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 gunfighter in the Old West in Cat Ballou. Marvin routinely stole scenes from his co-stars, folks like John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, 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 following a medical discharge from the Marine Corps at the close of World War II. Fans may not realize that 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.
During his early screen career, the tough guy often found himself on the opposite end of the law as the villain or one of his evil henchman, particularly in westerns. Critics began to take notice once Marvin appeared in The Wild One with Brando.
The public’s blossoming admiration for Marvin was further signaled by roles such as Montgomery Clift’s Yankee buddy in Raintree County, the nasty title character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the gritty action blockbuster The Dirty Dozen, the oft-imitated revenge saga Point Blank, his world-weary sergeant in The Big Red One, Michael Apted’s Russian crime thriller Gorky Park, and his final film appearance in the definitive Chuck Norris movie, The Delta Force.
Without question, Marvin was a complicated individual scarred by battle’s violent episodes, as his biographer, Dwayne Epstein, knows all too well. Author of the exhaustively researched, well-paced Lee Marvin: Point Blank, Epstein examines the late, versatile actor’s wild times in a new interview.
The author reveals below why he believes the tough guy suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), heightened by his decades-long battle with alcoholism. And Epstein presents the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital.
Epstein also sheds light on Marvin’s controversial theory regarding onscreen theory and whether he subscribes to it. You may be surprised to learn what modern-day film would have been ideal for the actor to tackle.
Classic movie buffs should stick around for insightful passages on Marvin’s war flicks, including the little-known fact that the actor portrayed real life World War II hero Ira Hayes in a television anthology, plus his surprising connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Last but certainly not least, Epstein believes one of Marvin’s favorite projects, Hell in the Pacific, is a bold, experimental failure. Read on to see if you agree. If you wish to interact with Epstein, visit the “Lee Marvin: Point Blank” Facebook fan page here.
The Dwayne Epstein Interview, Part One
I must commend you for utilizing Lee’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 Lee 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 Lee 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 Lee 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.
Is it true that Lee portrayed World War II hero Ira Hayes relatively early in his career?
Absolutely; 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.
Can you recall the first Lee 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.
Hell in the Pacific is one of my favorite Lee Marvin films, but not many folks have seen it.
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 [an extended video of their first antagonistic encounter is included at the end of this article].
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.
During the years when Lee was engulfed by a sensational palimony suit brought by his former lover, Michelle Triola, it appears that he was asked to appear in a truly classic war film…
I heard recently 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 Lee’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 Lee stand on the still hot-topic 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 (1961) and Donovan’s Reef (1963).
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 [both 1967], 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.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! PART TWO of the interview, entitled “Lee Marvin Did It First: The Legacy of the Definitive Antihero”, continues the fascinating tale. Published on the 26th anniversary of Marvin’s unfortunate demise, it finds Epstein revisiting his favorite Marvin films, explaining how the antihero altered our perception of screen violence, giving kudos to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino’s various homages to Marvin, and revealing why John Wayne turned down an amazing film in Marvin’s oeuvre. Also, don’t forget to investigate the 9-image slideshow accompanying this article. Entitled “Private First Class Lee Marvin, USMC: Remembering the Late, Great Actor’s World War II Experiences and Future Military Roles”, the memorable images include an 18-year-old Marvin in uniform with his parents, posing with Japanese machine guns somewhere on the Marshall Islands, an extremely rare photo of the actor as World War II Pima Indian hero Ira Hayes, foreshadowing his later “Dirty Dozen” blockbuster success in an acclaimed 1963 episode of “Combat!”, posing alongside his favorite actor, Toshirō Mifune, on the set of “Hell in the Pacific”, and much more.
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Further Reading: Charles Bronson appeared in an impressive 160 television and film productions, and he never received proper credit for his understated acting and screen presence. Many fans may not realize that Bronson’s only network series, the crime drama Man With a Camera, debuted while his future buddy’s more popular M Squad aired on a competing network. To read an extensive profile detailing exactly who the star was behind his hardened tough guy persona, featuring anecdotes from costars such as James Coburn, James Garner, Tony Curtis, actress Lee Purcell, and Elvis Presley’s Memphis Mafia, head on over to the following link: “A Face Like An Eroded Cliff…”
Further Reading No. 2: To read about Audie Murphy, a genuine tough guy who happened to be an American hero, simply click on the blue link. The exclusive feature details the actor’s most popular film, To Hell and Back, a runaway 1955 blockbuster documenting the most decorated soldier of World War II’s war experiences. Murphy enlisted at 17 with the help of his sister, who lied about his age. Fighting three years in the European campaign, the silent hero won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was credited with saving his unit by killing 240 German soldiers…
- Exclusive Interview: Steve McQueen became a household name due to his work on a classic western television series – Wanted: Dead or Alive. Ironically, it was broadcast during the same era as Lee Marvin’s crime drama, M Squad. To read an in-depth interview with McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty, simply click on the blue link. In “Every Little Girl’s Dream: Being on the ‘Tom Horn’ Film Set with Steve McQueen”, the former model revisits her husband’s penultimate film, sharing humorous anecdotes about how her dad became a shotgun carrying extra and what it was like to hear dirty jokes courtesy of Slim Pickens. Ms. Minty also sheds light on the time James Garner showed up at her door unannounced…
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Michael Landon had an unprecedented television career, starring in Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. In a wide-ranging conversation [“The Brother That He Never Had…”], Kent McCray, Landon’s best man, friend for 30 years, and production manager on all three series recalls meeting his friend for the first time, Landon the practical joker, visiting a terminally ill teenager and ensuring her controversial last request happened, and what happened when the actor didn’t have a driver’s license at an L.A. airport…
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