Though an award-winning stage actor and prolific television performer for nearly five decades, Joseph Wiseman was enshrined in the public consciousness as Dr. No, the malevolent scientist who battled Sean Connery's James Bond in the 1962 film of the same name, which launched the long-running action franchise. Wiseman initially dismissed the film, believing it to be a B-grade title at best, and was mortified in later years to learn that it was the film with which he was most identified. In truth, Wiseman appeared to regard film and television as side careers to his main outlet, the American stage, where he starred in such critically acclaimed productions as "Detective Story" (1949), "Golden Boy" (1952) and "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (1969). But his screen efforts were also marked by memorable character turns in such features as "The Unforgiven" (1960), "Bye Bye Braverman" (1968) and "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974), as well as appearances on "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964), "The Streets of San Francisco" (CBS, 1972-77) and "Crime Story" (ABC, 1986-88). Though his legacy as Bond's first nemesis was never surpassed by any subsequent screen projects, Joseph Wiseman also enjoyed a long and celebrated career as an actor in three different mediums.
Born May 15, 1918 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Joseph Wiseman moved to the United States as a boy with his Orthodox Jewish parents, Louis and Pearl Wiseman, who looked unfavorably upon his decision to begin acting as a teenager in summer stock. He persisted in his career choice, eventually making his way to Broadway as part of the ensemble in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1938) with Raymond Massey. More substantive parts in Maxwell Anderson's "Journey to Jerusalem" (1940) and "Joan of Lorraine" (1946) preceded his breakout role in "Detective Story" (1949) as a seedy burglar who cracked under interrogation by Ralph Bellamy's tough cop. Wiseman would reprise the role opposite Kirk Douglas in William Wyler's 1951 film version, which led to steady work in supporting roles on television and in the occasional film. He proved a subtle but effective scene-stealer as imperious men of authority or wily outsiders who lived by their wits in features like Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata!" (1952), which cast him as a journalist-turned-anti-government organizer who ultimately betrayed Marlon Brando's titular Mexican revolutionary. Theater, however, remained his favorite showcase. American roles in productions of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" (1952) and "The Lark" (1955), with Julie Harris, underscored his status as one of America's leading theatrical talents.
Wiseman returned to features after a three-year absence in John Huston's "The Unforgiven" (1960), playing a mentally unbalanced evangelist who knew the secret of Audrey Hepburn's Indian heritage. However, his previous screen roles, as well as most of his subsequent ones, were largely overshadowed by his next feature turn, as the eponymous Asian villain in "Dr. No" (1962), the first in the long-running James Bond film franchise. Wiseman gave little thought to the film upon his casting, considering it to be little more than an exotic thriller along the lines of the Charlie Chan mysteries. But to Wiseman's dismay, "Dr. No" was an international sensation that minted Bond as a cultural icon and the actor as a key component in the character's elaborate mythology. Wiseman retreated to Broadway, earning critical acclaim in Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" (1964) and as the title role in "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (1969), which won him a Drama Desk Award. His screen appearances were limited to episodic television until 1968, when he won rave reviews as a self-impressed, hypochondriac lecturer in "Bye Bye, Braverman" (1968).
A slew of feature turns soon followed, including ruthless gangsters in "Stiletto" (1969) and "The Valachi Papers" (1972) and a rare comic role as the disapproving father of burlesque owner Elliot Gould in "The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968). Save for his appearance as Richard Dreyfuss' stern uncle in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974), Wiseman was relegated to forgettable features throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including "The Betsy" (1978) and "Jaguar Lives!" (1979). Television provided more quality projects, including the Emmy-winning "QB VIII" (ABC, 1974) and "Masada" (ABC, 1981), as well as "Seize the Day" (1986), a feature-length adaptation of the Saul Bellow novel for PBS that offered the earliest indication of Robin Williams' dramatic talents. From 1986 to 1988, he also played gangster chieftain Manny Weisbord, a character based on Meyer Lansky, on Michael Mann's cult series "Crime Story" (NBC). During this period, Wiseman continued to return to the theater, often in staged readings of works by Jewish writers. The new millennium marked his final stage roles in a 2001 production of "Judgment at Nuremberg on Broadway and the concert Yiddish in America the following year. Wiseman appeared sporadically on television in the new decade, with his last screen appearance coming in a 1996 episode of "Law and Order" (NBC, 1990-2010). After a lengthy illness, Wiseman died at his home in Manhattan on Oct. 19, 2009 at the age of 91.
By Paul Gaita
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Had bit part in Robert E Sherwood's award-winning stage drama "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"