Lee Marvin’s life detailed in the quintessential biography.
“There’s John Wayne, in terms of what I’m talking about, about action on film and male machismo. And then there’s probably Clint Eastwood. There would not have been a Clint Eastwood if there wasn’t a Lee Marvin first.’” Dwayne Epstein
laptop in the hands of the right cinephile can yield something important — something to be enjoyed by film scholars and fans, something for the ages. Of course, the computer laptop wasn’t what it is today in 1994, when Hollywood journalist Dwayne Epstein enlisted himself as biographer to the late Lee Marvin, widely known for the tough guy he played in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and as the blood and guts rifle squad leader in Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One.
After nearly twenty years of eating, breathing, and sleeping Marvin, the Long-Beach-resident Epstein delivered Lee Marvin: Point Blank, considered the first authoritative and exhaustive document about the steely-eyed actor’s family background, the ghosts of his Marine past in WWII, his marriages, and his PTSD, which cast a dark shadow over a career marked by alcoholism, rage, and depression.
We were fortunate to wax cinematic with Epstein about why he thinks Marvin belongs on Hollywood’s Mount Rushmore of Tough. (Shouldn’t there be one?)
What was it about Lee Marvin that you’d commit nearly two decades to telling his story?
Very good question. The answer is kind of multi-leveled. Off the bat, well, I could tell you my answer to that question — Why Lee Marvin? — is very simply, I’m a fan. Now there was one book that was written when he was alive, but it’s not very good, so that was another motivating factor. Once I started doing the initial research, I became more fascinated. I’ve got to tell you, too, nobody gets into this kind of thing for the money. You’ve got to do it because you’re dedicated and you believe in what you’re doing. At one point, Lee’s first wife, Betty, whom I got to know very well, I’m still on very good terms with her, she’s a wonderful woman, she even said to me, “Aren’t you getting sick of Lee? I know I would, and I was married to the man.”
I knew once I decided to do this, I knew I was going to have to be involved in this project for the long haul. It wasn’t going to be anything I could walk away from right away.
How long into the writing process did you feel that you had the exclusivity or think, “I’m the guy to tell this story, no one else?”
Early on, I wasn’t very confident at all. I don’t think you necessarily have to identify with your subject, but you have to have some way to know what you’re writing about. He was of a different time and a different place, entirely. I didn’t live through the Depression. I didn’t see combat in World War II. I’m a Baby Boomer. That whole lifestyle and existence is foreign to me. But the more I found out about him, the more I realized that’s true, yes, but there was a lot about Lee Marvin that I thought people just don’t know, or realize. Yes, he’s a product of his time, but in a lot of ways he was very different from his time in that he — believe it or not, he very early on stated that he has no problem with gay rights and that he thought homosexuality was fine. You know, you’re not going to hear John Wayne say that.
Not a chance!
According to Betty, she found Lee to be quite the feminist, in spite of his reputation that came out of the palimony suit. She said Lee, because his mother was a working woman when he was a child, he didn’t see women necessarily as the lesser sex. He saw them as equal and he treated them as such. As his lawyer said to me, he treated women as equals in all their various gradations.
With James Stewart and John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
You raise a very interesting point, that it wasn’t — Okay, yes, he was very much a part of the generation of patriotic ethos and all that, you know, gung-ho machismo. But to be an actor is almost like you’re automatically an iconoclast, because here you are doing something that, you know, my grandfather, your father, just didn’t do because it wasn’t a viable vocation for most.
Yes, it wasn’t dignified and it wasn’t masculine, you know? I remember I had interviewed James Whitmore a long time ago when I was still working on a newspaper in New Jersey, and he was doing a play there. He said, it’s not the job for a man. You don’t think of it that way. He quoted a line from a Shakespearean play in which the character says, “I shall paint my face and be a woman of the streets,” and that’s not anything a macho guy like Lee Marvin would be associated with. And yet, he had no problem with it. He absolutely loved being an actor.
Did “The Duke” and Lee Marvin get along? Did they have any relationship at all?
