Perhaps because he made movies in Europe — most notably in Federico Fellini’s seminal La Strada (The Road) in 1954 — some of us thought Richard Basehart was actually born in England.
The truth is more prosaic. The actor was born in 1914 in the wholesome locale of Zanesville, Ohio. (He died of multiple strokes in 1984 in Los Angeles.)
He started out following in his father’s career path as a struggling journalist but caught the theater bug early. Regional theater followed augmented by radio stints — his resonant voice and mimicking skills suited the medium nicely.
By 1945, he was in Hollywood. What’s more, his early films are thought of as minor classics of noir. Repeat Performance, marked Basehart’s debut (the picture is one of Joe’s very favorites). He plays a poet with the unlikely moniker of William Williams.
Throughout his long and varied career, covering some 110 movie and tv credits over a 40-year period, Basehart often found himself playing introverted and angry types. Thus his plaudits for portraying the sociopathic cop killer in 1948’s He Walked By Night, a performance that dominates the police procedural.
We like 1949’s Tension. Audrey Totter outdoes herself in the femme fatale department by cheating on her mild-mannered druggist husband (Basehart), and then murdering her boyfriend. The hapless druggest’s obsession with his wife’s infidelity propels him over the edge of reason, comment film noir historians Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward.
And in the MGM outing, Cyd Charisse (late in her studio career) holds her own against the formidable Totter, as the freelance photographer heroine who rescues the shy pharmacist from his domestic hell of adultery, lust and murder.
Another well remembered movie from this period is the 1951 thriller House on Telegraph Hill in which Italian actress Valentina Cortesa plays a concentration camp survivor who impersonates another woman, and learns to her surprise that she has come into a fortune in inheritance.
Playing her suspect husband is Basehart, who in fact became Valentina’s husband. (She and the actor were married for nine years until 1960. It was the second of Basehart’s three marriages.)
And let’s not forget 1951’s Fourteen Hours, in which Basehart dominates as a distraught man threatening suicide by jumping off a tall office building. The actor’s performance is said to have inspired director Fellini to cast Basehart in La Strada.
Throughout his career Basehart favored challenging screen and tv roles. Among his pictures are John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby Dick, 1958’s The Brothers Karamazov, and on tv, as one of the leads The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, an hour-long science fiction series which ran on ABC from 1964 to 1968.