Another one of my favorite actors was the great Richard Widmark. Yes, he of the 1940s film noir and gangster films.
Widmark had made a career in Hollywood out of playing villains, especially the psychopathic killer in the 1947 gangster film Kiss of Death, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best-supporting actor. But he was also a versatile actor whose broad range of characters found their way into over 70 films beginning in the late 40s to the early 90s. Other notable roles included Night and the City (1950), No Way Out (1950), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Madigan (1968), and The Sell-Out (1976).
I first met Richard at Cafe Nicholson’s in the late 80s. The restaurant was owned by my godfather, the late Johnny Nicholson, and when I needed a job while attending college, he offered me a plum position as the only waiter at his place. In fact, there were only 8 tables in the entire restaurant and so a table reservation was a rare commodity.
Well, Richard and his wife Jean were regulars. (Nicholson had founded the place in 1949 with chef Edna Lewis, and ran it for 50 years until it closed in 1999.) Of all the movie stars I met, Widmark exuded the most charm, and he had an aura that was magnetic. It’s really hard to describe, but that’s how I felt in his presence.
Some years later, I was given a small stake in a restaurant called Matthew’s owned by chef Matthew Kenney and his then partner Mark Wood. They were hoping I could turn it around, as the place was a sinking ship when I arrived. It was situated on the corner of 61st Street on 3rd Avenue in the Trump Plaza building, just down the block from Bill Cosby’s townhouse and his neighbors Ashford & Simpson. (Nick Ashford was among our regulars, and I miss him dearly.)
On one Sunday afternoon, Widmark had made a reservation for brunch for his family of about 8 people. And when he arrived, he looked like the dashing Hollywood star he was of the 40s. He had on dark sunglasses (they looked like Ray Bans but better), a cashmere sweater, and a pink accent scarf wrapped around his neck which just killed me. He was beautiful!
I sat him in the back of the restaurant at a long table which also served as a banquet. About an hour into his meal, I smelled something off in the restaurant. So, I looked up at the high vaulted ceilings and noticed black smoke billowing from the vents. Without panicking, I walked casually into the kitchen to see if it was coming from there, and sure enough, I saw several of my cooks trying to put out a grease fire with extinguishers. It was not going well at all. So, I called the fire department. While waiting for them to arrive, I had to inform all of our diners, especially Widmark who was seated near the kitchen, that we had to close the restaurant as we had a potential fire erupting and they would all have to evacuate the building immediately. The place was packed this Sunday, so it took us a while to get everyone out as some diners just did not want to leave their scrumptious eggs benedict and blueberry pancakes.
When the fire trucks arrived, the firemen smashed all the glass, walls, and restaurant furniture to pieces because it was housed in a tall apartment building, in a Trump building no less. In fact, Donald Trump’s brother Robert and his wife Blaine lived there. So when they were done, the restaurant looked like an abandoned Bronx building in 80s New York.
That day was the last brunch we served at Matthew’s and the last time I saw Widmark again until he passed away in 2008.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.