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James Whitmore, 87, actor of stage, screen, was former Buffalo resident Oct. 1, 1921 -- Feb. 6, 2009

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 in his home in Malibu, Calif., said his son, Steve. He was diagnosed with the disease a week before Thanksgiving.

"He cared about acting; his whole life was dedicated to the theater and to movies," said actor David Huddleston, a longtime friend who appeared in Whitmore's 1964 movie "Black Like Me" and did a couple of plays with him. "I asked James Cagney one time to tell me the best thing you can about acting. He said never to get caught at it. That's kind of how I'd sum up Jim Whitmore."

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."

Arness also remembered the "great intensity" Whitmore could bring to a role.

"When we wanted to get an actor to play a character who had that quality, Jimmy was the guy you'd think of," said Arness, who starred in "Gunsmoke," a TV series that Whitmore appeared on a number of times.

Born in White Plains, N.Y., on Oct. 1, 1921, Whitmore later moved to Buffalo, where he attended School 64 and Amherst High School. A painted portrait of Whitmore hangs in the lobby of Shea's Performing Art Center along with portraits of other entertainment luminaries from the area, including Lucille Ball and Grover Washington.

He was the brother of the late Phyllis Whitmore McLeod, the first woman to serve as a trustee on the East Aurora Village Board in the 1970s and who died in 1996.

In 1990, Whitmore lived in Ansonia Centre in downtown Buffalo for six months during the run of a performance of the play "Last Love" in Studio Arena Theatrre, in which he and his ex-wife, Audra Lindley, played a couple in their 80s who alternately bicker and banter, and reach out to each other as islands of comfort.

After attending Amherst High School, Whitmore spent his senior year at the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., on a football scholarship.

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

While at Yale, Whitmore helped launch the campus radio station.

A stocky World War II Marine Corps veteran who bore a resemblance to actor Spencer Tracy and shared Tracy's down-to-earth quality, Whitmore earned early acclaim.

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 over the next 50-plus years, 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" (although he left after a year, he later said, "because it was just a series of jokes").

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."

Although he starred in productions of plays such as "Our Town," "Inherit the Wind" and "Death of a Salesman," Whitmore was best known for his three 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.

But the one-man-show character he said he "always felt most comfortable with" was Rogers.

"He was wise with a sense of humor, and that's an unbeatable combination," Whitmore told the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader in 2003.

He was initially resistant to the idea of playing the gum-chewing, lariat-twirling humorist -- his first one-man show -- when adapter-director Paul Shyre brought "Will Rogers' U.S.A." to him in 1969.

Whitmore ultimately had about eight hours of Rogers' various comments about the topics of the day memorized, changing the show each time he did it.

He completed 30 years of on-and-off touring as Rogers at Ford's Theatre in Washington in 2000, and his costume is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1947, he married his first wife, 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.

When he died Friday, Whitmore "was surrounded by what he considered to be the most important thing in his life, which was his family," his son Steve said.

In addition to his son, Whitmore is survived by his wife, Noreen, and sons James Jr. and Dan.

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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