For an inquisitive kid growing up in Southern California in the early '70s, coming home from school and seeing Lee Marvin light up the grainy television screen in his parents' living room as the uncompromising Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen surely captivated his imagination. Dwayne Epstein later grew up to become the best-selling author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, and a revealing interview below explores the raconteur's ongoing fascination for the legendary actor.
Marvin was a former Private First Class Marine who experienced devastating action first hand during World War II and knew all too well what it was like to work back-breaking jobs with pitiful compensation [e.g. a "honeydipper" that dug septic tanks and a chicken house disinfector].
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, over time the prematurely gray-haired actor methodically crafted his often-imitated persona of a slightly off-kilter tough individualist who abhorred authority with astonishing precision.
The prematurely white-haired actor had a knack for downplaying his craft with often memorable self-deprecation. During a Nov. 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."
Nearly three decades after Marvin's sad demise from a heart attack in a Tucson hospital, his legacy rests comfortably alongside other stars of the era, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. Marvin's likeness isn't as engrained in the public's consciousness as his aforementioned contemporaries, and that's a downright shame.
Do yourself a favor and investigate his wonderful performances in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hell in the Pacific, Emperor of the North, The Spikes Gang, and The Big Red One. Whether portraying the unequivocal villain or antihero, Marvin assimilated himself thoroughly within the character. Plus, his charisma is utterly contagious.
To catch up with Part Two of the Epstein interview, simply visit the following link: "Lee Marvin Did It First: The Legacy of the Definitive Antihero." Otherwise, sit back, relax and enjoy the next installment of the conversation. The award-winning journalist divulges who encouraged him to tackle Marvin, the difficulty in convincing a publisher that an audience was out there for his pet project, three Marvin films desperately in need of rediscovery, locating the World War II veteran's only brother in upstate New York after a massive search, how the genuine tough guy's first wife convinced their only son to sit down for an interview, and the clever quote by Lauren Bacall that influences his daily classic movie regimen.
The Dwayne Epstein / Lee Marvin Interview, Part Three
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 and is currently a finalist in Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year Awards. It’s also selling very well. Turns out, there’s definitely room in the market for a book on Lee Marvin.
Are you considering adding any new information to the paperback edition?
I only recently found out that we will indeed have new material for the paperback. We are going to tweak the text a little bit but we'll also be adding a section called “Topics of Conversation,” an author Q & A, and best of all, a new introduction by a major celebrity!
According to my publisher, we're looking at a print date of around Memorial Day or Father's Day 2014…for obvious reasons. It's all looking pretty good.
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 Lee 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!
Did you begin writing Lee’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 Lee’s elder brother, Robert Marvin?
He 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 him. 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, New York, which is right outside Woodstock, 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 Martin Scorsese and Quentin 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.
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Dwayne Epstein interview isn't over by a long shot. The satisfying finale, entitled "Get Out of Here While You Still Can," covers plenty of exciting territory, including Epstein's favorite interviews [e.g. the sexy Angie Dickinson], who really vandalized the ubiquitous Vegas Vic sign in Vegas while Marvin was filming "The Professionals," and the actor's touching final words to buddy Mitch Ryan in a lonely Tucson hospital room.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch...still a towering icon decades after his death, John Wayne is the genuine article. Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with the Duke, including "The Comancheros" – Lee Marvin portrayed a memorable villain – and "The Shootist." By far, "Big Jake" contains Palmer's best work with the legendary actor. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens his grandson's life with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever fight Wayne. In a just released two-part interview (Part One is "The Man Who Killed John Wayne's Dog..."), the gentle giant relives his friendship with Wayne and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest personalities in Hollywood.
Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr
Further Reading: John Wayne certainly had no plans to retire after his unintended swan-song, "The Shootist," opened to excellent reviews but slow box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery in late spring 1978, the Duke was determined to begin work on "Beau John." He went to impressive lengths to secure the project, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for "True Grit" 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with one of his recent costars. Little has been known about the unfinished film until now. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to "'Beau John': The Untold Story of John Wayne's Last Project."
Exclusive Interview: Lee Marvin played a menacing, mustachioed villain in "It Tolls For Thee", a memorable 1962 episode of The Virginian. His performance was so well-received that Universal Studios combined the episode years later with a separate Charles Bronson guest appearance for European audiences, and the confusing mishmash belatedly titled Meanest Men in the West was a result. Drury was undoubtedly the star of The Virginian, the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. In a just-released interview, Drury spoke at length about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne as well as his appreciation for his fans, whether he had a role model for his characterization of The Virginian, and the 50th anniversary of the show. Click on either installment link above to begin the eventful journey.
Further Reading No. 2: 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. Incidentally, the duo made their film debut together in Gary Cooper's 1951 wartime comedy You're in the Navy Now and later shared significant screen time in The Dirty Dozen and Death Hunt. 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. 3: A fellow member of the Greatest Generation, Audie Murphy personified American heroism. He enlisted at age 17 with the help of his sister, who lied about his age. Fighting three never-ending years in the freezing European campaign, the soft-spoken gentleman won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. The most decorated soldier of World War II, he was credited with saving his unit by killing an unheard-of 240 German soldiers. To learn about Murphy's most popular film, "To Hell and Back", a runaway Universal blockbuster chronicling his Army experiences that stood unrivaled until Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" usurped it 20 years later, navigate to "When a Genuine American Hero Becomes a Star..." Coincidentally, Marvin shared the screen with Murphy in a 1952 Universal shoot 'em up B-Western entitled "The Duel at Silver Creek."
Exclusive Interview No. 2: 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...
*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.