Acclaimed actor Lee Marvin’s influence still resonates among film connoisseurs. Chief among them is Dwayne Epstein, The Dirty Dozen star’s biographer. In an exclusive interview, the journalist behind Lee Marvin: Point Blank explores the definitive antihero’s immeasurable legacy.
Forging an indelible 36-year career in front of the camera, Marvin made over 100 appearances in such landmark films as The Wild One with Marlon Brando, Bad Day at Black Rock with Spencer Tracy, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Once the gritty police procedural M Squad made him a television star, the cool leading man revolutionized how modern audiences discern action and violence on film. The years between 1964 and 1974 were especially fruitful, yielding such gems as The Killers, Hell in the Pacific, Monte Walsh, Prime Cut, and one of his best performances in the unfairly dismissed The Spikes Gang [idolizing outlaw Marvin, costar Ron Howard unknowingly foreshadowed his brilliant turn in The Shootist two years later].
Marvin’s career experienced a noticeable slide as the ’70s wore on, no doubt exacerbated by the media firestorm erupting from a palimony suit brought by his former lover, Michelle Triola. The World War II combat survivor finally found lasting happiness when he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he could be treated just like a regular guy.
Roughly a year and a half after an undemanding costarring turn in Chuck Norris’ popular The Delta Force, the longtime smoker’s emphysema reached a climax when he experienced a violent coughing attack which forced him to visit Tucson Medical Center in August 1987.
Also suffering from the remnants of hepatitis contracted during an intestinal operation, Marvin’s final weeks were excruciating. Doctors mistakenly administered steroids in an attempt to relax his throat to improve breathing. As a lifelong alcoholic, their actions unfortunately caused Marvin’s liver and kidneys to perforate.
The actor finally had enough and refused to allow the doctors to place a breathing tube back down his throat. During the battle, Marvin suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away on August 29. He was only 63 years old. Nevertheless, he remained a maverick to the very end who did things his way.
To catch up with Part One of the Epstein interview, simply visit the following link: “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with…” Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy the next installment of the conversation. The award-winning journalist sheds light on his favorite Marvin films, explains how the antihero altered our perception of screen violence, gives kudos to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s various homages to Marvin, and reveals why John Wayne turned down an amazing film in Marvin’s oeuvre.
The Dwayne Epstein / Lee Marvin Interview, Part Two
How would you explain who Lee Marvin is to younger generations who have never seen his films?
I’ve actually been doing that a lot lately because I have friends who have kids. They tend to be curious about why I am so fascinated with Lee. At one point I was going to call the book From Hell to Hollywood: How Lee Marvin Invented the Modern American Cinema of Violence. That’s the theme that runs throughout the book. Unfortunately, the title was much too long.
There had been much more believable violence in films going on in Europe/Asia with Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, etc. Lee loved foreign films, and he incorporated oftentimes what he would see into a specifically American style.
There were underlying threads of similarity in his characters. First of all, they were older, which was very important. Lee commented that when The Professionals came out [a 1966 Western adventure directed by Richard Brooks], one of the things he loved about that movie was all the characters were in their 40s or older. They’re not young men, they’re not gonna see themselves as immortal, they’ve done things in their lives, and if they die, they die. They’re not gonna get up again from a bullet shot. That’s a fact.
Lee’s characters also always had relationships that were behind them. They were never, ever domestic. I can only recall two times where Lee played a character who was married or even in a relationship, let alone had children or grandchildren. He was married and had a son in the awful Klansman  and widowed with a grown daughter in the pre-World War I adventure Shout at the Devil with Roger Moore . He was living his life walking through these violent adventures in the story line.
Whatever he did in a given film, you understood why he did it, even when he was starting out as an actor (and he had a very long apprenticeship). His character was established early on, what he had to do, how it plays out in a mission-like scenario, and then the climax. Granted, it was blatant in films with military themes like The Dirty Dozen and The Big Red One, but it’s also prevalent in The Professionals, Point Blank, Prime Cut, and Emperor of the North.
He wasn’t somebody who would walk into a room, start killing everybody, and leave the audience wondering why he did it. We know why he does what he does, unlike the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, or any of the action stars who are working today.
Lee revolutionized the way we see action and violence on film, including the comedy-western Cat Ballou , where he won his only Academy Award, and the dramatic Ship of Fools , in terms of the character he played and how tragic that character is.
