Battle scars and violent interludes: Point blank with definitive antihero Lee Marvin’s biographer
Lee Marvin graced the silver screen for an astonishing 36 years, highlighted by a surprise Best Actor Oscar for his zany role as the fastest, most inebriated gunfighter in the Old West in Cat Ballou. Marvin routinely stole scenes from his co-stars, folks like John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Jane Fonda, to name but a few.
With his typically abrasive, tough, and too-cool-for-the-room demeanor, the prematurely gray-haired actor found work almost immediately, albeit of the back-breaking variety with pitiful compensation — a “honeydipper” that dug septic tanks and a chicken house disinfector — following a medical discharge from the Marine Corps at the close of World War II. Marvin was a proud Private First Class who received a Purple Heart citation for injuries sustained during the horrific Battle of Saipan in the Mariana Islands.
Acting was a profession that he quite literally fell into. Answering a call for a “tall, loud-mouthed guy” needed for a summer stock theater production in upstate New York, Marvin earned his stripes before venturing out to Hollywood.
Perpetually finding himself pitted against the celluloid hero as the chief heavy or an evil henchman — particularly in westerns — Marvin methodically crafted his often-imitated persona of a slightly off-kilter tough individualist who abhorred authority with astonishing precision.
Do yourself a favor and investigate Marvin’s wonderful early performances as Brando’s articulate, rival motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One, Montgomery Clift’s gung-ho Yankee buddy in Raintree County, or the nasty titular outlaw in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Once the gritty police procedural M Squad made him a television star in 1957, 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 world-weary outlaw Marvin, Spikes Gang costar Ron Howard unknowingly foreshadowed his brilliant turn in The Shootist two years later.
Whether inhabiting the unequivocal villain or antihero, Marvin assimilated himself thoroughly within the character and forged an utterly contagious charisma. He possessed a genuine knack for downplaying his craft with often memorable self-deprecation.
During a November 4, 1976 interview on The Tonight Show promoting the World War I-inspired adventure Shout at the Devil, Johnny Carson voiced his approval. “I like Lee because he’s his own man and he doesn’t take the idea of being a motion picture star too seriously,” said Carson.
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 belligerent “Comanchero” 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 ordeal, Marvin suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away on August 29 at only 63 years old. Nevertheless, he remained a maverick to the very end who did things his way.
Three decades after Marvin’s sad demise, his immeasurable legacy rests comfortably alongside other stars of the era like Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson. Nevertheless, Marvin’s likeness isn’t as engrained in the public’s consciousness as his aforementioned contemporaries, and that’s a downright shame.
Marvin was a complicated individual scarred by battle’s violent episodes, as Dwayne Epstein knows all too well. For an inquisitive kid growing up in Cerritos, California, in the early ’70s, coming home from school and seeing Marvin light up the grainy television screen in his parents’ living room as the uncompromising Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen surely captivated Epstein’s burgeoning imagination.
He later grew up to become the best-selling author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, an exhaustively researched, well-paced biography devoted to the world-weary sergeant ringleading The Big Red One. A revealing interview below finds the raconteur drawing a proverbial line in the sand in his admirable quest to convince readers of Marvin’s enduring appeal.
The Dwayne Epstein / Lee Marvin Interview
How would you explain who Lee Marvin is to millennials 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 Lee Marvin: Point Blank 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 [a 1966 Western adventure directed by Richard Brooks] came out, 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.
One of the best films I watched in the early twenty-tens 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.
Can you recall the first Marvin film that made an indelible impression on you?
Because his career was varied and so long and he did what could be described as grunt work in films I may have seen but not remembered — the one that probably stood out the most early in my memory was The Dirty Dozen .
I’m old enough to remember when they used to show it on TV in two parts. I used to watch it every time it was on when I was a little kid. It may not be the best thing for a little kid to be watching [laughs], but I did. I just thought it was terrific, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
What was your impetus for writing Lee Marvin: Point Blank?
I’ve been a movie fan my whole life. Obviously I have my favorite stars, and Steve McQueen was probably at the very top of the list. Marshall Terrill, in an interesting way, was kind of the impetus for the book.
A lot of biographies have been written about stars in varying quality, and Marshall’s first book on Steve McQueen — Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel — is among the best. I met with him shortly thereafter its publication in 1993.
In our conversations we got to know each other better and he knew that I had done some writing before — I have a journalism background — and he asked me if I’d be interested in pursuing writing a biography.
