55 Years Ago, ‘Dr. No’ Star Joseph Wiseman Played Oppenheimer 

55 Years Ago, ‘Dr. No’ Star Joseph Wiseman Played Oppenheimer 


They say failureis an orphan, but success has many fathers; however, that rule may not apply when your child is a bomb that has the potential to end all life on Earth. That is one of the many gut-wrenching and provocative points raised in Christopher Nolan’s awards contender “Oppenheimer,” a bracing and cinematically bold look at the titular scientist who many credit as the father of the atomic bomb.

Cillian Murphy’s performance as the brilliant and tortured genius J. Robert Oppenheimer is getting accolades everywhere, making it the second time a prodigiously talented actor has received acclaim for taking on this complex historical figure.

Back in 1969, stage and screen chameleon Joseph Wiseman took home the Drama Desk Award for best performance in Gordon Davidson’s gripping stage production of Heinar Kipphardt’s play “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Remarkably, that was one of the few honors accorded the actor, who had a long, distinguished career on the New York stage before becoming one of film and television’s top character performers.

In the early 1950s, Wiseman was memorable both on stage and in the William Wyler crime film version of Sidney Kingsley’s “Detective Story.” He also actually took on a role that Elia Kazan originated on Broadway, playing the gay gangster Fuseli in the 1952 stage revival Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” which garnered warm words from Variety, who cited his “feline quality” in the role.

Wiseman’s roles also included a fanatical revolutionary in the orbit of Mexican insurrectionist Emiliano Zapata, serving as an effective foil to Marlon Brando’s Zapata in the landmark Kazan film “Viva Zapata!” 

But overshadowing all of these, much to the actor’s displeasure, was his iconic performance as the titular villain of the first James Bond film, “Dr. No,” in 1962. He once noted to an interviewer that he probably wouldn’t have taken the role had he known the film was more than what he dismissively dubbed “a grade B mystery.” 

More than 60 years later, his chilling, menacing performance remains cited as one of the great villains in the history of cinema. Like Oppenheimer himself, Wiseman stepped into a role that was impossible to shake, but at least Dr. No was the creation of Ian Fleming’s fertile imagination and the bad doctor’s catastrophic machinations were, unlike Oppenheimer’s Las Alamos adventure, no real threat to mankind. 


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