Lee Marvin

Peter Catesby Peter Cates

Lee Marvin

For me, Lee Marvin (1924-1987) was one of the most consistently fascinating actors to grace the movies and television. He was considered a director’s dream because he instinctively knew how to move for the camera. And his ability to convey character was formidable.

Some background on his life is in order. He and his older brother Robert were both named for the ancestral family fourth cousin, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Another ancestor from 200 years further back than General Lee, Matthew Marvin, emigrated from England in 1635 and helped in establishing the city of Hartford, Connecticut.

Marvin took violin lessons as a youngster. Also, to quote a May 1964, article in the magazine Gun World entitled Elk Hunting with Lee Marvin, he “spent weekends and spare time hunting deer, puma, wild turkey, and bob white in the wilds of the then-uncharted Everglades.”

As an adolescent, Marvin attended several boarding schools in New York and Florida but was kicked out for rowdy behavior.

He joined the Marines and fought in the Battle of Saipan where most of his unit was killed, his sciatic nerve severed by machine gun fire and his foot wounded by a sniper’s bullet. He spent over a year in the hospital and was awarded the Purple Heart and five other medals for bravery, yet was busted down to private from corporal for speaking his mind too freely.

My first experience of him was as a kid when I watched his show, M Squad, in which he starred as a detective.

His portrayal of evil characters was vividly manifested in guest appearances on Wagon Train, as a sadistic wagonmaster replacement, after Ward Bond died, for two episodes and as a gunman on The Virginian. An early ‘50s TV appearance was as a serial killer on Dragnet who’s also a vegetarian.

His most famous role of venom was a majorly billed appearance in Director John Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which he thrashed Jimmy Stewart with a horsewhip during a stagecoach holdup and squared off unsuccessfully with John Wayne. Just the way he menacingly walked into a saloon and sat with an attitudinal smirk conveyed his natural gifts as an actor.

In 1964, he and Clu Gulagher were two professional hitmen in The Killers, which was based very loosely on Ernest Hemingway’s story (the late former President Ronald Reagan very convincingly did his only role as a mobster in what would be his last film before his political career took off).

Other memorable roles – the movies Pete Kelly’s Blues, Bad Day at Black Rock, Cat Ballou, Point Blank, Paint Your Wagon, Prime Cut, Pocket Money, Violent Saturday, The Caine Mutiny, Emperor of the North, The Iceman Cometh, Missouri Traveller, Gorky Park, and The Dirty Dozen with a sequel.

He turned down the lead role of Jaws – “What would I tell my fishing friends who’d see me come off a hero against a dummy shark?”

Lee Marvin died of a heart attack on August 29, 1987, at the age of 63.


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