He was wounded, mentally and physically. The physical damage was from swinging fists and heavy combat in World War II, but much of it was also self-inflicted. Years of living the good life the hard way; fast cars, fast women, and stiff drinks. Mentally however, Lee Marvin was likely wounded at an early age. A family that wasn’t sure how to show affection became emotionally detached leading to physical confrontations and a lack of a normal childhood. Marvin eventually joined the Marines, carnage was a frequent guest and the fog of war settled in for a lifetime stay. Lee Marvin: the iconic tough guy, the actor who invented a style all his own, 6′ 2″ of damaged goods wrapped in a brilliant career. Enter the lively author Dwayne Epstein to lift the hood on a fascinating story.
Epstein is the author of the book LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK (2013, Schaffner Press, http://www.schaffnerpress.com/), a well written and exhaustively researched biography on the actor. As written in our review, biographies tend to drool over their subjects, creating an annoying air of idol worship. Others feel too academic and detached. Epstein’s work takes a different path, the fly on the wall approach as he notes the twists and turns in an award winning career. Surprisingly little has been written about Marvin in any great length, that is, until now. We had the chance to talk to Epstein about his book, Marvin’s career, John Vernon getting punched in the stomach, and more. Enjoy the interview. The book is available for purchase here.
Daily Grindhouse: What was the first film that really changed your life and made you a fan of cinema?
Dwayne Epstein: There are so many, but off the top of my head I think it was James Cagney in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. I remember I was running around my house doing something to piss my mother off and she decided to do some reverse psychology about “crime doesn’t pay” and I watched it from beginning to end. By the end of the film I had tears streaming down my face. She asked me if I had learned my lesson and I said, “Yeah, this James Cagney guy is great!” At that point I was a lost cause; it was all about the movies.
I am a fan, always have been. If you can believe my mother, I came out of the womb a movie fan. I have two older sisters and back in the early 60s, when my parents wanted to go to a drive-in, my two older sisters would be asleep and I was like 6 months old staring at the screen.
What was the first Lee Marvin film that made an impact on you?
I don’t know how old you are, but when I was growing up you only saw movies either when they came on television or you went to the theater. This was before the internet and Netflix and all that stuff. On television they would sometimes show movies in two parts and I remember watching the DIRTY DOZEN that way. I can still, to this day, remember where part 1 ended and part 2 began. It was on the CBS Thursday and Friday night movie and that made me a Lee Marvin fan. When video came out in the late 70s or early 80s that was one of the first films I bought.
When you’re a movie fan, you end up getting personal tastes and I have several favorites. Lee Marvin is a favorite but I have other favorites as well, including: Steve McQueen, James Cagney, Burt Lancaster. A buddy of mine wrote a book on Steve McQueen and it made me kind of jealous because I wanted to write that book, but he recommended that I write a book on Lee Marvin and I kind of took it from there.
I was watching RESERVOIR DOGS last night and there’s that scene with Mr. Blonde and Mr. White where…
(Laughs) “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin aren’t you? Me too, I love that guy.”
Lee Marvin becomes an adjective.
It’s funny because we know what Mr. Blonde is talking about in that scene. He’s comparing Mr. White to the ultimate tough guy, the one we all want to be when things get heated. What did you find so fascinating about this cat that you wanted to write a book about him?
The thing about Lee Marvin is that there were so many factors to his career, it was in several stages and spanned the history of modern America Cinema. He started as an extra and a character actor, became a supporting player and then by ’65 or 66 he was a leading man and a major star. He wound up being in some of the best films that were ever made: THE CAINE MUTINY, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE BIG HEAT, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and that was all before he was even a big star. No matter what part he had in those films, you always noticed him. He even said it himself that he would often get roles because producers would say, “We don’t know what to do with this, let’s give it to Marvin. He can do something with it without stealing the movie.” He was awesome that way.
There’s a great moment in the book where he’s giving advice to someone and he said that when the camera goes in tight, most actors pullback but he does the opposite and goes big.
That’s what Jeff Bridges said to me when I interviewed him. Bridges said that there are certain unspoken rules of film acting and that was one of them. They worked together in THE ICEMAN COMETH and Bridges said Marvin told him that you have to learn the rules first before you can break them, before you can figure out the best way to do what you do well. Most actors don’t go big when the camera is in tight but Marvin did because he knew how to work the camera.
This book surprised me in that it really is less about Marvin’s films and more about the person. You certainly go into detail about some of his more noted roles but often biographies are almost procedural and they just go from film to film. Were you conscious of that?
It was conscious to a certain extent but, not entirely. I read a lot of biographies in my life; I grew up a movie fan, so consequently I read about everything I could. In doing so you see things that you like and you want to emulate when you’re a writer yourself and things you want to avoid. I hated books that emphasized how much money was made or lost on a given project. I personally don’t care about that. I don’t know if other people do, but they won’t find that in books that I write.