People often credit Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson with altering our perception of screen violence. Although I greatly admire their careers and memorable screen personas, they were a result of what Lee Marvin did first. I’ve researched this, and it wasn’t just something to throw out there to sell books. It’s a point to be made that’s a fact. Lee Marvin did it first.
Bronson and Eastwood were contemporaries of Lee, yet they didn’t establish themselves until years after Lee did. Incidentally, Lee worked with both [with Bronson in The Dirty Dozen and Death Hunt; Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon].
If you want to see a really good action film, start discovering Lee Marvin, especially the films he made in the ‘60s. That’s what I would tell kids today. I’d like to think that if younger audiences did watch more of his movies, they might be a little more discerning in what they ask for in an action film nowadays. They would stop going to see these ridiculous cartoons and live action comic books with tons of pyrotechnics.
Don’t get me wrong – I grew up on comic books, too, and I love them. But I am not going to go out of my way to see a comic book movie over and over again when I’d rather see a movie of depth and quality in terms of the story and the character. We know it can be done because they’re still being made.
The best film I saw last year was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. I was glad it was Oscar-nominated even though it didn’t win due to its controversial nature. That movie is proof that you can still tell a fascinating story with amazing characters and put it in a certain period that’s both believable and identifiable and do it well. In a nutshell, Lee’s films are ripe for rediscovery.
What are some of your favorite Lee Marvin movies?
I enjoy many of Lee’s films, especially those beginning with The Killers in 1964 and going through Emperor of the North 10 years later. In that span, nearly every single film Lee did, whether it was successful at the time of its release or not, was worth watching.
I like to compare Lee’s hot streak to Marlon Brando’s early film career. From Brando’s debut performance in The Men to A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One [costarring Marvin], On the Waterfront, and The Young Lions, these are all classic American films. Brando changed the way film acting was done.
Hands down, The Professionals is one of Lee’s best. That’s one of those movies I could watch a million times and never get bored with. Like all great movies, I can find something new no matter how many times I watch it.
It impressed me to find out later that the great chemistry he had with Burt Lancaster onscreen didn’t translate offscreen. They didn’t particularly like each other, but you’d never know that by watching the movie. They feed off each other well. They look like two guys who have a history together.
Point Blank , directed by John Boorman, has a classic Lee Marvin character in the form of a thief named “Walker”. We find out about his character as the story unfolds, but who he really is, we never know.
I love the fact that fans have argued for years whether his character even existed. Is he alive? Was it all a dream? Is he the angel of death? I applaud when movies raise questions like that to keep the audience talking about the film long after they see it. Incidentally, Jason Statham remade Point Blank in 2013, retitling it Parker.
Emperor of the North, directed by the underrated Robert Aldrich in 1973, is also high on my list. It takes place during the Great Depression. Lee is a hobo referred to as “A-No.1”. In spite of America’s love of the folklore of the hobo as being kind of likable and amiable, it’s a very violent film.
His character is the toughest hobo. His mission: taking on the toughest conductor of them all, Ernest Borgnine, who will not allow a hobo to ride on his train. It’s almost a military-style mission wherein Lee’s gotta survive on that train. It’s very much a Lee Marvin part. I can’t picture anyone else playing that guy but him. That film that didn’t do very well but it’s definitely found an audience since then. You could say it’s a cult film [Note: in case you’ve never experienced the film, an eye-opening video is included at the top left of this article].
Decades later, I still find myself exclaiming, ‘These are da**n good movies that still hold up.’ It was just an impressive string of films.
Name some of the modern directors that have been influenced by Lee’s impressive body of work.
Tarantino and Martin Scorsese both mention Lee in their films, especially their earliest projects. Of course, they make films with violence in them, but they’re not so much action as they are story and character driven. That’s what Lee was all about.
Scorsese’s debut film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door , has the main character, Harvey Keitel, give a lengthy speech about why he’s a Lee Marvin fan. In Mean Streets , the film that put Scorsese on the map, there’s a wonderful reference to Lee’s Point Blank at the end of the movie when Keitel and Robert De Niro are hiding out from the gangsters who are after them. While they’re standing in the theater lobby talking, there’s a big poster advertising Point Blank right behind them [laughs].
At the very end of the film, Scorsese also adds a quick clip from one of Lee’s earliest films, The Big Heat . However, the clip he uses – Glenn Ford’s wife getting blown up in a car – doesn’t have Lee in it. Fortunately, Lee was very much still alive and working when both of those films were released.
Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs , has that famous line uttered by Michael Madsen to – coincidentally enough – Keitel: “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t you? Me too, I love that guy.”
