Friday, February 06, 2009

James Whitmore Dies at 87

James Whitmore passed away today. He died of lung cancer at the age of 87.

My first thought, upon hearing of Whitmore's death, was of a day in 1975 when I was about 15, and the mother of a friend of mine took my friend and me to a theater to see the film version of Whitmore's one-man play about Harry Truman, "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!"

Truman had died a couple of years earlier, but his reputation was enjoying a revival in popularity, thanks to Whitmore's portrayal and a hit song by the pop group Chicago. My friend's father was active in state Democratic Party politics in those days, so all three of us enjoyed the depiction of the feisty president. A clip from the film can be seen above.

It wasn't the only time that an actor appeared in a one-man play, but it was the only time (so far) that a film version of such a play earned an Academy Award nomination for the star. He lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Jack Nicholson.

He also appeared in one-man shows in which he portrayed Theodore Roosevelt and Will Rogers, who never ran for office but nevertheless had a lot to say about the politicians of his day.

Whitmore's acting career wasn't always associated with political personalities, but near the end of his life, he made news for his early endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy for president.

Modern movie audiences may remember his final major film role as the librarian in "The Shawshank Redemption" in 1994.

Whitmore was diagnosed with lung cancer less than three months ago. But he lived a long life and he contributed much to American culture.

And President Obama could do worse than to watch his performance as Harry Truman. He might get some valuable tips for handling the "hottest kitchen" around.