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Get out of here while you still can: Inside 'Lee Marvin: Point Blank'

Dwayne Epstein, best known for his popular line of young adult biographies [e.g. Denzel Washington and Adam Sandler], bravely ventured into uncharted territory in 2013, penning the near definitive Lee Marvin: Point Blank. In the finale of an engrossing interview series, Epstein draws a proverbial line in the sand in his quest to convince readers of Marvin's enduring appeal.

In a cacti-infused desert, Lee Marvin is forlorn yet commanding against a majestic blue sky near his Tucson, Ariz. home, Jan. 3, 1978: Marvin was only 53 years old but hard living was beginning to catch up with the celebrated actor
In a cacti-infused desert, Lee Marvin is forlorn yet commanding against a majestic blue sky near his Tucson, Ariz. home, Jan. 3, 1978: Marvin was only 53 years old but hard living was beginning to catch up with the celebrated actor
Image Credit: Photography by Christian Simonpietri
Paul Newman and Lee Marvin portray two down on their luck cowboys who agree to transport cattle from Mexico to the USA with unintended, often comical results in Pocket Money, released on Feb. 1, 1972
Paul Newman and Marvin portray two down on their luck cowboys who agree to transport cattle from Mexico to the US with unintended, comical results in Pocket Money, released on Feb. 1, 1972; Image Credit: Cinematographer László Kovács / Sunset Boulevard

Lee Marvin: Point Blank is the first biography written about the late actor – best known for conquering Hollywood's stale status quo in the 1960s with such laudatory films as Point Blank and The Dirty Dozen since Donald Zec's 1980 Marvin: The Story of Lee Marvin. Zec's tome was published while the notorious rabble rouser was still among the living. Critics and fans alike have greeted Point Blank with stellar notices. According to 130 Amazon customer reviews as of this writing, the bio has accumulated an impressive four and a half out of a possible five stars.

In case you're just joining the conversation, consider visiting Part Three of the interview ["Dwayne Epstein Shines a Light Between the Covers..."] to catch up. Otherwise, the Cerritos, Calif. native candidly admits his choice for the perfect photo capturing his subject's essence, who his favorite interviews were, and which dying Marvin costar graciously agreed to be interviewed. The author doesn't shy away from examining his failed interview attempts with several major Hollywood players and extremely close encounters with Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine.

Epstein offers insights into Marvin's drinking escapades – namely, who really attacked the ubiquitous Vegas Vic sign in Vegas while the actor was filming The Professionals in 1966. Often inebriated during the height of his career and wary of reporters, Marvin surprisingly retained an encyclopedic film knowledge. The ardent deep sea fisherman was facing a myriad of health problems when character actor-buddy Mitch Ryan visited his hospital bed. Stick around to learn the touching parting shot Marvin bestowed to his dear friend.

The Dwayne Epstein / Lee Marvin Interview, Part Four (Conclusion)

It’s serendipitous that you collected so many fascinating interviews with people who are no longer with us.

Absolutely; I got very lucky being able to interview them when I did. Over 100 exclusive conversations are part of the book, and I’m very proud of that fact.

I did get to interview Lee’s only sibling, an elder brother named Robert, and his longtime agent, Meyer Mishkin. Meyer and Lee were together from the very first moment Lee was on film up until the day he died. Both Robert and Meyer unfortunately passed away in 1999. Lee’s lawyer from the Michelle Triola palimony suit, David Kagon, was a gentleman and a pleasure to interview.

I chatted with a lot of Lee’s costars who had a great affection for him…or didn’t have affection for him but had worked with him a lot. Jack Palance, Woody Strode, longtime stuntman Tony Epper – they’re all gone now. Many of the directors he worked with – John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kramer, Budd Boetticher – were all wonderful interviews.

What were some of your favorite interviews?

Each and every one of them were memorable in their own way. All of them gave me revelational bits of information that no matter how much book research you do – and I went to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, different bookstores, dug through old magazines and what have you – nothing will be as impressive as actually talking to an individual who was there at the time of the specific event. They have on site information that isn’t necessarily published.

Woody Strode – one of my all-time favorite interviews – was so wonderful. At the time of our interview in 1994, he was dying of cancer. But, because it was for Lee, whom he loved dearly, he said, “I don’t do interviews anymore but come on over and I’ll talk to you.” You could tell he was quite uncomfortable, but he put on a brave face and spent a day with me. It was terrific.

Angie Dickinson was another revelation. She worked with Lee more than any other female costar [e.g. M Squad, The Killers, Point Blank, and Death Hunt]. Her insight was phenomenal. She’s a very intuitive person in terms of knowing what somebody’s personality is really like beyond what they’re trying to put forth, and she knew Lee pretty well.

