Movie tough guy Lee Marvin mined his WWII experiences and turned them into pure gold in the Hollywood crucible, initially portraying flagrantly sadistic heavies in supporting roles before growing into a leading man whose inescapable violence was often heroic. He had joined the Marines with his father's permission at age 18 and participated in 21 island landings as a scout sniper in the South Pacific before a bullet severed a nerve below his spine and invalidated him out of the service. Recognizing man's capacity for evil in his own cruel wartime deeds, he recounted for the cameras what he had seen on his journey to the depths, yet in an ironic twist, it was for comedy that the Academy saw fit to reward him with a Best Actor Oscar in the Western spoof "Cat Ballou" (1965). (The British Academy Awards honored him for performances in both "Cat Ballou" and "The Assassins", the latter more in keeping with the screen persona he had developed over time). The tall and rugged veteran of the American Theatre Wing landed a part in the 1951 Broadway production of "Billy Budd" and made his screen debut the same year for Henry Hathaway in "You're in the Navy Now" (which also introduced Charles Buchinski a.k.a. Charles Bronson). His most memorable performances during the 50s were for throwing coffee in the face of Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang's noir classic "The Big Heat" (1953) and menacing Spencer Tracy in John Sturgis' "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1954). Following a starring role in the TV series "M Squad" (NBC, 1957-1960), Marvin sandwiched a couple of amiable parts in John Wayne pictures "Comancheros" (1961) and "Donovan's Reef" (1963) around perhaps his strongest performance prior to "Cat Ballou", the vicious killer Liberty Valence in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962). By the late 60s, Oscar in hand, Marvin was a major star headlining box-office vehicles like Richard Brooks' "The Professionals" (1966), which also boasted Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance, and Robert Aldrich's star-studded "The Dirty Dozen" (1967).
Ernest with Lee Marvin in "The Emperor of the North".
His role in John Boorman's "Point Blank" (1967) epitomized his shift from unprincipled villainy to stoical self-defense as his character is only as lethal as the criminal structure of society compels him to be. At his best, Marvin was without sentimentality, mannerism or exaggeration, frightening in his very clarity, but, like a fighter who has made it to the top, he became indulgent with some easier paydays such as the laughable "Paint Your Wagon" (1969). During the 70s, his bombs ("The Klansman" 1974; "The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday" 1976; "Avalanche Express" 1978) outnumbered his hits, but William Fraker's directorial debut "Monte Walsh" (1970), Michael Ritchie's "Prime Cut" (1972) and Aldrich's "The Emperor of the North Pole" (1973) stand apart from the failures of this era. Marvin's acting took a back seat when his landmark legal case made headlines in 1979. He had met Michelle Triola, a 31-year-old stand-in and extra dancer, on the set of "Ship of Fools" in 1964, and they had become lovers until they parted in 1970. Marvin sent money to her for 1-1/2 years; when he stopped, she sued, claiming in the trial that they had agreed to share the money he had made during the nearly six years they cohabited. Although Triola wanted half of the $3.8 million the actor had earned while they were together, a judge ruled there was no contract, establishing the California courts' "palimony doctrine." The judge did order Marvin to pay $104,000--$1000 a week for two years--to assist her in becoming an "independent woman."
Marvin is another of the many actors who honed their on-camera talents in 50s TV, appearing regularly on such series as "Pepsi-Cola Playhouse", "Kraft Suspense Theater", "U.S. Steel Hour" and "G.E. Theater". Among his "post-palimony" roles, he played to perfection the sergeant to a young infantry platoon in Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One" (1980), provided a devious fur dealer for Michael Apted's "Gorky Park" (1983) and, in his final role, teamed with Chuck Norris to defeat the baddies comic-book style in Menahem Golan's "The Delta Force" (1986). Lee Marvin died August 29th, 1987 of a heart attack.
Lee with Glenn Ford in "The Big Heat".
Crystal's Favorite Lee Marvin Films:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - Liberty Valance
Donovan's Reef (1963) - Thomas Gilhooley
Cat Ballou (1965) - Kid Shelleen/Tim Strawn
The Dirty Dozen (1967) - Major John Reisman
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