Richard Jenkins

Richard Jenkins '69 answered questions after the screening of his film, The Visitor, during Homecoming events at Illinois Wesleyan in October, 2008.

Illinois Wesleyan Alumnus Richard Jenkins Nominated for Academy Award

January 22, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this morning that Illinois Wesleyan University graduate Richard Jenkins has been nominated for best actor for his role in the film The Visitor.

Jenkins, who graduated in 1969 from Illinois Wesleyan, has been garnering praise for his role as a widowed college professor who discovers a pair of illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment.

Variety’s John Anderson declared “Jenkins has hooked us early and reels us in like fish.” Jenkins had already been nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award, a Critics Choice Award and the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for the role, as well as an Independent Spirit Award, his second after his Spirit nomination for 1996’s Flirting with Disaster. The film also earned him the Silver St. George at the Moscow International Film Festival, and the Spotlight Award from the National Board of Review.

"We couldn't be prouder of our Richard," said Professor Emeritus of Theatre Arts John Ficca. "It's a long time coming and well deserved, and remarkable for Richard and for Illinois Wesleyan."

The Visitor marks Jenkins'  first role as a leading man, though he has been seen in more than 40 films, and is known to audiences as the father in HBO’s Six Feet Under.  Yet it was his portrayal of Walter Vale in The Visitor  that has catapulted him to international acclaim. Director Tom McCarthy — whose first film was the critically-acclaimed The Station Agent — wrote the role of disconnected, discontented economics professor Walter Vale with the 60-year-old Jenkins in mind.

Movie Still

Jenkins (left) bonds with his unexpected houseguest while learning to play the drums in a scene from The Visitor.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine raved that Jenkins didn’t merely “tackle” his role, he “wears it like a second skin.” “In The Visitor, Jenkins delivers a master class in acting,” Travers wrote. “Oscar, take note.” And Oscar has.

Jenkins will face fellow best actor nominees, Frank Langella, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke, with winners announced in front of a worldwide broadcast of the 81st Annual Academy Awards on February 22.

"When you think about who else is nominated with Richard, you're looking at one exclusive club," said Ficca.

"He's worked with just about everyone in the field, from Jack Nicholson to Harrison Ford. He has the qualities that make him believable, and fellow actors appreciate that," said Ficca. "That's why he's been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award," which are nominated by actors.  The SAG awards ceremony will be broadcast this Sunday.

One of Jenkins’ first great reviews came from the Illinois Wesleyan newspaper, the Argus, which proclaimed, “He is the kind of actor an audience pays attention to” after a 1968 production of A Flea in Her Ear.

Jenkins has compared his time with Illinois Wesleyan’s Theatre Department to spending time with family. He met his wife, fellow 1969 graduate Sharon (Friedrick) Jenkins, while a student at Illinois Wesleyan. “In fact, costume designer Jim Ascareggi ['58] designed and made my wife Sharon’s wedding dress for us when we got married,” he said in a earlier interview. “So that’s how close the relationships became in the theater department. By the time we graduated, it was a real family.”

The connections of the Illinois Wesleyan family reached to Jenkins’ work on The Visitor as well. His co-star in the film, Danai Gurira, is the daughter of 1967 Illinois Wesleyan graduate Josephine (Chiza) Gurira, who now lives in Zimbabwe.


Jenkins and his wife, Sharon (Friedrick) Jenkins, both 1969 graduates of Illinois Wesleyan, attended the premiere of The Visitor, in which Richard Jenkins stars with Danai Gurira (left), who is the daughter of 1967 IWU graduate Josephine (Chiza) Gurira.

Jenkins remains close to members of the family today. He said he owes much to Ficca, who encouraged Jenkins to step onto the stage. “He called me into his office and he said, ‘Who are you? You know, you don’t participate. You haven’t signed up for one audition. I haven’t seen you all year.  Why haven’t you?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t know how, and I thought you were supposed to teach me.’  And he – he actually laughed,” said Jenkins. Ficca convinced him to audition for the summer theatre productions, and he has been acting ever since.

“The amazing thing about Richard is that there’s not the slightest hint or iota of celebrity,” said Ficca. “What he is – he’s genuine.  He’s a genuine person.  That’s why he comes off in the films the way he does.”

Jenkins returned to Bloomington-Normal this fall to screen The Visitor at the local Normal Theatre for Illinois Wesleyan theatre students. He said his appreciation for the University has grown. “When you come from a small town like I did, the world seems big and intimidating, and this was a great place for me,” he said. “Illinois Wesleyan gave me a real sense of myself. I had no idea before I came here. It was a good way for me to put my foot in the water before I was thrown out into the big, bad world.”

A native of DeKalb, Ill., Jenkins and his wife Sharon have lived outside Providence, R.I., for over 30 years. Before entering the world of film, Jenkins was a regular in regional stage productions, including 15 years at the Trinity Repertory Theater, in Providence.

Read more about Richard Jenkins' role in The Visitor from Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine , and critical reaction to the movie.

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960