Of course, they worked together in three films. And they liked each other. John Wayne knew — Betty Marvin told me a great quote about John Wayne. John Wayne told her, “Listen, I’m no actor, I know that. I’m a reactor. I know what I do and I do it well.” And she said that John Wayne had said that Lee was an actor, that Lee could, you know, play a character, absorb a situation, make it believable to an audience. And she described a difference between the two of them, and I love this metaphor. She said that John Wayne was like a big kissy bear. (laughs)
But she said that Lee was like a panther. And the two of them on screen, consequently, because of those, you know, personas, they clicked wonderfully. They had a great chemistry together on screen. They weren’t necessarily the best of friends, but they got along. They were very different politically
Okay, you’ve written this definitive biography, but were there any epiphanies about Marvin in your research where you might have said to yourself, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that?”
Absolutely, from the minute to the overwhelming, and everything in between. It was a spectrum of finding things and that’s one of the things that kept me going on the project is that I never hit a dead end. Just on the most superficial level, I was amazed to find out that Lee was a huge fan of the blues and jazz. I don’t know why, for some reason I never would have thought of that. But he loved classic blues. His son told me — and he doesn’t even know if this is true or not, but Lee loved to tell people — he ran away from home a lot when he was a little boy. He was actually on a train to Chicago when he was four. I mean, he didn’t waste any time. Apparently on one of these trips he met in a boxcar Blind Lemon Jefferson, and became a fan. His son Christopher even said to me, “I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’d like to think it is.”
Also, for example, when they were making Emperor of the North, which is one of my favorite films of his, he amazed everybody on the set with his knowledge of not only antique trains of the ’20s and ’30s, which is, when the movie takes place, during the Depression, He also knew every railroad blues song ever written. He was constantly singing them Keith Carradine who co-starred with him, is on record as saying, ”The guy knows so much it’s fucking spooky.” He was just fascinating in that way.
The other thing is that because of the kind of persona he had, and the characters he played, people assume he was some right-wing conservative, politically or philosophically. Not true. They make the false assumption that he must have been like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood because of what he did in his films. He was actually a liberal Democrat. He was a delegate for John F. Kennedy in 1960. But after Kennedy was assassinated, he never publicly stated anything about his politics again.
One neighbor I interviewed of his said, “I wouldn’t say he was to the left of Mao Zedong or anything, but he was a pretty liberal guy.” I would say about the only thing he was conservative about was gun rights. He was a very strong proponent of the Second Amendment, which is, understandable. That’s some of the things I would come across that surprised me.
I put forth this hypothesis that Lee Marvin invented the modern American cinema of violence. When you study somebody’s career, you’re going to see natural threads, come forward and take place, and themes. In the work of Lee Marvin, violence always played a part, not necessarily if the character was violent or if the story was, but either one or the other, or it was in his background or what have you. In any given film, it didn’t matter. And I thought, what about the idea that before him there were action films, which of course, there still are, but with Lee it was about violence, and where did that come from? To my mind Lee Marvin was to film violence what Marlon Brando was to film acting or Elvis Presley was to pop culture — to pop music, what Jack Kerouac may have been to contemporary literature. He was a dividing line between what was and what is.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that what Lee Marvin did is being carried on today, unfortunately. Most of what we see on film these days that passes for action films are live action cartoons, or theme park rides. And I think Lee would hate what he sees in movies nowadays.I wanted to know why the subject of violence was so important to him. Well, that kept me going as well, because the more I found out about him, the more I realized, yes, World War II, and his experiences in the war, was a major factor.
PFC Lee Marvin, 4th Marine Battalion. South Pacific, 1944
Let’s talk about the war. Did you ever find people in his outfit to talk to you about his experience?
Most of his outfit was wiped out during the war. He was one of only six survivors of 247 men in his unit. He got wounded on Saipan. I didn’t know this, but I discovered that anybody who knows World War II history will tell you that the Battle of Saipan was one of the bloodiest of the war. It went on for several weeks. It wasn’t a couple of days, like some battles were.
Lee got wounded and when he was convalescing, he always thought he was going to get back into the fight again. By the time he was OK, the war ended. For many more of his outfit, the next battle was Iwo Jima and they got hit even worse there. So he suffered intense survivor guilt: ”Why me? Why did I survive while everybody else got wiped out?”
