Lee Marvin was one of the quintessential movie tough guys -- an actor who could not only act the part, but one who'd lived it. The gravelly-voiced performer was a Marine sniper during World War II and was shot by machine gun fire during the Battle of Saipan (a battle where most of his platoon died ... ). He was discharged with a Purple Heart. It's hard to imagine any of today's movie tough guys doing things like that, which is just one of the reasons why I miss Lee Marvin and his performances so much.
Known primarily for war movies and action films, Marvin forged a lengthy Hollywood career thanks to his talent, no-nonsense demeanor, and intimidating presence. Standing 6'2" tall with white hair and a glare that could make paint wither and fall off the wall, Marvin was the quintessential man's man. He was the kind of guy who'd turn down the role of Quint in Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws' because he didn't think his deep sea fishing buddies would ever respect him again after seeing him fight a rubber Great White Shark. Lee was the kind of guy who'd have gone out and caught the real thing.
For most of his early career, Marvin was typecast as a villain -- including the contemptible boyfriend in Fritz Lang's 'The Big Heat' and the title bad guy in John Ford's 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.' He was invaluable on the set of war movies given his real-life combat experience. Marvin assisted directors with the staging of troop movements and tactics, handling prop weapons, approving uniforms, and more. This and a series of small supporting roles in movies like 'Bad Day at Black Rock' kept him working until he finally got his big break.
Those parts came during the early stages of the 1960s, when the actor turned up in co-starring roles in titles like 'The Comancheros,' 'Liberty Valance' and 'Donovan's Reef' -- which found him appearing with the legendary John Wayne. However, his 1964 film 'The Killers' is arguably the moment where Marvin's career really moved to the next level.
In that film, Marvin teams up with Clu Gulager as a pair of hit men unraveling the life of their latest victim. Based on a Hemingway short story, the film is an interesting piece of work not only for the story -- which is an intriguing crime tale -- but because Marvin is so great in the role. 'Killers' has become something of a historical footnote as well -- seeing as it was Ronald Reagan's last role before becoming a politician and one wherein he plays a villain.
The actor seemed born to play these kinds of roles -- hitmen and soldiers and villains -- but Marvin was never content to be pigeonholed. He proved it in 1965 when he won a Best Actor Oscar for his role in the comedy western 'Cat Ballou.' The actor plays two roles in the film -- former legendary gunslinger turned drunkard Kid Shelleen and the villainous Tim Strawn. It's a fantastic performance, and proof that Lee Marvin was capable of much of more than just playing the traditional tough guy parts that had been coming his way. He was funny, and could do comedy just as easily as he could shoot people.
From there, his career took off. Marvin appeared in 'The Dirty Dozen' and 'The Professionals' and then had complete control over 'Point Blank', which is my favorite of his films.
Marvin plays Walker (changed from Parker in the original novel by Donald Westlake) in John Boorman's tale of revenge. Walker's the kind of guy you don't want to cross -- so when his wife (Angie Dickinson) and partner in crime (John Vernon) double cross him and leave him for dead, there's going to be hell to pay. Playing the vengeance-driven Walker might not have been a stretch for Marvin, but his performance in 'Point Blank' still stands as iconic.
Marvin then threw us one more curve ball after that -- opting into the musical western 'Paint Your Wagon' alongside Clint Eastwood. The idea of these two cinematic badasses doing a musical comedy seems incredibly bizarre -- and it is -- but it works. Marvin even had a hit song from the film, 'Wand'rin Star,' which boggles the mind.
The actor continued working through the 70's and into the 80's (where he got to act alongside fellow action movie icon Charles Bronson in 'Death Hunt') before landing a co-starring part with Chuck Norris in Cannon's 'The Delta Force.' Unfortunately, that was his last role.
We lost Lee Marvin on August 29, 1987. The performer had spent two weeks in the hospital with flu-like conditions and had a heart attack that took his life. Clearly, his passing was not only a huge blow to the action film community, but cinema as a whole. There will never be another talent like Lee Marvin, which is why we miss him so much.