The Underappreciation of Richard Basehart - by Mykki Newton

Louella Parsons once said Richard Basehart was the hardest interview she ever tried to conduct. Not because he was difficult, he just didn’t like to talk about himself.

Basehart originally pursued a career in the family business of journalism. His father was the editor of the local newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio. Young Richard uncovered a scandal in the mayor's office that brought down the administration, but he was fired for punching a detective. So, young Richard remembered how much fun he had acting in local theatre and later moved to New York. He never pursued roles that would make him a superstar. He only pursued roles he found interesting as an actor. Richard Basehart never played the Hollywood game, he just acted.

"Richard Basehart may have been the greatest American actor ever. Certainly he was too accomplished a performer ever to be just another movie star.”

–Herbert Shadrak, Cinema Retro

Richard Basehart, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968)

So, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room…Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the classic television show Richard Basehart is most often identified with. From 1964 to 1968, Basehart played the role of Admiral Harriman Nelson, the genius commander and inventor of the Seaview. The Seaview was much more than just a submarine. It was a mobile underwater research station with a secret mission to protect the planet from all threats. Admiral Nelson and his crew faced more than their fair share of spies, terrorists, and monsters.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

“Well, of course, it isn't exactly Hamlet. With Shakespeare, there’s more character than an actor can even plumb. But there’s no greater challenge than making something out of nothing. I mean, you take an underdeveloped character and you have to make him alive. You take what’s there, and you round him out. You see, the lack of time sharpens an actor’s tools to razor-sharp edges. There’s no time to study. You’re on, and it’s up to you to create the man, the mood, instantly.”

-Richard Basehart, 1965 TV Guide interview

Richard Basehart, The Hasty Heart (1945)

It was Shakespeare not sea serpents Basehart always looked for. In his early days as a professional actor, he hustled and found what he was seeking. Basehart appeared in five Shakespearian plays on the New York stage in the early 1940s, but it was the World War II drama The Hasty Heart which gave young Richard Basehart the career breakthrough lead role and the 1945 New York Critics Award as the most promising actor of the year. That brought him to the attention of Hollywood, but when he moved to the movie capital that same year, Tensiltown treated him like every other young unknown, out-of-work actor.

Richard Basehart (1945)

“I hated Hollywood! I felt and acted as if I was living on an exclusive diet of lemons. In all fairness to myself I must say there were circumstances and situations that left me a bit groggy. However, it’s always the same old story.”

-Richard Basehart, 1952 Jerry Asher Interview

By 1948, all those hard lessons about the Hollywood system were starting to payoff for Richard Basehart. That year he wowed audiences and critics with his portrayal of a psychopathic killer in the crime film noir He Walked by Night. What followed was a trifecta of great Richard Basehart starring role film performances that bolstered his satisfaction with Hollywood.

Richard Basehart in Fourteen Hours (1950)

First, in the film noir Fourteen Hours (1950), he plays a mentally disturbed man threatening to jump from the 15th floor of a hotel. It earned him a National Board of Review award.

Richard Basehart in Fixed Bayonets (1951)

Second, the Korean War drama Fixed Bayonets (1951) in which Basehart plays a timid U.S. Army corporal slapped with the unwanted responsibility of leading his platoon out of a deadly situation.

Completing the trifecta was Decision Before Dawn (1951), a World War II spy drama. Basehart’s character, a U.S. Army Intelligence lieutenant, doesn’t trust Germans willing to rat on their comrades, but he is forced to go behind enemy lines on a top secret mission with a German prisoner of war.

Gary Merrill and Richard Basehart in Decision Before Dawn (1951)

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

-Richard Basehart as Lieutenant Rennick in Decision Before Dawn (1951)

Richard Basehart, Valentina Cortese, son Jackie (1951)

Richard Basehart and Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954)

Thanks in part to Richard Basehart’s Italian actress wife Valentina Cortese, his career took an interesting international turn in 1954 when he co-starred with Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s La Strada, considered by the American Film Institute to be one of the most influential films ever made. Basehart’s casting came into Fellini’s mind while Basehart was visiting Valentina on the set of Fellini’s Donne proibite (Angels of Darkness) earlier that same year. He would go on to do three more Italian films during this period, Avanzi di galera a.k.a. Jailbirds (1954), Le avventure di Cartouche a.k.a Cartouche (1955), and he reteamed with Fellini and Masina for Il bidone a.k.a. The Drum (1955).


Patricia Roc and Richard Basehart in Le avventure di Cartouche (1955)

"I was fortunate that Richard Basehart was still in Rome after La Strada. He had exactly the right saintly expression for the sympathetic con man who barely understands the moral implications of what he is doing. He has a conscience, but it's well hidden.”