I always take the advice of my friend Bill Krohn who wrote the book on Hitchcock, he said “What’s fascinating is how the rabbit got out of the hat.” It’s akin to when you see a film and have that moment where you think “how did they do that? Where did that come from?” That’s what I wanted to emphasize in writing about Lee Marvin, and in doing that I had several moments when I realized that when you study someone’s career you’re going to see certain themes become prevalent, and with Marvin it was this constant thread of violence. I wanted to know where that came from. I also found out that he was kind of a pioneer in filmmaking as an actor. He pretty much invented the modern America cinema of violence, for better or for worse.
Well, it was a conscious effort on his part. Even though they were theatrical, he wanted to make his films, his performance. at least, be as real as he possibly could. He was the first one to do that.
He had an unfortunately deep familiarity with violence and that really resonated in his roles.
His familiarity was from fighting in the jungles of the Pacific in World War II. That’s what made it so prevalent for him, but it was also prior to that. He had experienced violence in his family life, his family ancestry is violent, it’s all there.
Keep in mind, he wasn’t the only postwar actor to experience that. He was just able to channel that better into the work he was doing. Once he became established, he maintained that. Neville Brand, Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, these were actors who had been in the war but never achieved the level of success that Marvin did. Bronson was a major star as well, but Bronson, who I’m also a fan of, didn’t always garner the same kind of projects that Marvin did as a star. Bronson seemed to project violence while Marvin explored it.
Let’s talk a little more about Marvin in the military. It gave him a world view that obviously he didn’t have here in the states but it also ended up causing him a lot of emotional trauma. You suggest that he likely suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Tell us about that discovery.
Whenever I talk about this, it’s important for me to stress that I am not a doctor or expert. I have no knowledge or expertise in that area. My analysis is strictly based on the research I did and what little I know of PTSD. Having said that, I would say that if there were say ten specific symptoms of PTSD, Marvin probably had eight of them. He suffered from alcoholism, screaming nightmares, survivor’s guilt, and was inexplicably drawn to violence in his life. He would sometimes channel that into his work, but other times he would seek it out. He would go into bars looking for fights. It’s very antisocial behavior that was specific to something. Once I learned more about PTSD, his behavior made sense. So, overall I would say that I came to that conclusion on my own without any kind of expertise but based on his behavior.
The family he grew up in was very emotional detached.
…and very dysfunctional.
Going into the service, he wasn’t really given the tools to deal with the emotional baggage he would get from the service. It makes sense that the trauma he experienced would develop into something like PTSD.
That’s a very good point. I hadn’t thought about it that way but you’re right. Anytime he was asked in an interview why he joined the marines he would always give a different answer. He would say he liked the uniform, that’s where the fighting was the worse, wanting to move outside the shadow of his father, etc. One of the most obvious reasons was the place and time.
It was a very patriotic time in the country’s history and he wanted to do his part. I saw that in the letters he wrote to his parents about his desire to get into the war. The bottom line was, he had a lot of behavioral issues before the war and I think there was a level of wanting to test himself. He didn’t just go into the service, he went into the toughest branch of service. I think he grew up real quick from the moment he entered boot-camp because he kind of had to.
You have excerpts from a lot of those letters in the book. One thing that struck me was that the letters to his brother are much more loving than the ones to his mom and dad which are kind of cold. Can you talk about his relationship to Robert and what kind of guy Robert was?
I am glad you caught that. There are things you want to show and not tell and that was one of them. I think Lee loved his brother a great deal. Robert was the older brother, he passed away in 1997. He was one of the best sources I had. I got those letters through him, as well as many of the photos in the book. It took a while to gain his trust and confidence but once I did he really opened up to me. They both went to boarding school and they would write each other back and forth.
Robert, until the day he died, suffered from a level of jealousy because Lee was so successful. Robert was an art teacher in the “Fort Apache” district of the Bronx which is a pretty courageous thing to attempt and yet he would put himself down. I told him that in interviews Lee would always say how proud he was of his brother. Robert would just say “Ah, it don’t make much smoke.” That’s just the way he was. As far as Lee was concerned, especially as he got older and after he became a father, he spoke about Robert in the kindest terms.
It’s interesting that they both found artistic ways of expressing themselves.
Isn’t it? Although their mother fancied herself as a writer, she wanted to be a writer and early on she wanted to be a dancer but it never really happened.
Acting was a tremendous outlet for Lee but it feels like there were a number of times early on when he was kind of sick of the game and frustrated with the minor and supporting roles he was being given. What turned it around for him? What was the first role he had that allowed him to exhale and feel like he had made it.
That’s a nice way to put it. Every now and again he would see a project or at least a way he could envision the character and think, “You know, this is something I can sink my teeth into.” He did it with THE WILD ONE opposite Brando,. He also did it with the character he played in THE BIG HEAT, where he got to do some really extreme stuff, things that have never been seen in film before, so much so that I quoted Vincent Canby of the New York Times who called Marvin the Merchant of Menace.
His wife told me that when he was younger, Lee could have paid people to act, that’s how much he loved it and wanted to do it. All he wanted then was to be a successful character actor: you work steady, you get good, juicy roles, and you’re not responsible for the success or failure of the film. After a while though, the problem was he was being offered the same part over and over again.