We started talking about different possibilities. Both of us came to the realization that of the actors I would most like to write about, there wasn’t a really good biography available on Lee Marvin.
I began gathering research, part of which was first published in a 1996 article entitled “Lee Marvin: The Mind Behind the Muscle” that I did for a magazine called Filmfax. I gained further interviews and began crafting the book when I had available time.
A company called Lucent suggested I write young adult biographies in the interim, and I’ve written eight thus far. The experience helped sharpen my writing skills as well as teach me how to write an in-depth biography with certain themes explored and thematically linked in each chapter. That was very important. Lee Marvin: Point Blank is my first adult biography.
So Lee Marvin: Point Blank took nearly 20 years to see the light of day?
Correct, although it wasn’t 20 years of just me doing the research. Along the way I was constantly trying to find an interested publisher. I was being told from the beginning that there’s no market for a book on Lee Marvin, that he’d been gone too long, and that there’s not an audience.
There was actually one publisher that said yes, but it was not the best deal in the world. The publisher was basically a skeleton press. They had offered a very small advance, which was impossible to live on, but I agreed to it.
My girlfriend, thankfully, is smarter that I am, and after an initial period of time, she said, “Give the money back and find another publisher. There’s a better deal out there.” A bird in the hand is kind of hard to let go [laughs]. I eventually agreed with her, and I gave the money back.
My quest for publication persisted. There was an editor at Penguin or Viking who really, really wanted to publish it, but she couldn’t convince the head publisher that there was a market. I came close a few times.
I finally found a publisher in Schaffner Press. We’re proving all the naysayers wrong [laughs]. Lee Marvin: Point Blank won the Bronze in Biography at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards. It’s also selling very well. Turns out, there’s definitely room in the market for a book on Lee Marvin.
Lee Marvin: Point Blank plays an admirable role in introducing readers to many neglected jewels in the actor’s extensive catalogue. It’s refreshing to discuss Marvin films that aren’t The Dirty Dozen.
That was one of the main reasons why I did the book in the first place. Even movies that were hits when they were originally released are kinda forgotten now such as The Professionals, a precursor to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Younger fans have told me they’ve never seen that Western. I thought everyone had [laughs]. It’s like, ‘Really? Well, great. Rediscover The Professionals or if you haven’t seen it before — discover it.’
When asked about Humphrey Bogart’s film contributions, Lauren Bacall, the actor’s widow, once said, “If a classic film hasn’t been seen by somebody, it isn’t a classic. It’s a new movie. I envy somebody who hasn’t seen a classic movie for the first time because it’s a whole new experience for them.” I agree wholeheartedly. A good movie is a good movie is a good movie. I don’t care when it was made.
I was able to talk some friends into seeing The Professionals. They raved, “Wow that was great!” You never see the twists in the film coming. Everybody is uniformly excellent. The dialogue is superb. Richard Brooks, who directed and wrote it, was a genius at making dialogue come alive. It’s infinitely better than the novel it was based on — Frank O’Rourke’s A Mule for the Marquesa. It’s an okay, pulp-action book which I found rather boring.
The brutal Depression-era Emperor of the North , costarring Ernest Borgnine, is another movie that deserves a wider audience. Last year I did a podcast with two Gen-Xers who wanted to talk solely about the crime drama Prime Cut . They loved the movie. I thought, ‘Great, any movie to be rediscovered that Lee made — fine by me.’ If they wanna talk about a Lee Marvin film, I’m there.
If you were to ask me what Lee’s most underrated film in dire need of rediscovery is, the one that absolutely tops the list is Monte Walsh. It’s an elegiac Western and Lee was never more poignant than he was in the title role. He even has a love interest in it. Hands down, Lee proved that he was capable of portraying a character who wasn’t strictly a tough guy. According to my girlfriend, it’s her favorite film. I defy anybody not to like it!
What are some of your other favorite 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, is also high on my list. It takes place during the Great Depression. Lee is a hobo referred to as “A-№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.
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.
Did you begin writing Marvin’s story in chronological order?
For my own edification, I wrote it that way. The research didn’t work that way, of course. I’d been researching it for close to 20 years, and it’s impossible to do research chronologically. You grab the opportunity to gather information about an individual’s life when an opportunity presents itself.
I was all over the map. I was living in Hollywood at the time, and I had a lot of contacts in the film industry. I literally traveled to Florida to the then-Catholic prep high school he attended, St. Leo’s School for Boys. I also went to upstate Woodstock, New York, where his brother was still alive and probably one of my best sources.