Some of the best stories in the book were interesting anecdotes told to me by people nobody had ever heard of, such as Betty Ballantine – an early friend in Woodstock – or Ralph O’Hara – a bartender at The Raft in Malibu and a lifelong friend. Or people he went to school with. Seeking those people out was not easy.

Who were some of Lee’s acting cohorts that you really wanted to interview but ultimately turned you down?

Paul Newman worked with Lee in the contemporary tongue-in-cheek Western Pocket Money [1972]. When I contacted Newman, he just did not do interviews anymore. Period. Gene Hackman, who worked with Lee in Prime Cut, also declined.

The three interviews that were like the Holy Grail for me consisted of Jack Palance, Ernest Borgnine, and Charles Bronson. All worked with Lee prolifically. I did get Palance to go on the record, albeit briefly.

I had been in contact with Borgnine’s agent/publicist who really wanted him to talk. Borgnine was very polite in telling me that he would love to discuss Lee. However, he was so saddened by his passing – even 20 years later – that he just couldn’t talk about him. I remember Borgnine saying, “It would hurt too much.” Lee meant so much to him.

Bronson was another who just didn’t do interviews. I came very close in that I had dinner at a friend’s house who was in the industry and lived right across the street from Bronson. The entire time I was looking out the window thinking, ‘All I gotta do is run across the street and knock on his door real quick’ [laughs]. But I said to myself, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I understood and have to respect their privacy. Other journalists and reporters don’t seem to care.

Was it a tough process selecting the cover photo?

Oh gosh, yes! I loved the photo we eventually chose as the cover – a black-and-white publicity shot from M Squad – a TV cop show Lee had in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I like it mainly because of not only the look on his face but his body language. He has a look of kinda like, ‘Go ahead…hurry up and take the picture. I’ve got more important things to do.’

While I’m glad we went with the M Squad photo – that was not my original choice. My very first choice was a photo of Lee taken on the set of Pocket Money by renowned celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill.

Lee is sitting at a table on a soundstage made to resemble a bar. On the table are a bunch of cigarette butts, empty tequila shot glasses, and a bottle of tequila. Wearing a fedora, Lee is looking straight at the camera as if he’s looking at you from across the table. He looks very Lee Marvin-esque. It’s one of the best photos of him I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights to that because of O’Neill being a very known photographer, and it would have been very expensive.

The other was a studio shot of Lee taken in the early ‘60s where he’s lighting a cigarette and looking at the camera. He looks very cool. My publisher as well as the distributor said, “You can’t have a photo of somebody with a cigarette. It will make it hard in some circles to get sales.” So I had to acquiesce. It’s always difficult dealing with copyright problems and political correctness issues.

People of course do judge a book by its cover even though they’re not supposed to. I wanted a cover that would catch somebody’s eye if they saw it in a bookstore and I think our final choice does so perfectly.

Were there any working titles for Lee Marvin: Point Blank?

There was a whole page of ideas my publisher and I went through. Two still stick in my memory – A Portrait in Violence and From Hell to Hollywood: How Lee Marvin Created the Modern American Cinema of Violence. What's funny is the title we went with was actually the first title I suggested. Go figure [laughs].

Did you uncover any interesting stories that you wish you could have included in the book?

Oh sure. Not a lot, thankfully. There wasn't anything like, 'Oh man, why didn't I find that out before it went to the press!' Some people came forward after the book came out and remarked to me, "I wish I'd known you were working on this book. I could have told you such and such.”

Those instances were pretty much keeping in the spirit of the book – just lacking in a specific story. You know what I mean? Overall, the book is pretty straightforward in the way it depicts Lee.

Were there any aspects regarding Lee’s life and career that had to be omitted from the book?

Sure – the biggest reason being space. One of the things I discovered was that writing about Lee’s drinking escapades can get a little depressing after awhile. They are initially fun to hear about. Lee was definitely having a good time.

But when you start hearing these same kind of stories over and over again…you realize the guy really had problems that he never properly dealt with. Maybe he relished being a public buffoon. I quickly realized the reader would be disgusted and find these drunken episodes redundant so I tried not to constantly regurgitate.

I just decided to pick and choose which ones to use to tell the story. I have been accused by some reviewers that there were too many drinking stories. They have no idea what I left out. That’s fine – everyone’s entitled to their own opinion [laughs].