He had been asked several times to do a TV series which was a medium he couldn’t stand. His agent Meyer Mishkin convinced him that in order for the audience to connect his name, which they didn’t know, with his face, which they did know, that he should do some TV work which lead to M-SQUAD. That show almost ended his career. Although it did what it was supposed to and was a success, it ruined his marriage, he left Meyer Mishkin for a period of time, and he was suspended by the producers of the show.
Ironically, The breakthrough came through a TV project called THE KILLERS. Lew Wasserman had the idea that instead of constantly buying movies from the studios to run on television, why not just make TV-movies and sell them to television and THE KILLERS was the first. When it went into production, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It’s very dark and there are few characters in the movie to cheer for. The country was still kind of reeling when it was scheduled to air so it was shelved. It wound up being seen oversees in theaters and Lee wound up winning the British Academy Award for it.
The next couple of films were kind of the one-two punch; he did SHIP OF FOOLS and CAT BALLOU the very next year. Everybody thought he was going to get an Oscar nomination for SHIP OF FOOLS because it was a more acclaimed role. Instead, he wound up getting the nomination and winning the Oscar for CAT BALLOU and as you know, getting an Oscar for comedy is very rare. At that time in his career he was kind of fed up. He was drinking a lot and separated from his wife. Had those projects not come up, Lord knows where he would have wound up. Success kind of saved him in one way or another.
He always said that he looked for something that reminded him of himself. If he could find something in the character he could relate to, he would go with it. If you look at his career you wonder why he picked some of the roles he did. Often times, the final version of the film was nothing like the initial script he read. Case in point, PAINT YOUR WAGON. That first script was written by Paddy Chayefsky. He liked the script so much he wound up doing that and not being able to do THE WILD BUNCH instead which may be the most tragic thing in his career.
1964 to maybe 1973 was the most fascinating time in his career. He made some remarkable films in that period.
I completely and totally agree. You look at those films, and they may not all have been financially successful, but those are some of the best action films ever made. Ever. POINT BLANK wasn’t a hit when it came out but it certainly became one. What an incredible run he had.
Can you imagine if WILD BUNCH was in that group?
There would have been no stopping him. The greatest irony of all was that he was the guy who introduced the project to Peckinpah in the first place, which a lot of people don’t know.
And he had some ideas for the script which you get into in the book.
I never found out what scenes were his ideas but one of the writers was friend of Marvin’s named Roy Sickner. He didn’t have a background in screenwriting, I think he was a stuntman. So Marvin suggested things to him and kind of coached him along with the idea that he was going to play Pike Bishop. He had done so many violent films leading up to that point, Meyer Mishkin thought it would be better to take a role to kind of broaden his appeal. So, when the script for PAINT YOUR WAGON came along, that’s what he went with.
It’s really unfortunate that he and Peckinpah never worked together on film. They did on TV but not on film. There were several projects that they almost did, Peckinpah was going to direct EMPEROR OF THE NORTH. They knew each other as both rivals and friends but they never worked together on film. From what I know of Peckinpah he really held a grudge when he felt like he had been aced out of a project and I think he always blamed Robert Aldrich for pushing him out and taking that project. Peckinpah really bad mouthed that film when it came out.
That would have been interesting to see what Peckinpah would have done with that story.
Yeah, he wanted to cast Dustin Hoffman in the Keith Carradine role. But that was one of Lee’s favorite films. He really liked that movie, he loved that character and he loved trout fishing which was a perfect time to do that in Oregon.
I was listening to the POINT BLANK commentary track with John Boorman and Steven Soderbergh. Boorman tells a story about Marvin and John Vernon rehearsing the confrontation between the two characters and Marvin didn’t think Vernon was bringing enough fire to the role. He punched him the stomach which made Vernon cry and say “I am an actor Lee, not a fighter,” which I think is hilarious. It seems whoever you talk to in the business you can find a Lee Marvin story. As someone who has just written the definitive book on the guy, what’s your favorite?
One of my favorites is a story from Burt Kennedy who wrote a film called SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. It’s a 1956 film directed by Budd Boetticher and starred Randolph Scott. Lee is brilliant in it, he just steals an otherwise mediocre movie. One of my favorite anecdotes is one that shows how he could be snarky and lovable at the same time. The movie was produced by John Wayne who was going to star in it but ended up producing it, instead.
Marvin wasn’t that well known in the business yet but he could still be cocky. When John Wayne came on the set, he very graciously introduced himself to one and all. When he came to Lee Marvin, Marvin reached out to shake his hand and Marvin was making this big production about not being able to move. Lee was wearing this old duster. He went to shake Wayne’s hand and he said “Hi, I am Lee Marvin. I am really sorry, I got this coat out of wardrobe with your name on it and I can’t move in this little thing.” Marvin kept doing that every time he saw the Duke and I guess Wayne loved it. There are other stories, of course, but they may not be printable here. Besides, folks should read the book to get the really good ones!
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