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Actor James Whitmore, 87, dies

James Whitmore, shown in February 2000 portraying Will Rogers, died of lung cancer Friday.  (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
James Whitmore, shown in February 2000 portraying Will Rogers, died of lung cancer Friday. (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

LOS ANGELES – James Whitmore, the veteran Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor who brought American icons Will Rogers, Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt to life in one-man shows, died Friday. He was 87.

Whitmore died of lung cancer at his home in Malibu, said his son, Steve. He was diagnosed with the disease a week before Thanksgiving.

James Arness, who appeared with Whitmore in the movies “Battleground” and “Them!,” said Whitmore was “an actor’s actor,” adding that “it was always a treat to work with him.”

In 1948, he won a Tony Award for outstanding performance by a newcomer in the role of an amusingly cynical Army Air Forces sergeant in the Broadway production of “Command Decision.”

Whitmore’s Broadway success brought him to Hollywood, where he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in his second movie, the hit 1949 World War II drama “Battleground,” in which he played a tobacco-chewing, battle-weary Army sergeant.

Supporting roles and occasional leads in some 50 movies followed, including “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Them!,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Battle Cry,” “Oklahoma!,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” “The Serpent’s Egg,” “Nuts,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Majestic.”

A frequent guest actor on television, Whitmore also starred in three series: the 1960-62 legal drama “The Law and Mr. Jones,” the 1969 detective drama “My Friend Tony” and the 1972-74 hospital sit-com “Temperatures Rising.”

In 2000, Whitmore won an Emmy Award as outstanding guest actor in a drama series for “The Practice,” and he received a 2003 Emmy nomination in the same category for “Mister Sterling.”

An avid flower and vegetable gardener, Whitmore also was known to TV viewers as the longtime commercial pitchman for Miracle-Gro garden products.

Although he starred in productions of plays such as “Our Town” and “Death of a Salesman,” Whitmore was best known for his one-man shows: as Truman in “Give ’em Hell, Harry!,” as Roosevelt in “Bully” and as Rogers in “Will Rogers’ U.S.A.”

The 1975 film of his performance in “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” earned Whitmore a best actor Oscar nomination.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., on Oct. 1, 1921, Whitmore later moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he attended public schools until his senior year of high school, when he attended the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., on a football scholarship.

He was a pre-law major on an athletic scholarship at Yale University but had to quit playing football after suffering two knee injuries.

Whitmore joined the Marines during his senior year in 1942 and served in the South Pacific. After his discharge, he eventually moved to New York City and used the GI Bill to study acting at the American Theatre Wing.

In 1947, he married Nancy Mygatt, with whom he had three sons. They were divorced after 24 years. After Whitmore’s second marriage in the 1970s, to actress Audra Lindley, he and his first wife were remarried but divorced after two years.

In addition to his son, Whitmore is survived by his wife, Noreen, sons James Jr. and Dan, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.


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