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Starring Lee Marvin
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Lee Marvin Profile

It's the rare actor who can make the transition from playing villains and heavies to major stardom without losing either his underlying sense of menace or his outsider edge. James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson rose to fame in the 1930s gangster films. Despite efforts to escape typecasting, Cagney, even in musical roles, always maintained his cocky volatility, although it was mitigated somewhat by the social consciousness of the cinematic cycle in which he was grounded. Robinson, a gentle and cultured man by nature, distinguished himself in a wider range of parts but often returned to variations on the sneering little louse that made him famous. Bogart was perhaps the best example of the crossover; even his "hero" roles (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Rick Blaine) had their dark sides. After these three, it's difficult to think of another player who made that transition until Lee Marvin. Deep-voiced, threatening, coolly vicious in most of his screen appearances of the 1950s, Marvin had a brutal, violent edge that perhaps could only be leading man material in the 1960s, when violence came so forcefully to the forefront of American films. For even after he stopped playing villains, there was always about Marvin something intimidating, a calm demeanor with the instincts of a killer.

He was born in New York City on February 19, 1924, the son of an advertising executive and a fashion writer and reputed ancestor of both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (for whom he was allegedly named). Despite the fairly privileged background, young Lee was thrown out of one school after another for bad behavior, forcing his parents to enroll him in a South Florida prep school when his New York options had run out. Dismissed from that one, too, he landed in the Marines early in World War II. He was wounded on Saipan in 1944, and following his medical discharge, worked as a plumber's assistant in upstate New York. While repairing the toilet at a local community theater, he was asked to replace an ailing actor during rehearsals for a new production, and quite unexpectedly found himself enthralled with a new path in his life. He soon left for the city to study acting and play roles off Broadway.

Marvin got his first big screen break with an uncredited extra role in You're in the Navy Now (1951), a part that was expanded when director Henry Hathaway took a liking to the novice actor. He attracted enough attention to get work both on television and in feature films by established directors: Fred Zinnemann's Teresa (1951), Edmund Goulding's comedy We're Not Married! (1952), and for Hathaway again in the Tyrone Power vehicle Diplomatic Courier (1952), although still without screen credit. His career received a boost with a sizable role in Edward Dmytryk's war drama Eight Iron Men (1952), helping to establish his tough-guy action credentials. He then alternated between TV roles and films in which he often played a soldier. Then came a career-defining villain role courtesy of director Fritz Lang. As the brutal Vince Stone in The Big Heat (1953), Marvin scarred hapless moll Gloria Grahame's face with scalding hot coffee in a sudden outburst that set a new bar for screen violence and typed him as a volatile, dangerous bad guy for years to come.

After that, he landed supporting roles in big budget studio pictures: Dmytryk's all-star The Caine Mutiny (1954), as a character named Meatball; Not as a Stranger (1955), a medical drama with Robert Mitchum and Olivia de Havilland; Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), a hybrid musical-crime story featuring jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, in which Marvin got to warble "Bye Bye Blackbird" with Martin Milner and other cast members; and The Rack (1956), a psychological thriller about POWs in the Korean War starring Paul Newman. But it was as the cold-blooded threat to a number of big male stars that he made his most indelible impression in the 50s: opposite Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953); Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955); Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now (1956), his menace taking on a perversely sexual tone; Montgomery Clift in Raintree County (1957), where he was considerably less threatening but an adversary all the same.

His first real starring role came on the small screen and on the side of the law, as no-nonsense Lt. Frank Ballinger in the popular police drama M Squad from 1957 to 1960. That and several other TV appearances earned him a much bigger audience, and he alternated these ventures with films that pitted him against John Wayne: The Comancheros (1961), a more amiable brute in Donovan's Reef (1963), and most memorably as the evil Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Marvin got top billing for the first time in The Killers (1964), a version of a Hemingway story that had been filmed previously in 1946. The following year he played both a frightening bad guy (with a silver prosthetic nose) and a comically drunken gunman in Cat Ballou (1965), which brought him an Oscar®, a Golden Globe and a British Academy Award, as well as honors from the National Board of Review and the Berlin Film Festival. It seemed critics had finally caught on to what many fans had known for years, that Lee Marvin was an accomplished actor and not just a stock company villain. Upon accepting his Oscar®, Marvin remarked that he should share the award with "a horse somewhere out in the valley," referring to the animal actor whose comic performance equaled his own.

He now entered his period of top stardom, taking on a wider range of roles but still maintaining the air of a man at odds with the world around him. He was part of the all-star ensemble of Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965); battled for survival against Toshiro Mifune in John Boorman's wartime twist on Robinson Crusoe, Hell in the Pacific (1968); showed he could still shift from cool menace to scary violence at the flip of a mental switch in the legal thriller Sergeant Ryker (1968); and took on the challenge of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1973), holding his own against such acting heavyweights as Fredric March and Robert Ryan. He even appeared in a musical, the Western-set Paint Your Wagon (1969). And no one was more surprised than Lee Marvin when his growling recording of the song "Wand'rin' Star" won a Gold Record for a million copies sold.

His biggest successes, however, were still in action pictures. He co-starred with Burt Lancaster in the Western The Professionals (1966) and had perhaps his most iconic role, again under Boorman's direction, in the taut and savage crime drama Point Blank (1967). But his biggest hit was in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967), as the one Army officer tough enough to handle training a team of low-life prisoners for a World War II suicide mission.

By the 1970s, the big roles were more or less behind him, but he still commanded top billing in Aldrich's Emperor of the North Pole (1973), The Klansman (1974), and Avalanche Express (1979). And he had a few more important roles: as a "hero" not much better than the villains he pursued in the dark and offbeat crime thriller Prime Cut (1972) and as "The Sergeant" in Samuel Fuller's last major motion picture The Big Red One (1980). It has been said he turned down the title role in Patton (1970) and was considered for the part of the crusty old salt Quint in Jaws (1975). By 1985, he was merely walking through the role of his Major Reisman character in the TV knock-off The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission.

Marvin's film legacy was for a time overshadowed by a high-profile legal case in which his companion of six years, Michelle Triola, sued him for half his earnings after their break-up. Although Triola was awarded only $104,000 for "rehabilitation," the case established a legal precedent for the rights of unmarried cohabitators and introduced the word "palimony" into the language.

He was only 63 when he died suddenly of a heart attack in Arizona in 1987. A military veteran, PFC Lee Marvin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to the grave of boxing legend Joe Louis.

by Rob Nixon

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