The two directors aren’t connected in any way but they felt as if they had to pay homage to the guy who started it all. Those kind of things are not in movies by accident. They’re there for a reason.
Twenty-six years after his death, what is Lee Marvin’s legacy?
The legacy and influence of Lee Marvin is definitely felt in films today. Unfortunately, there are still lightweight comic book movies, but serious filmmakers will look to Lee Marvin’s career for inspiration.
If you’re gonna make a really good action film that explores man’s darker side and the human condition, you’ve gotta look to Lee Marvin. Not John Wayne, not Clint Eastwood, not anybody else who played the classic hero because Lee Marvin wasn’t that.
Lee was the classic anti-hero. He came out of World War II. The war changed the entire American generation in the films that they made, the way they were presented, and the way we saw them as an audience.
Consequently, nobody was all good and nobody was all bad, ever again. Even John Wayne. The films Wayne made in the post-war years, including The Searchers and Red River, were some of his best performances. He was not an out and out good guy anymore. He would be of course later on, but those weren’t necessarily Wayne’s best films.
In Lee Marvin, even when you cheered for him because he was the leading man or the hero in the film by definition, he was always an anti-hero. Case in point: his biggest hit film, The Dirty Dozen. Lee’s character, Major Reisman, is anti-authoritative and anti-military.
Did you know John Wayne turned that part down? It was first offered to him. When Wayne read the script, saw what his character was supposed to do – especially in the film’s climax – he felt his audiences would be completely turned off by his actions. And he was right.
A John Wayne audience wouldn’t necessarily want to see him play a major who incinerates an entire basement full of Nazis. But Lee Marvin was capable of doing that. And that’s what Lee’s legacy was about – doing what he believed was right with no excuses. It’s a legacy that will last for a very, very long time.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! A seven-image slideshow entitled “Lee Marvin’s Lucky Streak: Definitive Appearances in ‘The Killers’, ‘The Professionals’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘Point Blank’, and ‘Emperor of the North’ plus a Zany Imitation of a Cactus” can be accessed at the top of this interview.
And in case you prefer to keep reading…burly character actor Gregg Palmer and Lee Marvin both had short roles with John Wayne in “The Comancheros”. Previously, the duo had acted together in a “Wagon Train” episode entitled “The Jose Morales Story.” By far, “Big Jake” contains Palmer’s best work with Wayne. In it, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens his grandson’s life with near deadly results. In a just released two-part interview entitled “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog…”, Palmer relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
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Exclusive Interview: Lee Marvin played a menacing, mustachioed villain in “It Tolls For Thee”, a memorable 1962 episode of The Virginian. His performance was so well-received that Universal Studios combined the episode years later with a separate Charles Bronson guest appearance for European audiences, and the confusing mishmash belatedly titled Meanest Men in the West was a result. Drury was undoubtedly the star of The Virginian, the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. In a just-released interview, Drury spoke at length about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne as well as his appreciation for his fans, whether he had a role model for his characterization of The Virginian, and the 50th anniversary of the show. Click on either installment link above to begin the eventful journey.
Further Reading: Charles Bronson appeared in an impressive 160 television and film productions, and he never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. Many fans may not realize that Bronson’s only network series, the crime drama Man With a Camera, debuted while his future buddy’s more popular M Squad aired on a competing network. To read an extensive profile detailing exactly who the star was behind his hardened tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, actress Lee Purcell, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
Further Reading No. 2: To read about Audie Murphy, a genuine tough guy who happened to be an American hero, simply click on the blue link. The exclusive feature details the actor’s most popular film, To Hell and Back, a runaway 1955 blockbuster documenting the most decorated soldier of World War II’s war experiences. Murphy enlisted at 17 with the help of his sister, who lied about his age. Fighting three years in the European campaign, the silent hero won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was credited with saving his unit by killing 240 German soldiers…
- Exclusive Interview: Steve McQueen became a household name due to his work on a classic western television series – “Wanted: Dead or Alive”. Ironically, it was broadcast during the same era as Lee Marvin’s crime drama, “M Squad”. To read an in-depth interview with McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty, simply click on the blue link. In “Every Little Girl’s Dream: Being on the ‘Tom Horn’ Film Set with Steve McQueen”, the former model revisits her husband’s penultimate film, sharing humorous anecdotes about how her dad became a shotgun carrying extra and what it was like to hear dirty jokes courtesy of Slim Pickens. Ms. Minty also sheds light on the time James Garner showed up at her door unannounced…
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