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Stuart Maxwell Whitman 1928-2020

Our family lost a treasure on the 16th of March.  I’m sure that my handsome and charming father-in-law’s star will shine as bright in heaven as it has here on earth.  He was a movie star and a cowboy all the way through.  I love the way my husband, Justin, put it when he said “We are proud of his film and television work and his Oscar nomination but what we will really remember is his exuberant love for his family and friends.” We loved him so much and he certainly made us feel loved. We will miss him so much but we are grateful for all of the wonderful times we had. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to our friend Mark Seal who wrote this wonderful tribute:

He was the rogue gambler captured and captivated by John Wayne in The Comancheros, the Arizona cowboy perilously aloft atop an airplane’s wing in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and a convicted sex offender who attempts to start his life over only to be accused of another crime in The Mark, the dark drama for which he was nominated for the 1961 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Off screen, he built an equally impressive career as a Southern California real estate developer, and he grew to love this land almost as much as he loved acting in movies and television.

But while Stuart Maxwell Whitman, who died peacefully on March 16th at 92 surrounded by his family, played an estimated 200 roles in his 50-year film career, he was beloved for his big heart and enormous personality. He leaves behind his wife, Yulia, one brother and five children from two previous marriages, but he considered them all part of the one big Whitman family, and included everyone in family celebrations, which were many and often.

Retired from acting since 2000, he went home to his favorite place on earth: his 35-acre Montecito ranch, the original Montecito dairy farm, where he always wore his boots and cowboy hat atop his D6 bulldozer, a more elaborate version of the one he rode in 1951 when he hired himself out as a bulldozer operator to support himself as he awaited his big break in Hollywood.

He loved Jack Daniels, Padron cigars, getting his hands dirty with work on his ranch, watching the birds and gazing out upon the Pacific ocean.  He adored people and embraced everyone equally, whether it was his longtime colleague Frank Sinatra, his ever-growing collection of friends or a repairman in his home. He took daily tennis lessons in preparation for heated matches, and was gracious in both victory and defeat. An avid storyteller, he was forever the center of attention, living by his mother’s creed, which he took joy in repeating, “Make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.”

A 6-foot-tall leading man known for portraying rugged characters, he was born on February 1, 1928 in San Francisco, the oldest of two sons, to Cecele and Joseph Whitman, who sparked his son’s show business gene while running for congress and giving speeches at the old Tammany Hall theater in New York, where young Stuart caught his first glimpse of what would become his passion: a stage. He appeared in summer stock productions at 12 before beginning a peripatetic life with his parents, attending what he estimated to be 26 different schools as he and his family moved through various cities. They arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s, where his father worked in the post-WWI government-run Manhattan Project before becoming a lawyer, and, soon after, a real estate developer.

After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1945, Stuart enlisted for three years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Here, he came out fighting, becoming a fierce medium heavyweight boxer, winning all but one of his 32 matches. After his honorable discharge in 1948, he studied law, minoring in drama, at Los Angeles City College. But when he told his father that he found law “boring,” and had decided to become an actor, he recalled his father replying, “If that’s the case you’re on your own.’ No money from him. And he kept his word.”

Atop a bulldozer, which his father had sold to him, Whitman earned enough clearing land to put himself through college and fund his early days as a struggling actor. Attending acting classes at night, in which he studied with Michael Chekhov (nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov) and he legendary Ben Bard, he landed small roles in film and stage productions. Then, in 1957, he was cast in Johnny Trouble as the bare-chested college boy Johnny, who steams up the screen in a dormitory romance with an older woman. The Los Angeles Times wrote that he “reminds of Robert Ryan and James Dean,” and Stuart Whitman was on his way to becoming a movie star. He was signed to the 20th Century Fox star-making program for young actors.

In 1958, he was cast alongside Gary Cooper in the film based on the John O’Hara bestseller, 10 North Frederick. That same year, he made film history, sharing one of Hollywood’s first interracial kisses with his co-star Dorothy Dandridge in the mutiny-on-the-high-seas drama The Decks Ran Red. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper predicted that Whitman could become the new Clark Gable, calling him “a fresh personality with tremendous impact. Tall and lean with a shock of unruly black hair and dark hazel eyes which harden to slate gray when he plays a bad man or turn on the heat in a love scene. When he comes in camera range, the audience sits up and says, ‘Who dat?’”

