Jack Warden, who died in New York City on July 19, was raised in Louisville, KY. He was born in Newark, NJ, but by his high school years he was down here and cutting classes in order to indulge other interests. Eventually, Warden, born John Lebzelter, would be nominated for Academy Awards and appear in some of the finest motion pictures made during American cinema’s Golden Era (the 1970’s). Those other interests back then included boxing, at which he excelled, winning dozens of professional bouts at middleweight until war called.
He joined the Navy and then the Merchant Marine and finally ended up in the Army’s 101st Airborne. Lebzelter was in practice to land on Normandy beach as a paratrooper when a chute failed to open during a training accident and left him in traction for eight months. He later landed in Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge before being shipped back stateside, unsure of what to do to make money.
He chanced to meet theatre legend Margo Jones who persuaded him to try acting. The stage was a bug that bit John (now known as “Jack Warden”) hard.
His early work in the seminal teleplay “Twelve Angry Men” gave a clear indication of his potential as a character actor. His later stage and screen successes underscored the realism he brought to each role. Nominations for Emmy awards and Oscars (for “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait”) did little to gloss Warden’s everyman persona. His filmography of over a hundred movies can boast of work with all the major directors and writers of the era, notably Hal Ashby (Warden played a thinly disguised President Jerry Ford in “Being There”), Sidney Lumet (“The Verdict”) and Norman Jewison (a hilarious turn as a crazy judge in “And Justice for All”).
Like his onetime boxing opponent Charles Durning, Warden played small character roles with a dignity and self-confidence that raised many a picture from the B-list to the A-list.