Born in 1914, John Richard Basehart grew up in Zanesville, OH, spending some of his childhood in an orphanage because his widowed father was unable to care for all four children (a fifth child died as a baby). Basehart was attracted to acting at an early age, but planned to follow in his father’s footsteps as a newspaper reporter. After a short career in journalism, he realized he couldn’t shake the acting bug. He moved to Philadelphia and then New York, appearing in numerous stage plays. His performance as a dying—but stubborn—Scottish soldier in The Hasty Heart earned him the New York Critics Award for “Most Promising Actor of the Year.” Warner Bros. took notice and signed him to a film contract.
Basehart’s first three films got his screen career off to a fine start. He played a melancholy poet in Repeat Performance (1947), the cult classic about a woman who relives a year over again trying to avert a tragedy the second time around. Basehart next appeared opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn in the entertaining Cry Wolf (though he doesn’t appear until near the climax). His third film earned him his best notices yet as the cold-hearted killer in He Walked By Night (1948), one of the first U.S. films to employ a documentary style to increase realism.
Basehart continued to deliver stellar performances throughout the 1950s. He played a suicidal young man standing on the ledge of a skyscraper in Fourteen Hours (1951). In Tension (1950), he had a rare starring role as a henpecked pharmacist who plots to murder his wife (things don’t work out according to plan…not at all). He got to play the villain again in House on Telegraph Hill (one of my favorite Basehart performances), managing to make an offer of a bedtime glass of orange juice menacing.
Basehart also appeared in his two most famous roles in the 1950s: Ishmael, the “hero” of Moby Dick, in John Huston’s 1956 screen adaptation, and Il Matto (“The Fool”), the clown in Federico Fellini’s classic La Strada (1954)¸ which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. When Fellini was asked why he cast Basehart in the pivotal role of the clown, the great director said it was because of Basehart’s compelling performance in Fourteen Hours.
Basehart gravitated toward television in the early 1960s and, in 1964, signed on to star as Admiral Harriman Nelson in Irwin Allen’s science-fiction TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Of his role as the stalwart Admiral Nelson, Basehart famously said: “With Shakespeare, there’s more character than an actor can ever plumb. But there’s no greater challenge than making something out of nothing.” (On a personal note: I first became a Basehart fan as a kid watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; in fact, I still have my autographed photo with him as the submarine Seaview’s commander).
When Voyage ended its four-year run, Basehart appeared frequently as a TV series guest star, in made-for-TV movies, and in the occasional theatrical film during the 1970s and early 1980s. Shortly before he died following a series of strokes in 1984, he narrated the closing ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Basehart was married three times. His first wife, Stephanie, died of a brain tumor in 1950. He married Valentina Cortese, his House on Telegraph Hill co-star, in 1951; they divorced in 1960. He married Diane Lotery in 1962 and they were together until his death.
(Program note: Fourteen Hours starring Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Grace Kelly, and Barbara Bel Geddes airs on TCM this Thursday at 8:00 EST.)