You won't see Stuart Whitman's name listed in the closing credits for the 1951 sci-fi classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But he's there, if only for a few seconds, in an uncredited role as one of the sentries guarding an alien spaceship.
Such was the humble beginning of many young actors in the '50s, appearing anonymously in bit parts hoping ultimately to be “discovered.” It took about a decade, but critics and audiences eventually noticed the handsome, dark-haired Whitman.
While waiting for that big break, young Stuart bought and hired out a bulldozer, to help pay the bills. But it wasn't an entirely odd employment choice.
“My dad was a real estate developer, and I helped him out before I was put under contract with Universal Studios,” he said from his home in Santa Barbara. His patience and perseverance paid off with a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in the 1961 film “The Mark.” Shot in Ireland with co-star Rod Steiger, it was a controversial film for the time, with Whitman playing a recovering sex offender.
“I was living in North Hollywood and heard the nomination on the radio while driving. I was shocked and almost crashed the car,” he recalled.
He didn't win, quite likely because the film's sensitive theme turned off some Academy voters. He was also up against stiff competition that year including Spencer Tracy, Paul Newman and Charles Boyer.
The award went to Maximilian Schell in “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
Whitman's charm and charisma made him a natural for Western roles including the short-lived but popular TV series “The Cimarron Strip” in 1967, and films such as “The Comancheros,” co-starring with John Wayne in 1961.
“Director Michael Curtiz wanted me for the part of Paul Regret in the film, but said it had already been cast. He suggested I go talk to Wayne,” said Whitman.
“I found him on the Paramount lot coming out of his trailer. I'd never met him before, but walked right up to him and spent 20 minutes pitching for the part. Finally he said, ‘OK kid, you've got it.' That's the kind of power John Wayne had!”
Whitman's most well-known film is probably “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” in 1965.
“That was the first big money I made in a movie – $300,000,” he said.
Money, however, was never an issue for much of his later career. From his humble bulldozing beginnings, Whitman went on to make millions from real estate investments.
“I didn't need to act to make a living, but had a real passion for it – I just loved to act.”
After some 200 film and TV roles, Whitman, who turned 86 in February, retired to his 30-acre California ranch.
“I've lived there for 45 years, in between the mountains and the ocean. It's a beautiful spot.”
In 2006, he married his third wife, Julia, a Russian.
The two met when Whitman traveled to St. Petersburg to be best man at a friend's wedding. “After returning to the US, I got a phone call from her saying she was in Pasadena and could we meet,” he said. “I'm sure glad I said ‘absolutely!'”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala. His features and columns have appeared in over 400 newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.