His Way Or The Highway: On Broderick Crawford’s 100th

My trademarks are a hoarse, grating voice and the face of a retired pugilist: small narrowed eyes set in puffy features which look as though they might, years ago, have lost on points.

Broderick Crawford, describing himself.

We’ve seen 100th birthday tributes to Lucille Ball and Ronald Reagan, but let’s not forget Broderick Crawford. From the aforementioned quote, it’s clear that he even knew he was no fashion plate. But that certainly didn’t stop him from becoming a terrific actor.

The Philly-born son of a mother and father who were working actors, Crawford’s thespian skills were displayed for six decades on the big and small screen and in the theater. Because of his craggy looks and blustery demeanor, Crawford became a character actor who on occasion would get a lead role—and usually make the best of it.

Crawford’s first break came on Broadway where he limned the part of Lenny in the original stage version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1937. When Crawford left to act in movies, his longtime carousing buddy Lon Chaney, Jr. took over the role, and was eventually cast in the 1939 film version.

From the late 1930s and into the 1940s-–with an absence of a few years for World War II service in the U.S. Army Air Corps—Crawford cranked out movies, co-starring in as many as seven a year. He appeared in westerns, noirs, horror films, comedies and even period adventures. Most notable from this period were Beau Geste (1939), in which Crawford plays one of the American friends of the hero (Gary Cooper), who leaves him in the desert; Eternally Yours (1939), as the husband Loretta Young dumps for magician David Niven; Seven Sinners (1940), playing a Naval deserter and friend of singer Marlene Dietrich who is being wooed in turn by Navy officer John Wayne; and Larceny, Inc. (1942) as a dim-witted accomplice of bank robber Edward G. Robinson.

Broderick’s biggest one-two punch on screen came in 1949 and 1950 for Columbia Studios. First, he played the role of Willie Stark in Robert Rossen’s film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men. Not-so loosely based on Louisiana governor and U.S. senator Huey Long, All the King’s Men went on to win three of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crawford. John Wayne was originally offered the part of the charismatic politician who turns corrupt and loses touch with the people close to him when he ascends to the upper regions of power. Crawford smartly took the part after Wayne, who considered its no-holds-barred portrayal of a corrupt government official “unpatriotic,” turned it down.

The accolades put a positive buzz on Crawford’s career and led him to snag the prime role of uncouth scrap metal mogul Harry Brock in George Cukor’s screen version of Garson Kanin’s play Born Yesterday. Paul Douglas originated the part on Broadway, but Columbia was keen on Crawford’s rising star. In the fast-paced farce, Brock heads to Washington, D.C. with flighty showgirl mistress Billie Dawn (Oscar-winning Judy Holliday, reprising her stage role) to try to pull some strings and get some laws changed to his business’s advantage. To make Billie more acceptable to the city’s sophisticates, he enlists the help of newspaper reporter Paul Verral (William Holden) to give her some polish, but the erudite journalist eventually falls in love with her.

While it was Holliday’s showcase, Crawford gained some enthusiastic notices for his comedic turn (supposedly based by Kanin on studio head Harry Cohn, although he didn’t realize it). The attention helped make Crawford one of Hollywood’s busiest performers, as supporting player and occasional lead. In 1955 alone, Crawford was featured in seven productions including Federico Fellini’s Il Bidone. Crawford made strong impressions in two 1954 films: Human Desire, Fritz Lang’s perverse, noirsh take on Emile Zola’s story, in which railroad official Crawford discovers that wife Gloria Grahame is having an affair with train engineer Glenn Ford; and Night People, as a business tycoon exercising power, money and influence to persuade American officials and provost marshal Gregory Peck to recover his kidnapped solider son in post-WWII West Berlin.

Crawford also expanded his work in the burgeoning TV industry, appearing in drama productions for Schlitz Playhouse and Lux Television Theater, as well as work in such series as Bat Masterson and The Rough Riders. In 1955, Crawford committed to star in the syndicated TV series Highway Patrol after Mike Connors was dropped. He played Chief Dan Matthews, the no-nonsense, felt fedora-wearing leader of the mobile police force in an anonymous western state. Matthews barked out orders while his cops used cars, motorcycles and helicopters to catch the law-breakers. Based on real incidents encountered by the California Highway Patrol and produced by ZIV Studios, also responsible for the Lloyd Bridges starrer Sea Hunt, the show ran for four seasons and for many years thereafter in syndication. In fact, it was so successful that intercom systems and toy cars, board games and mini pinball machines bearing Crawford’s image were marketed.

Crawford, who was married three times (actresses Joan Tabor and Kay Griffith were among his wives), returned to TV regularly throughout the rest of his career, becoming a trusty supporting presence as black hats and lawmen in scores of shows for the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s. He starred as a diamond security expert in the series Jack of Diamonds shortly after Highway Patrol stopped production, and as the doctor overseeing a group of young physicians-in-training on The Interns in the early seventies.

The actor’s domestic career on the big screen, however, appeared to be on the downswing. Perhaps it was his appearance in Il Bidone that got the middle-aged Crawford offers from Europe. He began to make more frequent trips overseas to appear in such films as Goliath and the Dragon, Square of Violence and the period historical drama The Castilian (with Frankie Avalon and Cesar Romero!). Meanwhile, in the United States, Crawford became a regular in low profile sagebrushers and TV movies and television series, turning in memorable guest shots in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Night Gallery and, later, playing himself in a funny cameo on CHIPS.

Perhaps the most impressive (but least seen) work of his latter career came in Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, in which he played the FBI honcho. The biography, in which Crawford played the aged Hoover, touches on the original G-man leader’s involvement in stopping organized crime, the Red Scare of the ‘50s, the Kennedys, the assassination of Martin Luther King and other historical events. The film makes insinuations about the chief’s sexual peccadilloes (Dan Dailey plays Clyde Tolson, his rumored lover) and shows some unsettling sides to Hoover’s personal life in true tabloid style.

Crawford passed away of a stroke in Rancho Mirage, California in 1986, at the age of 74. Like his big and small screen persona, he was not one to mince words. Of his career, Crawford said “I’ve made upwards of a million bucks in the cops and robbers business.”

So, now we celebrate what would have been Broderick Crawford’s 100th birthday. And in the spirit of Chief Dan Martin, we’ll add a big “10-4” to that.

Over and out.