How did you locate the star’s elder brother, Robert Marvin?
Robert was not an easy person to find since he wasn’t a celebrity. This was around 1997 — before there was a way to find people via the Internet. I had heard that he had been a schoolteacher in the New York City school system.
Since I have a cousin who is active in the Teacher’s Union there, I told her about Robert. She said, “If he was in the union, then I can find him.” I gave her his name, and also the last known address that I could think of. She called me back about 20 minutes later and said, “If it’s the Robert Marvin who lives in Bearsville, which is right outside Woodstock, New York, then I think I found him.”
I called the number, crossed my fingers, and the minute he answered the phone, I knew I had Lee’s brother. That voice was unmistakable; he had the same voice as his brother even though he didn’t think he did.
When I finally got to meet him, I spent several weeks with him at his home in Woodstock. He still lived in the family home where Lee lived with his parents after World War II. He had the same gestures, body language, and way of speaking with the amount of strange metaphors that Lee would say — which I’m assuming they got from their father.
At one point, when I asked if he had ever been interviewed before, he said, “Almost — some guy at the New York Times looked me up when The Dirty Dozen came out. That fell apart. Besides, that stuff don’t make much smoke.” That’s a Lee Marvin kinda phrase!
It took awhile to get him to agree to an interview. Once he did, it was quite a coup for me because it was a major exclusive. Nobody had ever interviewed him before. Robert graciously opened up the Marvin family archives to me.
Where did your interview process begin?
Oftentimes one interview will lead to another — a snowball effect. One of the earliest ones was Lee’s first wife, Betty Marvin. I consider Betty an angel. I’m still friends with her, and she’s still very much going strong. She’s in her 80’s now, but you’d never know it.
When I first met with her, I literally spent a weekend with her. She was so forthcoming. Betty opened up her family photo albums with rare pictures of Lee hanging out with the family and being a dad and husband.
She soon put me in contact with other people who knew Lee, including his son. Lee had four kids. Christopher was the oldest and only son. Christopher had never gone on the record about his father, but Betty made him do it.
We were together at somebody’s house and Christopher had put me off repeatedly. Betty grabbed him in the spur-of-the-moment and said, “You go into the room with that man and you talk to him!” We went into a private room with a tape recorder, closed the door, and Christopher answered all of my questions [laughs]. We remained friends until he sadly succumbed to cancer in October 2013.
Christopher Marvin rarely spoke about his famous father, yet you miraculously convinced him to write a poignant afterword. How did you do it?
It was not easy to do, especially being a first-time author for a mainstream book. I had written books before but not to a mainstream audience. My name is not really known so to have a notable name on the cover along with my own helps create interest.
I had approached both Scorsese and Tarantino but neither one of them had gotten back to me, as well as several other individuals with no success. My publisher and I were in a quandary about how to get somebody to write an introduction.
While we were going back and forth, I thought, ‘Why not ask Christopher? He’s not that well known…but seeing the name ‘Christopher Marvin’ on the cover of the book might mean something.’
I asked him and he said, “Let me think about it.” When he finally responded, he decided to do it. When I read what he had written, I thought it worked better as an afterword. I asked Christopher if it would be okay to make it the afterword and he replied, “Absolutely.” It works perfectly as the last thing readers see — what Lee’s legacy was to his only son.
It’s serendipitous that you collected so many fascinating interviews with people who are no longer with us.
Absolutely; I got very lucky being able to interview them when I did. Over 100 exclusive conversations are part of the book, and I’m very proud of that fact.
I did get to interview Lee’s only sibling, an elder brother named Robert, and his longtime agent, Meyer Mishkin. Meyer and Lee were together from the very first moment Lee was on film up until the day he died. Both Robert and Meyer unfortunately passed away in 1999. Lee’s lawyer from the Michelle Triola palimony suit, David Kagon, was a gentleman and a pleasure to interview.
I chatted with a lot of Lee’s costars who had a great affection for him…or didn’t have affection for him but had worked with him a lot. Jack Palance, Woody Strode, longtime stuntman Tony Epper — they’re all gone now. Many of the directors he worked with — John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kramer, Budd Boetticher — were all wonderful interviews.
What were some of your favorite interviews?
