Vintage Hunk: Richard Basehart

By: Mike McCrann

"Richard Basehart may have been the greatest American actor ever."
Cinema Retro Magazine

Richard Basehart was an amazing actor and a handsome hunk whose talent and charms were evident in the wide range of films he made. Basehart never became a movie superstar but he did find fame on TV with the fondly remembered Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

One of the reasons Richard Basehart never became a huge star was that he played so many different kinds of roles - many of them sinister - that he could not be packaged as a typical leading man. He played a killer in the noir He Walked by Night, a henpecked husband in Tension, Ishmael in John Huston's Moby Dick and The Fool in Federico Fellini's Academy Award masterpiece La Strada. As Films in Review so aptly wrote, "Even today, Richard Basehart remains one of the great, unrecognized talents of post-war American films."

Born in Ohio in 1914, Basehart went to Broadway and finally found fame in the 1945 drama The Hasty Heart playing a dying Scottish soldier. Basehart won the 1945 Drama Critics Award (The Tonys did not start until 1947) and was named the most promising newcomer of the season.

Hollywood came calling and Basehart made his cinematic debut in a tame thriller Repeat Performance. A good role in Cry Wolf with Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn followed. Playing a mentally disturbed husband in this film led to his being cast as the cop killer in the noir classic He Walked by Night. Perhaps Basehart's finest early performance was in the now cult classic The Black Book (also known as Reign of Terror). This study of the French revolution had Basehart playing Robespierre and the whole story was filmed more as an film noir than a routine historical epic. Good parts in Decision Before Dawn and Fourteen Hours followed. Fourteen Hours— the study of a man who threatens to jump off a roof— is now mostly known as Grace Kelly's film debut, but without Basehart this film might not have been as good; however, it was during the making of Fourteen Hours that tragedy struck and Basehart's wife of ten years died from a brain tumor.

The year 1951 would bring a radical change in Basehart's life and career. Co-starring in the noir thriller The House on Telegraph Hill with gorgeous Italian actress Valentina Cortese (above, left) brought a whole new life to the grieving actor. The duo soon fell in love and married, then left Hollywood for Italy where Basehart found some of his best roles, including the masterpiece La Strada. Basehart and Cortese had a son but divorced in 1960. After that, Basehart played various parts, such as the defrocked priest in Titanic, and as Ismael the sailor/narrator in Moby Dick.

Following these great character roles, Basehart became an unexpected TV star with the hit series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Playing the skipper of the submarine Seaview, Basehart would star in the show for 4 years. He continued working after the Seaview made its last voyage, and died in 1984 at the age of 70.

Richard Basehart was a great actor and an extremely handsome man. A "thinking man's hunk" for sure. Probably the most fitting statement about Basehart's career came from one of his own lines in the 1951 thriller Decision Before Dawn:

"A man stays alive as long as he is remembered. He is killed only by forgetfulness."

As long as old movies and TV shows are broadcast, Richard Basehart will not be forgotten.