The 1989 model Oppenheimer (Dwight Shultz) admires Trinity in Fat Man and Little Boy
The first actor to portray the legendary nuclear physicist in a feature film was Hume Cronyn in MGM's The Beginning or the End (1947). Cronyn, best known for his later role in the Cocoon movies and for his durable marriage to Jessica Tandy, offers a brief, one dimensional performance that barely registers. Indeed, few if any of the reviews that were published at the time of the movie's release bothered to even mention the character. To be fair, though, none of the historical figures--with the possible exception of FDR's dog, Fala--emerge as anything beyond cardboard cutouts in the film. An additional handicap to Cronyn's depiction of the world famous scientist is his complete and utter lack of resemblance to him. In a circumstance that owes more to Oppenheimer's fall from grace in government circles than it does to Cronyn's lackluster acting job, the next dramatized version of Oppie would take years to materialize.
For some unknown reason, 1989 turned out to be the banner year for Oppiemania -- the scientist was feted with a TV movie, Day One, broadcast on CBS in March and a prestigious, big budget feature film, Fat Man and Little Boy, released in October. Despite its other limitations, Day One presents a perfectly cast David Stathairn as Oppenheimer. Strathairn is so good as the conflicted physicist that the viewer can't help but wince when he is forced to interact with a hammy Richard Dysart as President Harry S. Truman. Indeed, even with Strathairn delivering a performance worthy of a theatrical film, the production never quite shakes its TV movie pedigree. However, it is interesting to see the original fictional Oppenheimer (Hume Cronyn) sitting in the same room with the new and improved model. Cronyn plays Secretary of State James F. Byrnes who lobbies Truman for the immediate use of the bomb. Twenty years later, Strathairn reprised his version of the scientist in PBS's The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American Experience special that deals with the tragic period during which Oppenheimer lost his government security clearance.
Ironically, the worst actor to play Oppenheimer was Oppenheimer himself. In 1946 the scientist let himself get talked into recreating his actions during the Trinity Test for a Time-Life-produced March of Time newseel short entitled Atomic Power. His brief, confused performance makes Dwight Schultz look like Laurence Olivier. Life magazine, though, shamelessly plugged Oppie's acting in its August 12, 1946 issue and called his moves "suggestive of Humphrey Bogart when the cops are closing in." Right.
If you've read this far, it will come as little surprise that the Oppie Award goes to David Strathairn for his performance in Day One and for the novelty of seeing him tackle the latter phase of Oppenheimer's life in The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer in 2009. If Mr. Strathairn is willing to give his acceptance speech in character at our offices, we'll cobble together some sort of trophy for him.
Honorable mention goes to the late Peter Graves for his Oppie-esque atomic scientist character, Dr. Doug Paul Martin in Killers From Space. This grade Z sci-fi / horror film directed by Billy Wilder's brother was released in 1954 - the same year Oppenheimer lost his security clearance.
Coming Soon: The Groves Award...
* Not affiliated with the literary award of the same name.