Each and every one of them were memorable in their own way. All of them gave me revelational bits of information that no matter how much book research you do — and I went to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, different bookstores, dug through old magazines and what have you — nothing will be as impressive as actually talking to an individual who was there at the time of the specific event. They have on site information that isn’t necessarily published.
Woody Strode — one of my all-time favorite interviews — was so wonderful. At the time of our interview in 1994, he was dying of cancer. But, because it was for Lee, whom he loved dearly, he said, “I don’t do interviews anymore but come on over and I’ll talk to you.” You could tell he was quite uncomfortable, but he put on a brave face and spent a day with me. It was terrific.
Angie Dickinson was another revelation. She worked with Lee more than any other female costar [e.g. M Squad, The Killers, Point Blank, and Death Hunt]. Her insight was phenomenal. She’s a very intuitive person in terms of knowing what somebody’s personality is really like beyond what they’re trying to put forth, and she knew Lee pretty well.
Some of the best stories in the book were interesting anecdotes told to me by people nobody had ever heard of, such as Betty Ballantine — an early friend in Woodstock — or Ralph O’Hara — a bartender at The Raft in Malibu and a lifelong friend. Or people he went to school with. Seeking those people out was not easy.
Who were some of Marvin’s acting cohorts that you really wanted to interview but ultimately turned you down?
Paul Newman worked with Lee in the contemporary tongue-in-cheek Western Pocket Money . When I contacted Newman, he just did not do interviews anymore. Period. Gene Hackman, who worked with Lee in Prime Cut, also declined.
The three interviews that were like the Holy Grail for me consisted of Jack Palance, Ernest Borgnine, and Charles Bronson. All worked with Lee prolifically. I did get Palance to go on the record, albeit briefly.
I had been in contact with Borgnine’s agent/publicist who really wanted him to talk. Borgnine was very polite in telling me that he would love to discuss Lee. However, he was so saddened by his passing — even 20 years later — that he just couldn’t talk about him. I remember Borgnine saying, “It would hurt too much.” Lee meant so much to him.
Bronson was another who just didn’t do interviews. I came very close in that I had dinner at a friend’s house who was in the industry and lived right across the street from Bronson. The entire time I was looking out the window thinking, ‘All I gotta do is run across the street and knock on his door real quick’ [laughs]. But I said to myself, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I understood and have to respect their privacy. Other journalists and reporters don’t seem to care.
Was it a tough process selecting the cover photo?
Oh gosh, yes! I loved the photo we eventually chose as the cover — a black-and-white publicity shot from M Squad — a TV cop show Lee had in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I like it mainly because of not only the look on his face but his body language. He has a look of kinda like, ‘Go ahead…hurry up and take the picture. I’ve got more important things to do.’
While I’m glad we went with the M Squad photo — that was not my original choice. My very first choice was a photo of Lee taken on the set of Pocket Money by renowned celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill.
Lee is sitting at a table on a soundstage made to resemble a bar. On the table are a bunch of cigarette butts, empty tequila shot glasses, and a bottle of tequila. Wearing a fedora, Lee is looking straight at the camera as if he’s looking at you from across the table. He looks very Lee Marvin-esque. It’s one of the best photos of him I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights to that because of O’Neill being a very known photographer, and it would have been very expensive.
The other was a studio shot of Lee taken in the early ’60s where he’s lighting a cigarette and looking at the camera. He looks very cool. My publisher as well as the distributor said, “You can’t have a photo of somebody with a cigarette. It will make it hard in some circles to get sales.” So I had to acquiesce. It’s always difficult dealing with copyright problems and political correctness issues.
People of course do judge a book by its cover even though they’re not supposed to. I wanted a cover that would catch somebody’s eye if they saw it in a bookstore and I think our final choice does so perfectly.
Were there any working titles for Lee Marvin: Point Blank?
There was a whole page of ideas my publisher and I went through. Two still stick in my memory — A Portrait in Violence and From Hell to Hollywood: How Lee Marvin Created the Modern American Cinema of Violence. What’s funny is the title we went with was actually the first title I suggested. Go figure [laughs].
Did you uncover any interesting stories that you wish you could have included in the book?
Oh sure. Not a lot, thankfully. There wasn’t anything like, ‘Oh man, why didn’t I find that out before it went to the press!’ Some people came forward after the book came out and remarked to me, “I wish I’d known you were working on this book. I could have told you such and such.”
Those instances were pretty much keeping in the spirit of the book — just lacking in a specific story. You know what I mean? Overall, the book is pretty straightforward in the way it depicts Lee.