I did interview some people who knew him in the war, who had also known him in school. So, that was helpful. As much as I wanted to use those quotes, I decided to just write that chapter in Lee’s own words through the letters he wrote his family.
Did Lee Marvin have a cynical attitude towards Hollywood?
He didn’t necessarily care for producers or studio heads per se. Keep in mind too, he was not immune to the underpinnings of Hollywood. For the most part, however, Lee had an excellent built-in bullshit detector. He knew when somebody was a phony a mile away, as a general rule. Lee Marvin was amazing in the sense that he didn’t seek out to show his versatility in genres so much as he sought to make a point in different genres about one thing and how important that one thing is: That no matter what we do in our lives, violence is going to be a part of it. You may not necessarily agree with that assessment, or that man is a violent animal, but that came across in every single thing he did. Lee was the only one who consistently let the audience know that what you’re seeing him do onscreen is as close to the real thing as you can possibly get. He was not interested in showing fantasy. He might show adventure and show action, and the audience can come along for the ride, but for the most part, if he hits somebody, they’re going to go down. And when they’re down, he’s going to kick them. That was his point of view, because he believed the more realistic you showed violence on film, the better a deterrent it is. –
There’s John Wayne, in terms of what I’m talking about, about action on film and male machismo. Then there’s Lee, and then there’s probably Clint Eastwood. There would not have been a Clint Eastwood if there wasn’t a Lee Marvin first.
A lot of the stuff that Clint Eastwood got credit for doing in film, Lee did first. That thing about, a sarcastic comment before a moment of violence happens, like the way Clint Eastwood said, “Go ahead, make my day.” Lee definitely did it first, most famously in the movie The Killers, the remake. He tells Angie Dickinson, before he shoots her, when she tries to worm her way out of the situation by saying, “It wasn’t my idea, please don’t hurt me.” Lee just looks at her and he says, “Lady, I just don’t have the time.” And then he shoots her. I mean, it’s classic Marvin. It really is. He was amazing that way.
I need emphasize that adjective “American,” because there had been some very graphic violence in foreign films before America loosened its grip in its films with the fall of the studio system and the production code.
If you look at the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and Jean-Luc Godard to a certain extent, or those types of films that were made in Europe and Asia in the ’50s, they were pretty extreme for their time. By the way, Lee Marvin was a huge fan of those films. He never worked with Sergio Leone, but it was a dream come true for him to finally work with Toshiro Mifune. Mifune was his favorite actor. Now they would call it a “bromance,” but in those days Lee had no problem telling anybody that he genuinely loved Toshiro Mifune. He thought he was terrific.
Of course there’s that great line in Quentin Tarrantino’s Resevoir Dogs that pays homage him too: “You must be a big Lee Marvin fan.”
The two most prominent filmmakers in America of action films — or not so much action films, but films of a violent nature that are to the extreme, done better than anybody else — are Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But the two of them, aside from that, have something else in common. In both of their debut films, they pay homage to Lee Marvin. Not necessarily John Wayne, not necessarily even Clint Eastwood or others who had come before, but specifically Lee Marvin.
Detective Lt. Frank Ballinger on TV’s M Squad
How important was M Squad to Lee?
At the time that he did the show, he didn’t want to do it. His agent talked him into it. Now the thing about M Squad was that it was important to his career. He learned how to be more acceptable to an audience in that he downplayed some of the negative aspects of his personality to make himself more endearing, and show that he could play a sympathetic leading man. It made him a household name, which was the real reason he did the show. But from the moment the show was on the air, and he did publicity for it, he would be interviewed by TV Guide or what have you, he would put the show down.
He was one of the first people to do that. Reporters were both shocked and enthused by that. They loved the stuff he would say, that most of the episodes were crap, that the Chicago Police Department is no help, that they go by the theory that there’s no crime in the city of Chicago. He said, “If there’s a moral to this show, the moral is watch this show so I can make a lot of money and retire.” He would say stuff like that and it incensed the network, but it helped the ratings because nobody knew what he was going to say or do.
