Richard Conte was born Nicholas Richard Conte on March 24, 1910, in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of an Italian-American barber. The young Conte held a variety of jobs before becoming a professional actor, including truck driver, Wall Street clerk and singing waiter at a Connecticut resort. The gig as a singing waiter led to theatrical work in New York, where in 1935, he was discovered by actors Elia Kazan and Julius “Julie” Garfinkle (later known as John Garfield) of New York City’s Group Theatre.
Kazan helped Conte obtain a scholarship to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where he excelled. Conte made his Broadway debut late in “Moon Over Mulberry Street” in 1939, and went on to be featured in other plays, including “Walk Into My Parlor.” His stage work lead to a movie job, and he made his film debut in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), in which he was billed as “Nicholas Conte.” His career started to thrive during the Second World War, when many Hollywood actors were away in the military.
Signing on as a contract player with 20th Century-Fox in 1942, Conte was promoted by the studio as, ironically, as “New John Garfield,” the man who helped discover him. He made his debut at Fox, under the name “Richard Conte,” in Guadalcanal Diary (1943). During World War II Conte appeared mostly as soldiers in war pictures, though after the war he became a fixture in the studio’s “film noir” crime melodramas. His best role at Fox was as the wrongly imprisoned man exonerated by James Stewart’s reporter in Call Northside 777 (1948) and he also shined as a trucker in Thieves’ Highway (1949).
In the 1950s Conte essentially evolved into a B-movie actor, his best performances coming in The Blue Gardenia (1953) and Highway Dragnet (1954). After being set free of his Fox contract in the early 1950s, his career lost momentum as the film noir cycle exhausted itself, although he turned in a first-rate performance as a vicious but philosophical gangster in Joseph H. Lewis film-noir classic The Big Combo (1955).
Conte appeared often on television, including a co-starring gig on the syndicated series The Four Just Men (1959), but by the 1960s his career was in turnaround. Frank Sinatra cast him in his two Tony Rome detective films, the eponymous Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968), but Conte eventually relocated to Europe. He directed Operation Cross Eagles (1968), a low-budget war picture shot in Yugoslavia in which he also starred in with a not-quite washed-up Rory Calhoun.
Conte’s last hurrah in Hollywood role was as Don Corleone’s rival, Don Barzini, in The Godfather (1972), which many critics and filmmakers, including the late Stanley Kubrick, consider the greatest Hollywood film of all time. Ironically, Paramount – which produced “The Godfather” – had considered Conte for the title role before the casting list was whittled down to Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando, who won his second Best Actor Oscar in the title role. After “The Godfather,” Conte – whose character was assassinated in that picture, so does not appear in the equally classic sequel – continued to appear in European films.
Richard Conte was married to the actress Ruth Storey, with whom he fathered film editor Mark Conte. He died of a heart attack on April 15, 1975 at the age of 65.
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