I must commend you for utilizing Marvin’s handwritten letters to trace his World War II journey so eloquently in Lee Marvin: Point Blank.
I always tell people I’m not Ernest Hemingway. I’ve never experienced combat myself, so I can’t really convey what it must have been like. I was lucky enough to find all of his actual hand-written letters from World War II.
Using Lee’s letters literally came to me at the last minute when I was working on that part of the book. I was putting off my deadline with the publisher. He kept telling me that I had to get to the war chapter. I finally realized, ‘You know what, these letters are chronological.’
In essence, I let Lee write the “I Have Had My Fill of War” chapter himself because he could say it much better than anything I could possibly come up with.
Lee wrote his parents and his brother every single week, so the information was there. The hardest part was deciphering his writing, as Lee was dyslexic and he was also in the midst of battle sometimes when he would write a letter. It was often like reading hieroglyphics [laughs].
A few of the letters were written while he was in a veterans’ hospital convalescing after being wounded. Those were some of the experiences that he could write about after the fact, because he couldn’t talk about them while they were going on. He wasn’t allowed to — there was a war going on!
I think readers can get a pretty clear picture of those crucial years in Lee’s life. He tended to ramble, so I had to edit the letters accordingly. I tried to keep it as tight and narrative driven as possible. Without question, I think Lee did a pretty good job in telling his own story.
Was Marvin comfortable speaking about his war experiences?
It depended on two things — who he was talking to and the mood he was in at the time. Most veterans won’t talk about their experiences in wartime because the people they’re talking to won’t understand. That’s true, but Lee was very open about discussing the war. I was lucky enough to come into contact with several people of whom he did talk to.
He experienced 21 invasions in the Pacific theatre as a private — eventually Private First Class — in the fighting 4th Marine Division throughout 1944. A sniper nearly killed him during the Battle of Saipan, wounding him in the left buttock.
I don’t think Lee exaggerated what he went through in the war, but he would purposely tell horrific stories to test the person to see if they had the stomach to hear what he had to say. Oftentimes, they wouldn’t.
There is one story that he would tell the most often to illustrate how inhumane people can get in warfare. During one of his earliest invasions on the Marshall Islands, Lee saw a marine disembowel a pregnant native woman. While he was telling the story, he would read the person’s face to see how they took it. If they could take it, he would tell them more.
Lee’s immediate family was not always immune to his war tales, either. There’s a letter from his mother to his older brother, Robert, included in the book. In it, she discussed talking to Lee after he returned home from the war and how difficult it could be to hear about the brutality he witnessed.
Why do you believe Marvin suffered from PTSD following his distinguished war service?
As I state in the book, I’m not an expert. I believe Lee suffered from PTSD based on stories that were told to me and verified by other people. If you had a list of 10 classic PTSD symptoms, Lee probably had 8 or 9. The prominent ones were survivor’s guilt, screaming nightmares, an ongoing need for violence and worst of all, alcoholism.
When Lee was a major star in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he would do some pretty outlandish, boorish things. I dealt with that in the book, but after awhile of hearing so many alcohol-fueled stories, I decided to back off a bit. I can only imagine what the reader felt.
As Lee got older, he basically slowed down. He was just kind of feeling, ‘I can’t keep doing this anymore. I’ve gotta grow up.’ He didn’t want to be around the Hollywood environment anymore as well as many of the people he partied with while there. Moving to Tucson in 1975 definitely helped.
When he married his last wife, Pam Feeley, she kept him out of that lifestyle to a certain extent, too. Lee knew her back in Woodstock after returning from the war. After going their separate ways, they hooked up again shortly before his father passed away in 1971.
Every now and again friends like actor Woody Strode, stuntman Tony Epper, or actor Keenan Wynn — Lee’s best friend — would show up on his doorstep in Tucson and they would go out and party. In spite of what may have been said about him, Lee never quit drinking entirely. He took the pledge every other week, but he kept falling off the wagon.
Do you see parallels between Marvin and other soldiers-turned actors such as Audie Murphy and Neville Brand?
That whole generation of men who went through World War II endured innumerable battle scars. It’s a very clear concept — the worse the war-time experiences, the harder civilian life became for them.
Audie Murphy, definitely. He was a very, very troubled man. There’s no two ways about that. I recommend a book written about him by Don Graham called No Name on the Bullet . Incidentally, Lee had a small part in one of Murphy’s earliest films, The Duet at Silver Creek .