Keep in mind too, he was also doing a lot of episodic television., When they show old black- and-white shows from the ’50s or ’60s, I guarantee you Lee is going to show up in something: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, Dr. Kildare, you name it, Wagon Train, he did them all. And he was great in them. He showed his versatility on TV a lot more than he ever did on film, because he was allowed to do more than he did on film. So, his love/hate relationship with TV in general is kind of fascinating. He never put down the experience that he had. He would tell people, “If I have any advice for young actors, I would tell them, get yourself on a TV series, because of the exposure and it’s a good way to learn your craft.”
He went back into film again and he laid low for a while, which it frustrated the hell out of him. That’s when his drinking kind of got at its worst. Then came The Killers and Cat Ballou, and from that moment on, he was a name-above-the-title star. People forget, but in ’67, he was the number one male box office star in the country: Not John Wayne, not Paul Newman, not Sean Connery as James Bond, it was Lee Marvin. It’s amazing to think that with the youth-oriented audience of the mid to late ’60s, everybody loved Lee. He may not have looked like a young, hip, or handsome matinee idol actor, but what he represented on film at the time, the frustration and angst and the dislike of the ’60s and what was going on, and how it was unsettling to most people, he represented that perfectly, if you think about it.
As a former Marine, what were Lee’s views toward America’s involvement in Vietnam?
I asked his son Christopher about that and he said, “Yes, we talked about that a lot. And he was against the war.” That’s all he told me. I wouldn’t say that Lee was pro-military per se — well, maybe I would. He was pro-military. I would go that far, sure. But he certainly wasn’t pro-war. When it came to the Vietnam War, he was against it, although he didn’t say so publicly. Christopher told me he would talk to him about it. Christopher didn’t always get along with his father, because they were of different generations and different morals and what have you. He did say that one of the things they bonded on was British Invasion blues rock. He liked Led Zeppelin. He liked Jimi Hendrix. He liked Eric Clapton, because they got their roots in American blues. And, Lee recognized that.
It’s funny when you mentioned Angie Dickinson, I immediately thought, ‘OK, both actors share a [Filmmaker] Samuel Fuller connection right there (Dickinson was in Fuller’s China Gate).
I met her at Sam Fuller’s party and begged her to agree to an interview, and she finally did. She was one of the best interviews I ever did, because she worked with Lee in more projects than any other actress. She worked with him four or five times on TV and film. She wound up being very insightful into Lee’s character. She claimed that despite his screen persona, Lee was actually very shy around women. For some reason that didn’t surprise me. He seemed like he would be. That’s why I broached a very sensitive subject with her. Somebody else who was there had told me that they sensed this definite chemistry between her and Lee, and he’s not sure if they ever acted on it or not, especially in eye contact. This was a friend of Lee’s who told me this, he said that there was definite sexual chemistry there. I asked Angie about that. Angie told me, ”Oh, there was chemistry there all right, most definitely, I felt it too.” She said Lee was just too shy to act on it. She said, “Had he acted on it, I don’t know how I would have reacted at the time, but I can tell you now, I’m flattered, but I don’t know.”
A break between scenes during production of The Big Red One, with the film’s writer/director Samuel Fuller.
What do you want people to most know about Lee Marvin’s career?
“If people take anything away from our conversation, I’d like it to be that they might be intrigued or have their appetite whetted and they watch some Lee Marvin movies that they may not have seen before.I think if they do do that, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.They should see “The Professionals,” “Monte Walsh,” and “Emperor of the North,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “The Big Red One,” most definitely. And films before he was a star are definitely worth watching: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Big Heat,” a strange quirky film he did in the ’50s called “Shack Out on 101.”
Did you celebrate Lee’s 90th birthday?
Interesting you would ask. I wasn’t planning on celebrating at all, but my girlfriend had a wonderful idea. I spent most of the day utilizing the fact that it was Lee Marvin’s birthday by trying to promote the heck out of it online. Then we hit a certain point of the night where I got, bleary-eyed, and my girlfriend said to me, “I think we ought to get ourselves a bottle of brandy and watch “The Dirty Dozen.” And, indeed, we did.
To learn more about Lee Marvin visit Dwayne Epstein’s website.