“I played four heels in a row,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1960. “In the last one, Hound Dog Man, I had a ball because the character was real loose, everything hanging off him and no inhibitions. He really enjoyed life. I like those kind of guys I suppose because I can’t be that way myself. If I was it would shatter a few things – namely my wife and four children.”
His next film, The Story of Ruth, a drama based on the Book of Ruth from the Bible, gave him the opportunity to “show the ‘ethereal side of his nature,” the newspaper added. By then, he had joined his father in purchasing Los Angeles area real estate. They would soon own 300 acres in Beverly Hills, much of which was, at the time of that 1960 interview, being cleared for construction. “We moved three million yards of earth with 26 rented irons (large bulldozers),” Whitman said in the newspaper interview. “I’m going up there now and put in a little time on a cat. You know my old (man) was bitterly opposed to my becoming an actor. He wanted me in the construction business with him, and threw me out of the house when he heard about it. And it took two years and two children before my wife’s family would invite me to their house. But now I seem to be making it as an actor everybody’s proud of.”

The Los Angeles Times called him “an actor of growing importance in a business, motion pictures, that needs stalwarts to follow in the steps of the Clark Gables, Gary Coopers, and John Waynes . . . Whitman is like a finely trained athletic champion – a modest but self-assured chap who seems to know where he is going.”

He was as tenacious in his film choices as he was on that bulldozer. He thought he’d be perfect for part of Paul Regret, an outlaw who killed a man in a duel in New Orleans who won the respect of his captor, played by John Wayne, in the 1961 film The Comancheros. But another actor had already been cast in the role until the director, Michael Curtiz, suggested Stuart speak with the film’s star. “I never met him before but walked right up to him and spent twenty minutes pitching for the part,” Whitman told the writer Nick Thomas in 2013. “Finally, he said, ‘Okay, kid, you’ve got it.’ This is the kind of power John Wayne had!”

From there he went on to his first romantic leading role, opposite Sarah Miles in the 1965 British comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris is 25 Hours and 11 Minutes. But the die was cast; Stuart Whitman had found his future in westerns. He both produced and starred in the short-lived but beloved 90-minute weekly series, Cimarron Strip, in which Whitman, as U.S. Marshall Jim Crown, fights to bring law and order to a stretch of Oklahoma’s treacherous badland territory in late 1880s. “I always wanted to play a cop with a heart, a guy who would use every possible means not to kill a man,” he said while starring and producing Cimarron Strip. “TV has needed a superhero… and I think Crown can be the guy.” The series ran from 1967 to 1968, after which Whitman was back with John Wayne in The Longest Day, storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day with a star-studded cast that included Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and Henry Fonda.

Hundreds of film and television roles followed, concurrent with his time on his bulldozer and activities in real estate development. But acting remained his true love. “I didn’t need to act to make a living, but I had  a real passion for it,” he told the writer Nick Thomas. “I just loved to act.”

That passion led him to receive some of the most prestigious awards of his profession, including a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1998, the Golden Boot Award in 2002, induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 2011. His leading role in The Mark, in which he played a recovering sex offender opposite a prison psychiatrist played by Rod Steiger, initially seemed too much for Whitman. “I didn’t see the script until I got to my hotel room in London,” he told Thomas. “My first thoughts were, ‘I can’t do this,’ and tried to think of an excuse to get out of it. Later, I got a call from Steiger who wanted to meet and rehearse at his place. We worked out way through and it turned out fine.”

The controversial role “broke my image as a gutsy outdoorsman,” he would later say. The Oscar nomination, which he recalled hearing over the radio while driving, came as a complete surprise. “I was shocked and almost crashed the car!” he later said. (The Best Actor Oscar nominees that year included Charles Boyer, Paul Newman and Spencer Tracy; the Oscar went  to Maximilian Schell for Judgement at Nuremberg.) The Mark was selected for competition for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

Stuart Whitman’s greatest reward was his family, of which he was immensely proud.

He is survived by his wife and partner of 25 years, Yulia Whitman; four children from his first marriage to the late Patricia LaLonde, Tony Whitman (Mary Ann Kellogg), Michael Whitman (Susan Behar), Linda LaLonde Whitman and Scott Whitman (Lisa Whitman); and one son, Justin Whitman (Kimberly Schlegel Whitman), from his second marriage to Caroline Boubis Whitman. He also leaves behind a brother and sister-in-law Beth and Kipp Whitman, a nephew, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

 

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