Lee Marvin scared people. He was big, he was strong, he was gruff; and audiences—as well as fellow actors—knew it was no act. Marvin’s dark rage burned right there on the surface of his craggy features and often found expression through his enormous fists. Whether he was ordering Hollywood’s hardest actors around in the classic war movie, “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), or fighting in the World War II as a scout sniper in the Battle of the Pacific, Lee Marvin earned his stripes as a tough guy. And yet when he died from heart failure at the age of 63, the outpouring of grief from fans, friends, and fellow actors proved that beneath the hard exterior was a generous heart.
Lee Marvin was born February 19, 1924, in New York City. Like another great movie tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, Marvin came from a family and he was raised to lead a sheltered life. However, he rebelled against his advertising executive father and socialite mother—smoking, drinking, fighting, and succeeding in getting thrown out of several posh prep schools. Joining the Marines in 1942, Marvin made many landings under heavy Japanese fire during the Battle of the Pacific. After being wounded, the Marines shipped him home to recover. He drifted aimlessly through a succession of menial jobs, then stumbled upon acting while digging septic tanks near a local summer-stock playhouse. His natural charisma and powerful presence led to a succession of stage roles before finally landing him on Broadway in a production of “Billy Budd.” TV roles followed—New York enjoyed a thriving television industry in the 1950’s—before Marvin decided to move to Los Angeles to try his luck in the movies.
Marvin’s craggy face demanded close-ups, and even though the parts weren’t big at first, he made his presence felt. “Duel at Silver Creek” (1952), “Eight Iron Men” (1952), “The Big Heat” (1953), and “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1954) showed off Marvin as a heavyweight heavy. During this period he supplemented his film work with his role as a tough cop in the TV show “M Squad.”
The 1960’s saw him coming into his own in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). “Liberty Valance” was one of Marvin’s most important films, though it was underrated at the time. John Ford’s use of Marvin as a violent menace was not a stretch for the actor, and the movie was received poorly when it opened, but film scholars now see the movie not only as a classic western but one of the best commentaries on mythmaking from one of cinema’s foremost mythmakers.
In 1964, the year “The Killers” was released, America (with Vietnam and the assassination of President Kennedy) was growing more violent and Marvin’s thinly-veiled rage captured the nation’s mood. After winning an Academy Award for parodying his hard-guy image in “Cat Ballou” (1965), Marvin created the ultimate violent hero—really a precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry—with his work in “Point Blank” (1967), a role recently recreated by Mel Gibson in “Payback” (1999).
Marvin worked steadily through the 1970’s and early 1980’s, most notably in “The Big Red One” (1980) and “Gorky Park” (1983). Unfortunately, he became best known during this period for the landmark palimony suit brought by his live-in lover, Michele Triola Marvin. The case tested the reciprocal property rights of unmarried couples, and like every fight he encountered in his life, Marvin never backed down. He won, of course.