Another actor of the same ilk was Neville Brand. He was a popular character actor who appeared in numerous westerns and crime dramas, including the starring role in NBC’s Laredo [1965–1967]. He and Lee were villains together in Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury , a gritty western starring Rock Hudson and Donna Reed.
In the ’70s my mother was a volunteer at a local mental hospital here in California. She came home one day white as a ghost, just shaking. I said, “Mom, what’s wrong?” She replied, “They brought some nut-job in I’ve never seen like this before. He was kicking and screaming, and they had him in a strait jacket. He was foaming at the mouth and bouncing off the walls. You may even know him. He is a movie actor.” I asked, “What’s his name?” “Neville Brand.” I was absolutely shocked. Brand saw some pretty horrific things himself. He was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II along with Murphy.
What’s the real scoop regarding Marvin’s portrayal of World War II hero Ira Hayes relatively early in his career?
One of Lee’s all-time best performances was for a brief anthology series called NBC Sunday Showcase. He played Hayes in an episode called “The American” [broadcast on March 27, 1960]. Lee would never be as poignant on film as he would be in that particular episode.
“The American” focused mainly on the end of Hayes’ life, extinguished prematurely by chronic alcoholism. Hayes was a Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima but could not seem to get through civilian life.
As Lee said of the character at the time, Hayes could never escape being a hero. And that comes across in Lee’s brilliant performance. He just breaks your heart playing Hayes. It’s the kind of thing they just don’t do on TV anymore, unfortunately.
The episode was directed by John Frankenheimer, who had worked with Lee previously on TV and then would again much later on The Iceman Cometh . Incidentally, Tony Curtis starred in the film version one year later. Released by Universal, The Outsider was an excellent, change of pace film for the handsome actor.
Hell in the Pacific  is one of my favorite, albeit under the radar Marvin films.
That was one of Lee’s greatest disappointments. Not that he was disappointed in the film, but he was disappointed in the audience’s reaction to it because it flopped.
Lee was also unhappy with the ending. I don’t know if it was ABC Studios or director John Boorman, but in the original theatrical release they tacked on a big explosive ending. Luckily, the DVD presents an alternate, unused ending which was Lee’s original idea — the two characters just walk away from each other. The real enemy is war. If it wasn’t for war, these two men could probably become friends, or at least comrades. The alternate ending is so much better. It would have been a much better movie, too.
Lee absolutely adored Toshirō Mifune, the only other actor in the film. He thought Mifune had that great samurai nobility. Mifune may have been Lee’s favorite actor to ever work with. It’s funny…men of Lee’s generation rarely talked about their emotions, but Lee had no problem in ever saying how much he loved Mifune. They had no common language — Lee couldn’t speak Japanese and Mifune couldn’t speak English at the time, but they clicked, and it shows.
Overall, I consider Hell in the Pacific to be a bold, experimental failure. It’s too allegorical for audiences to get into — it’s not quite sure if it wants to be a character study or a fable. It comes close, though. The film does have some great stuff in it.
Name some of the modern directors that have been influenced by Marvin’s impressive oeuvre.
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.
During the years when Marvin was engulfed by a sensational palimony suit brought by his former lover, Michelle Triola, was he asked to appear in any films that became undisputed classics?
I heard that Lee was approached by Francis Ford Coppola to do the role of Colonel Kurtz that Marlon Brando ultimately accepted for Apocalypse Now . I don’t know how much weight there really was to that story, but I think Lee would have been wonderful as Kurtz. Regardless, I thought Brando was incredible. But Lee would have given it that unexplainable something.
Can you envision a modern-day film that would be right up Marvin’s alley?
Believe it or not, a movie that Lee would have been closer to than say The Avengers , a multi-billion dollar hit for Robert Downey, Jr., is Crash . Featuring an all-star cast led by Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, and Brendan Fraser, the movie focuses on five or six separate stories that intersect one afternoon in Los Angeles.
The title comes from how people don’t really communicate with each other anymore through minimal contact. We want to be in our own little world. Our world is getting smaller, but our human contact is getting less and less. So they just kinda crash into each other by the way they live their lives. The confrontations are often violent. Lee would have been interested in a statement like that.
Where did Marvin stand on the still hot-button issue of violence?
