Article written by Marian Dern
"Well, of course, it isn't exactly Hamlet . . ." Richard Basehart, who has traded Shakespeare for a submarine, has no complaints about his TV role.
"Who? Me? Go down in a real submarine? Never," said Richard Basehart, known to TV viewers as Admiral Nelson, USN (Ret.), commander of the good sub Seaview. "My God, I get claustrophobia" added the star of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Fortunately for Basehart, his series doesn't require literal submersion. However, Voyage holds subtler forms of claustrophobia for a man whose primary focus has always been on serious acting and classical theater. For such an actor, the tightly enclosed observation nose of the Seaview, and the dialog that often reads like a seagoing Buck Rogers, must sometimes feel stifling. From his early years, there was about Basehart the aura of a budding Barrymore. But it has been a mixed blessing at best. At 13, he acted in a local stock company in his hometown of Zanesville Ohio, where his father, a former actor, edited the local newspaper. At 19, he enrolled at Hedgerow Theater near Philadelphia and did some 40 plays drawn largely from those of Shakespeare, Shaw, Checkov and Ibsen.
Did Shakespeare Plays
When he got to New York five years later, he sought out Margaret Webster, a leading Shakespearean director, and did five plays for her. But he failed to create much of a stir until he tried out for a Broadway comedy called "The Hasty Heart" in 1944. It was not his classical delivery that won him the lead role of the romantic Scot, but rather that he had developed a burrier Scottish burr than anyone else at the reading. But the role won him the New York Drama Critics "Most promising Actor of the Year" Award. And it won him a contract with Warner Bothers. The irony is that that today, 20 years and more than 20 films later, well-meaning admirers still come up to him and say, "Gee, I'm glad to finally meet you. I always wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed you in "The Hasty Heart." Six Years after he came to Hollywood, in 1945, and after starring in some six pictures, Basehart had yet to play a part that was either a smashing commercial or critical success. In 1951, Hedda Hopper was explaining him this way: "He's no glamor boy or overnight success, but a fine, deliberate actor." And Basehart was confessing to Miss Hopper that, "What I really want to do is play Hamlet or Richard III or Peer Gynt."
Still wants 'King Lear'
Today, Basehart still says, "When I'm through with this TV series and I've got some security piled up, I'd like to go off and do King Lear." Over the years, whenever he tried to depart from the more mundane paths, he seemed to come a cropper. Once, for example, Basehart set out to do the definitive characterization of Adolph Hitler in a film, which he took to be a serious effort at filmmaking, called simply "Hitler." He turned out to be mistaken. "I researched, I read volumes, I evolved a characterization of this man-a genius, if a psychopathic one," recalls Basehart. "The producer exploded. "Too sympathetic, he said. We did it his way. The result was that any subtlety in Basehart's characterization was lost, he says, and the character became a blatant stereotype. This picture later was released again as "Women of Nazi Germany." When he did manage to act in something worth acting in, it was often someone else who took the big bows. As Ishmael in "Moby Dick," he took a back seat to Gregory Peck and Orson Welles, and, incidentally, the low-key photography. In "La Strada," an Italian film which was one of a number he made in Europe, his poignant, poetic acrobat was overshadowed by Giuliette Massina, in an even more poignant role, and by Anthony Quinn's forceful acting as a circus strongman. In a sense, Basehart is a man whose dedication has been his undoing. Joan Harrison, who is a long-time associate of Alfred Hitchcock's and a producer of his TV show for many years, and an old friend and associate of Basehart, explains, "He was too good an actor to ever become a super-star. He always gravitated to the interesting character parts. The handsome hero bored him." Yet today, Basehart plays a hero, and more people know of his as the stalwart Admiral Nelson than ever heard of him in 20 years of filmmaking. And today, Basehart's most pressing acting challenge is saying "Up periscope, down periscope," with just the right inflection half a dozen times a day.
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