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Glenn Ford; actor's demeanor, quiet decency reflected an era

Glenn Ford, an American screen icon of '50s solidity -- decent, pipe-smoking, amiable, low-key -- yet tough under pressure, died Wednesday. He was 90.

Paramedics called to his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., found his body. Mr. Ford, who had suffered several strokes in the 1990s, had been in declining health.

Mr. Ford reassuringly reflected America back to itself in almost 100 melodramas, films noir, Westerns, romances, and, later, comedies. He used almost no makeup and a minimum of gesture. That reinforced his manner. Eisenhower-era America wanted to believe that it was on top of things in a quiet, competent, unshowy, manly way, and Mr. Ford personified those qualities.

Americans rewarded him by making him a top box-office star of the '50s and a well-liked favorite long afterward.

His screen persona was most typified by one of his best-known roles -- the teacher who hung tough, not blowing his top although sorely provoked in "The Blackboard Jungle" (1955), Richard Brooks's film version of juvenile delinquents taking over a Manhattan high school.

It was when Mr. Ford straddled the line between control and yielding to his characters' violent urges -- and, by extension, society's -- that he was most interesting.

His best roles were in films that allowed him to take violent urges right to the point where they parted company with civilization. Two were directed by Fritz Lang, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. They co-starred Gloria Grahame, who had no peer when it came to projecting tarnished sexiness.

In "The Big Heat" (1953), Mr. Ford took his genial guardian of civilization persona to new limits, as a vigilante cop who implacably revenges himself on the mobster who planted a car bomb that killed his wife and who manipulates Grahame into doing his dirty work. The tensions with Grahame escalated in "Human Desire" (1954) . A transplanting of Jean Renoir's "La bete humaine" to the Rock Island Line in Oklahoma, it starred Mr. Ford as a railroad engineer drawn into Grahame's scheme to kill her husband.

Mr. Ford's laconic style made him a natural for a handful of military adventures, such as "Flight Lieutenant" (1942) "Destroyer" (1943), and "Torpedo Run" (1958). His clean, craftsmanlike work imparted profile to his roles in such adventure movies as "Framed" (1947), and "Undercover Man' (1949). But these were overshadowed by his Westerns -- "The Man from Colorado," (1956), "The Man from the Alamo" (1953), "The Fastest Gun Alive" (1956), "Cowboy" (1958), "The Rounders" (1965), and "Day of the Evil Gun" (1968). He was at his Western best in two by Delmer Daves -- "Jubal" (1956), a prairie "Othello" where he was caught between Ernest Borgnine's Othello and Rod Steiger's Iago, and "3:10 to Yuma" (1957), in which he was an outlaw being brought to justice, fascinatingly playing his easygoing exterior against the bad guy's monstrousness.

This last, revived at the Telluride (Colo.) Film Festival in 1991, resulted in one of Mr. Ford's last public appearances. There, strolling real Western streets in slacks, a polo shirt, and sunglasses, he quietly played down his accomplishments. Somehow the film buffs were not surprised to learn that Mr. Ford's practical Welsh-Canadian parents had insisted he learn to work with his hands in case acting didn't pan out and that he did all the plumbing and electrical wiring in the ranch he built.

Born Gwyllin Samuel Newton Ford in Quebec, a descendant of Canadian prime minister John MacDonald and US president Martin Van Buren, he moved with his parents to California at 7, began acting in Santa Monica High School, and took his stage name from the Canadian town of Glenford, his father's birthplace.

He made his first film for Columbia in 1939, "Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence," and was working his way up the B-movie ladder when World War II broke out and he joined the Marines.

After his discharge in 1946, his career took off. He filmed his breakthrough movie, "Gilda" (1946), with Rita Hayworth in the title role. As a low type who runs a nightclub and treats Hayworth badly, he saw his career soar. Mr. Ford and Hayworth became friends. Knowing she was pursued by Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, who planted microphones in her dressing room, they would improvise spicy conversations.

Mr. Ford's cool restraint, hitched to good timing, enabled him to succeed as well in such comedies as "Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956), "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" (1963).

``He had those magical qualities that are intangible but are quite impactful on the screen," Sidney Poitier, who also starred in ``The Blackboard Jungle," said Wednesday night. ``He was a movie star."

For an actor almost totally lacking in mannerism -- perhaps because of it -- Glenn Ford will be remembered as a star of extraordinary versatility. Even playing intense types as he usually did, he never seemed to be working hard.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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