-Federico Fellini, director Il bidone (1955) [1]

Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart in Il bidone (1955)

"I'm a resident of Italy, but a citizen of the U.S. Let's be honest, I wouldn't be living in Rome if it weren't for Valentina. But the city also is a very lovely place. You have a feeling of continuity with the past there. Everywhere you look there are vestiges of long-dead civilizations which have passed their culture to our own age. It's fascinating."

-Richard Basehart, 1957 Zanesville Times Signal interview


Back in the United States in 1956, Richard Basehart had an even bigger fish to fry…actually, it was a giant marine mammal.

His performance as Ishamel to Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab under the direction of John Huston in Moby Dick (1956) has become a classic…maybe even the definitive Ishamel interpretation. It earned Basehart his second National Board of Review award.

Richard Basehart and Friedrich von Ledebur in Moby Dick (1956)

During filming, Basehart broke his foot in three places when he jumped 17 feet from the whaling ship to a long boat. Filming had to be halted for six weeks while his foot healed.

Practical jokes were also a common occurrence on the set. When know filming scenes, Basehart would sit on the pier fishing. Weeks went by without a single catch, until one day he felt a tug on his fishing line.

“I excitedly informed the entire cast to hurry over and witness the occasion. I pulled and pulled and finally withdrew from the smiling ocean a string of sausages. John Huston was to blame.”

-Richard Basehart [1]

Richard Basehart in Time Limit (1957)

The year after Moby Dick, Richard Basehart turned in one of his most riveting performances as a U.S. Army major accused of collaborating with the enemy while in a North Korean prison camp in Time Limit (1957). The role earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actor. Today, most of the attention to Time Limit is place on the fact it was Karl Malden’s only directing credit.

Basehart's next film was mostly a supporting role in a wildly talented ensemble cast. It was that of Ivan, one of The Brothers Karamazov (1958) alongside Yul Brynner and William Shatner.

Lee J. Cobb, Yul Brynner, William Shatner, and Richard Basehart in The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

“All the brothers emerge as quite inexplicable people. It is hard to be sympathetic to Dmitri, and not to be embarrassed by Alyosha or scornful of Ivan. The performances throughout suggest that the cast never really knew what it was all about.”

-The Monthly Film Bulletin, 1958


The next few years saw Richard Basehart’s return to European cinema. His films during this period include the Italian romantic comedy Love and Troubles (1958) which also starred his wife Valentina Cortese, The Restless and the Damned (1959) a French-Australian film which saw Basehart as a husband who becomes the target of his murderous wife when he decides to leave her, the West German drama Jons und Erdme (1959), and the Dino De Laurentiis Italian-American production of Five Branded Women (1960).

Richard Basehart and Vera Miles in Five Branded Women (1960

Upon returning to making American films, Richard Basehart aimed his sights at giving the definitive film performance as the 20th Century’s most evil real-life villain.

Richard Basehart in Hitler (1962)

He accepted the challenge of the title role in Hitler (1962). It turned out to be one of Basehart’s greatest professional disappointments. The film was later retitled The Women of Nazi Germany. That was far from what Richard Basehart was working to achieve.

Richard Basehart in Hitler (1962)

“I researched, I read volumes, I evolved a characterization of this man—a genius, if a psychopathic one. The producer exploded! ‘too sympathetic’, he said. We did it his way. Any subtlety in the characterization was lost.”

-Richard Basehart, 1965 TV Guide interview

By 1964, Richard Basehart decided to turn his talents toward television. He had done several guest appearances on everything from Playhouse 90 to The Twilight Zone, but now he was being offered the starring role in his own series.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was the first of four science fictions television series created by Irwin Allen. Primarily aimed at children, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea paved the way for Allen's other shows -- Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, and Land of the Giants. Some critics wondered why a distinguished film actor such as Richard Bssehart would venture into such deep television waters.

“The basic drive was financial. I needed money for personal reasons. The money was good and I thought it might be fun. And as the show progressed, I developed some strong personal relationships.”

-Richard Basehart, 1965 TV’s Magazine interview

Richard Basehart and David Hedison on the set of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

“Richard didn’t take to everyone, but he liked me; my enthusiasm, I guess. I did want to work with him. He taught me so much during those four years.”

-David Hedison, co-star Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea [2]

Richard Basehart’s plan was to return to Shakespeare once Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea finished its run. He longed to do King Lear, but that was a dream that was never meant to be. He stayed mainly in television doing guest appearance in other series, and numerous made for TV movies.

Richard Basehart in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

He also made an occasional return to feature films. Most notably as the Sayer of the Law in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and as Vladimir Skrapinov, the Soviet Ambassador in Being There (1979), his final feature film appearance. He passed away on September 17, 1984 at the age of 70.

Richard Basehart in Being There (1979)

"I wouldn't want to be a straight leading man. You've got to be bigger and prettier than I am."

-Richard Basehart


[1] The Talented Richard Basehart website

[2] Cinema Retro interview February 16, 2010

84 views2 comments