"I bet you're a big Lee Marvin fan!" taunts one reservoir dog to another in Quentin Tarantino's 1992 movie, thereby bestowing an aura of cool on the famous white-haired, rock-jawed, gravel-voiced actor, who had died five years earlier. Not that he needed it. Lee Marvin was one of the great cinema badasses, and barely needed to lift a finger to exude cool, or at least become the one in the room that everyone looks at, or looks out for. It didn't even matter about his prematurely white hair; he never looked like he was ready for a rocking chair.
Actors today spend a great deal of time thinking about their images before they take on good guy or bad guy roles. Or, if they somehow transition from one to the other, it can feel like a sellout. Marvin played bad guys for a number of years before his star rose and he began to get hero roles, but he brought the same kind of swagger to both types, and the transition felt right. He was a tough guy, but he was a tough guy that could handle a wide range of roles. He was not just an action star for his fans; the critics loved him too. He could handle drama, action, comedy and even (arguably) a musical. He could handle 'The Iceman Cometh' as well as he could handle 'The Dirty Dozen.'
Marvin was born in 1924 in New York City (where else?). He was thrown out of many schools for "incorrigibility," which is just so cool. Apparently, he studied violin and liked to hunt. He served as a Marine in WWII and was medically discharged after being shot in the butt. He returned to New York and began working as a plumber. While doing a job in a local theater, he was asked to take over for a sick actor. The rest is history.
After some theater and television, he moved to Los Angeles and won his first big role in Don Siegel's terrific "B" Western 'The Duel at Silver Creek' (1952). His steely gaze and unfaltering presence quickly typecast him as a bad guy, sometimes a psychotic sidekick, but other times the leader of a band of outlaws. He made cinema history in Fritz Lang's 'The Big Heat' (1953) as a gangster who pitches a pot of hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face; it's a moment that still shocks today.
In 'The Wild One' (1953), he played a motorcycle thug who goes up against Marlon Brando, no less, and provides a genuine threat. He attracted the attention of several top action directors and subsequently appeared in Andre de Toth's 'The Stranger Wore a Gun' (1953), Raoul Walsh's 'Gun Fury' (1953), John Sturges' 'Bad Day at Black Rock' (1955), Robert Aldrich's 'Attack' (1956), and Budd Boetticher's 'Seven Men from Now' (1956), among others. He received a big break playing another bad guy, the title character, in John Ford's masterpiece 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' (1962). Imagine playing opposite both John Wayne and James Stewart and somehow managing to seem dangerous and worthy of attention.
Ford cast Marvin again in his next film, the bawdy, light-hearted 'Donovan's Reef' (1963), but this time as an old buddy of John Wayne's. The two men spend a lot of screen time brawling, and appear mostly as equals, with neither stealing any thunder from the other. Though the film isn't anything major, it did mark a shift in the Marvin persona, showing how he could be tough, but fun-loving and good-hearted at the same time.
Siegel cast him again as a mysterious and stoic hitman in a remake of 'The Killers' (1964) that was originally produced for television, but was found to be too violent and was released in theaters. It's also notable as Ronald Reagan's last acting role; he plays a crazy gangster, very over-the-top and evil compared to Marvin's brand of unflappable cool. (Marvin was never evil, just threatening.) Marvin won a BAFTA award for his performance. For Marvin's next film, the comedy-Western 'Cat Ballou' (1965), he received his first and only Oscar nomination, and won.
That was the turning point, and Marvin entered into full-fledged, leading-man stardom. He was cast in a Stanley Kramer drama, 'Ship of Fools' (1965), but thankfully that kind of serious, stodgy thing did not stick. Next up was Richard Brooks' 'The Professionals' (1966), a terrific action-Western-thriller about a band of vigilantes hired to rescue a millionaire's wife from Mexican bandit. It was a big production, but still cool. Marvin, of course, plays the leader of the gang.
Starting in 1967, Marvin became one of the top ten box office stars of the year, and stayed there for five years, through 1971. Two of his best and most memorable movies came out that year, John Boorman's 'Point Blank' and Aldrich's 'The Dirty Dozen.' The latter was the year's #1 hit film, a violent action epic set at the end of WWII. The awesome cast also included Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, and even Donald Sutherland.
But 'Point Blank' was something different. It was a psychedelic-era crime film, based on a pulp novel called 'The Hunter,' by Richard Stark, really Donald E. Westlake. (Mel Gibson remade it, poorly, as 'Payback' in 1999.) English director Boorman took an outsider's perspective to San Francisco, California, surrounding Marvin with a giant Cinemascope frame, gobs of primary colors and slanted angles. But Marvin himself is like a concrete pillar, with his trim gray suit and his short-cropped gray hair, that holds up the film. It's a dazzling display of juxtaposition, of the imperturbable outsider trying to navigate a mean and strange world, and it may be Marvin's best film.
Boorman cast Marvin again the next year, alongside the legendary Toshiro Mifune, in 'Hell in the Pacific' (1968). Then came the ill-fated 'Paint Your Wagon' (1969), which seems to balance a notorious reputation for an overblown, over-budget white elephant -- starring two guys (Marvin and Clint Eastwood) who were not exactly the strongest of singers -- as well as a reputation as a hit and a cheerful, fun movie. Co-star Jean Seberg described Marvin's singing as "like rain gurgling down a rusty pipe." Marvin received a Golden Globe nomination.
By now Marvin was drinking heavily. Roger Ebert wrote a terrific 1970 interview in which he visited Marvin at his home for several hours, observing all kinds of astonishing, and hilarious, behavior. There was another Western, 'Monte Walsh' (1970), based on a book by Jack Schaefer, who had also written 'Shane.' There was a crime film, 'Prime Cut' (1972), and another movie with director Aldrich, 'Emperor of the North' (1973). After that, he took a surprising lead role in a four-hour movie version of 'The Iceman Cometh' (1973), directed by John Frankenheimer; he proved once again that he could actually act.
Then came some lean years, with some unmemorable movies. Marvin had worked with most of Hollywood's tough guy directors, but in 1980 it was his time to team up with Samuel Fuller, who was finally getting a chance to make his dream film, 'The Big Red One' (1980). Marvin was cast as the grizzled, all-knowing sarge, leading a team of young, fresh dogfaces (including Mark Hamill) through the various landscapes of WWII (based mostly on Fuller's own experiences). The movie was heavily edited before its release and did not make much of a splash that year, but in 2004, film critic Richard Schickel helped restore it to a version close to Fuller's original intent, and it has been reclaimed as a masterpiece.
Marvin was only in his 50s at this point, but he seemed older. He teamed up with Charles Bronson once again for 'Death Hunt' (1981), a fun, second-gear action movie set in snowy Canada. 'Gorky Park' (1983) was a fairly high-profile production, but did not bring Marvin much new recognition. His final film was a "B"-grade Chuck Norris action film, 'The Delta Force' (1986). He died of a heart attack not long after.
Today's action stars are more like pro wrestlers, each trying to perfect the best defiant glare. Above all, Marvin was not a man to be so easily predicted or pinned down. He lived his life as a liberal, apparently supporting John F. Kennedy and gay rights and opposing the Vietnam War. He was married twice and had four children. It felt like he found the secret to all of it. He was terrifying but funny, strong but warm, stoic but maybe with a bit of a wink. There's nobody quite like Marvin. He was just... cool.