The subject of violence always came up in Lee’s various interviews over the years. He had very definite opinions. In his famous 1969 Playboy interview, Lee felt that most violence in films is more action than actual violence. Like a John Wayne movie where two guys get in a brawl, and all you see is a little trickle of blood in the corner of their mouth. By the end of the fight, it’s ‘Hey, let’s go have a drink’.
Lee said he hated that because it was a dangerous thing to do — it made violence fun. Ironically, Lee had done several of those fun fight scenes with John Wayne in The Comancheros  and Donovan’s Reef .
That aside, because of the chilling violence Lee had seen firsthand in World War II, he thought that if you make violence as nasty and ugly as it really is within the confines of the theatricality of a project, the better the chances are that you would keep somebody from being that violent in real life.
That became his mission, or Holy Grail if you will, from around the time when he won an Oscar for Cat Ballou  and became a star. Within the realm of what he was trying, he succeeded. When you watch Lee Marvin movies like The Killers , The Professionals , Point Blank, and The Dirty Dozen, they cut to the bone.
But I don’t know if I necessarily agree with his point of view. Because of the advent of videogames and cartoonish, theme park action films, that whole mentality has sadly gone out the window. We see people doing things that are physically impossible in modern movies, but we enjoy it anyway. I think Lee would be very disgusted with where action films have gone since his passing in 1987.
The issue of violence is more prevalent than ever, and that’s one reason why I think the book is selling well. Just look at the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora, Colorado. I’m not an expert or social critic. I don’t know what the whys or wherefores are in terms of these shootings, but I do know the world we live in certainly contributed.
The way people have been inundated with violent images of an almost cartoon-like character makes them feel as if no pain is involved when you shoot somebody. Life has become so cheap, and we’ve become so depersonalized. I would like to know where Lee would stand when these tragedies occur. I miss his presence very much.
Were there any aspects regarding Marvin’s life and career that had to be omitted from the book?
Sure — the biggest reason being space. One of the things I discovered was that writing about Lee’s drinking escapades can get a little depressing after awhile. They are initially fun to hear about. Lee was definitely having a good time.
But when you start hearing these same kind of stories over and over again…you realize the guy really had problems that he never properly dealt with. Maybe he relished being a public buffoon. I quickly realized the reader would be disgusted and find these drunken episodes redundant so I tried not to constantly regurgitate.
I just decided to pick and choose which ones to use to tell the story. I have been accused by some reviewers that there were too many drinking stories. They have no idea what I left out. That’s fine — everyone’s entitled to their own opinion [laughs].
There were instances of the way certain things were worded that I fixed in the paperback version. One of the most legendary stories of Lee’s drinking escapades was when he was working on The Professionals in 1966 and they were billeted in Las Vegas. Lee, Woody Strode and stuntman Tony Epper supposedly went out and attacked the famous Vegas Vic sign — the waving hand. The media infamously coined it “The Robin Hood Party.”
Lee didn’t have anything to do with that incident at all, which both Woody and Tony confirmed to me. Lee had passed out in his hotel room hours before. Being a big star and recent Academy Award winner [i.e. Cat Ballou], he took the blame to keep his buddies from going to jail.
Consequently, Michelle Triola used the story during the palimony trial in the late ’70s to make it look like Lee was out of control, which wasn’t true. That was my fault for not wording the account clearly in the original hardcover.
Your chronicle of Marvin’s valiant final days in a Tucson hospital, especially when Christopher Marvin visited his ailing father, is gripping.
Thank you. As Christopher leaned down to his father’s bedside, Lee summoned the strength to say, “Get out of here while you still can.” Yup, that got to me too.
I also liked the story that Mitch Ryan told me. Mitch and Lee bonded during the making of Monte Walsh , and their friendship was highly visible onscreen. Mitch practically saw Lee die when he was in the hospital.
Lee couldn’t speak very well but when Mitch walked in and saw all the tubes and machines he was hooked up to, he said Lee just kinda rolled his eyes. He was conscious and he was able to say, “This is how you end up when you live a life like I do.” He knew his condition was a result of a life he had lived.
Matter of fact, whether symbolically, or literally, Lee went out fighting. He was a fighter his whole life. When they were treating him in the hospital for a multitude of problems, one of the things they were trying to do was put a tube down his throat so he could breathe better and he fought the nurses off. In the fighting, he had a heart attack and died. He never pulled his punches. He was always Lee Marvin to the very end.
Thirty years after his death, what is 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.
Peter Fonda looks back on father’s iconic performance in Sidney Lumet’s ‘12 Angry Men’
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