There were instances of the way certain things were worded that will be fixed in the paperback version. One of the most legendary stories of Lee’s drinking escapades was when he was working on The Professionals in 1966 and they were billeted in Las Vegas. Lee, Woody Strode and stuntman Tony Epper supposedly went out and attacked the famous Vegas Vic sign – the waving hand. The media infamously coined it "The Robin Hood Party."

Lee didn’t have anything to do with that incident at all, which both Woody and Tony confirmed to me. Lee had passed out in his hotel room hours before. Being a big star and recent Academy Award winner [i.e. Cat Ballou], he took the blame to keep his buddies from going to jail.

Consequently, Michelle Triola used the story during the palimony trial in the late ‘70s to make it look like Lee was out of control, which wasn't true. I’ll clarify Lee’s non-involvement in the paperback edition. That was my fault for not wording the account clearly.

I admire your chronicle of Lee’s valiant final days in a Tucson hospital, especially when Christopher visited his ailing father.

As Christopher leaned down to his father’s bedside, Lee summoned the strength to say, “Get out of here while you still can.” Yup, that got to me too.

I also liked the story that Mitch Ryan told me. Mitch and Lee bonded during the making of Monte Walsh [1970], and their friendship was highly visible onscreen. Mitch practically saw Lee die when he was in the hospital.

Lee couldn’t speak very well but when Mitch walked in and saw all the tubes and machines he was hooked up to, he said Lee just kinda rolled his eyes. He was conscious and he was able to say, "This is how you end up when you live a life like I do." He knew his condition was a result of a life he had lived.

Matter of fact, whether symbolically, or literally, Lee went out fighting. He was a fighter his whole life. When they were treating him in the hospital for a multitude of problems, one of the things they were trying to do was put a tube down his throat so he could breathe better and he fought the nurses off. In the fighting, he had a heart attack and died. He never pulled his punches. He was always Lee Marvin to the very end.

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! To revisit the very beginning of the conversation, head on over to "Battle Scars and Violent Interludes." Epstein's point blank prose covers his subject's harrowing World War II experiences, why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital, Marvin's perhaps surprising reaction to the ongoing debate of onscreen violence, and much more.

Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy Roberts, follow @jeremylr

Exclusive Interview: Believe it or not, Steve McQueen had an unconfirmed half-sister for six decades. Dogged researcher Marshall Terrill revealed Teri McQueen's identity to the world in his well-received 2012 biography, "Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon." In the four-part "Daydreams of Having an Older Brother" interview series, Teri painstakingly relives her miserable childhood exacerbated by alcoholic, often resentful parents who shuttled her back and forth to various temporary homes when they couldn't live together anymore. Pregnant at age 15 and working at Woolworth's five and dime store after lying about her age, Teri's hard-scrabble beginnings ironically mirrored much of her brother's rebellious adolescence. As the tried and true adage plainly says, Teri's experiences are definitely a page turner.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Actress Lee Purcell was a familiar face to cinema enthusiasts in the '70s and '80s, appearing in such popular films as Charles Bronson's action flick "Mr. Majestyk", the cult surfing drama "Big Wednesday", the high school dramedy "Almost Summer", and Nicolas Cage's breakout movie, "Valley Girl". Incidentally, her first film was "Adam at 6 A.M.", only the second starring role for the phenomenal Michael Douglas. Produced by Steve McQueen's Solar Productions, "Adam at 6 A.M." slipped by with relatively little notice in 1970. In an in-depth commentary marking the anniversary of McQueen's passing, Purcell remembers her mentor with a fiery passion, including the time he took her on a 100-mile-per-hour cruise in his Porsche down the bustling streets of Los Angeles.

Exclusive Interview No. 3: Kent McCray served as Michael Landon's best man and proverbial right hand on three beloved television series –Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven. In a wide-ranging conversation commemorating Landon's 76th birthday ["The Brother That He Never Had..."], McCray recalls their strained debut encounter, Landon's burgeoning progress as a writer and director, a few memorable practical jokes, 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.

Exclusive Interview No. 4: Jack Kelly had a knack for making the ladies swoon. Possessing a svelte figure, the charming cowboy became a household name when he costarred with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, "Maverick." His biographer, Linda Alexander, recently took it upon herself to expose the actor's body of work to a new generation, and an interview seemed like the perfect place to start. In "More Than Bret Maverick's Brother: Remembering Jack Kelly On His 85th Birthday"], Alexander reveals Kelly's entry into show business at the insistence of a bona fide stage mother, his quintessential "Maverick" episodes, the ongoing Bret versus Bart debate, how Garner's contract negotiations with the network affected his costar, and whether the two were friends in real life.

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. 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..."

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