worthy dramatization of the 1972 Olympic Games massacre, with an international cast that included William Holden, Franco Nero and Anthony Quayle. Richard then got caught up in the boring disaster flick ‘Flood!’ (’76), though at least it did have a good cast which included Robert Culp, Carol Lynley and Teresa Wright. A watchable sci-fi horror followed with John Frankenheimer’s ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ (’77), playing the Sayer of the Law. Among Basehart’s final appearances were in the Peter Sellers starrer ‘Being There’ (’79), where he was a Russian ambassador, and the pretty good TV movie ‘Marilyn: The Untold Story’ (’80), playing talent agent Johnny Hyde. Much in demand at this time for his distinctive voice, Basehart also acted as narrator on the hugely popular series ‘Knight Rider’ in the early 1980’s.

Married three times, with three children, Richard died aged 70, on September 17th 1984. Never afraid of challenging himself, Basehart was another of those solid and dependable actors who never disappointed. He excelled at both hero and villain, and yet, in a career spanning nearly 40 years, he sadly remains much under-appreciated, even though he left a vast number of winning performances and cult pictures to his credit.

Favourite Movie: La Strada
Favourite Performance: He walked By Night

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