The Tough Guys And Misfits Who Beat The Germans In 'The Dirty Dozen'
The Dirty Dozen's cast list includes some of the greatest movie tough-guys of the late '60s, as well as a few stars you might not place in a rollicking WWII epic. As the title of the 1967 film suggests, there are a dozen central characters in the movie -- throw in their commanding officer and a few other supporting actors and you've got a locked-and-loaded roster like none other. It starts with Lee Marvin as Major Reisman, a rogue World War II major tasked with leading a band of U.S. soldiers who all have been convicted of serious crimes, some with impending death sentences.
A Ragtag Crew
Major Reisman's charges include Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and Telly Savalas, all of whom you'd expect to kick some Nazi ass. But there's also Donald Sutherland, not usually an ass-kicker, and -- wait, Trini Lopez? Didn't he sing, or something? And the member of the Dirty Dozen who more or less steals the show is an odd one, you know the face but you can't remember his name -- John Cassavetes, who was phasing out of acting for his true calling, as a director. That's a hell of an ensemble cast right there, but war is hell, after all.
Lee Marvin, who played Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen, was also a World War II veteran. Marvin served in the Pacific Theatre during the war but never reached the rank of major like his character. He was corporal but was demoted to private because he was a troublemaker. Marvin was disappointed that The Dirty Dozen had less to do with depicting the war than it did showcasing the all-star cast. He even referred to the film as “just a dumb moneymaker.” He much preferred his 1980 movie, The Big Red One, because it more accurately showed the WWII experience. On the set of The Dirty Dozen, Marvin’s battle with alcoholism often delayed filming.
Like Marvin, Charles Bronson, who starred as Joseph Wladyslaw in The Dirty Dozen, served in World War II. He was a gunner in Guam and received a Purple Heart. On the set of The Dirty Dozen, Bronson often clashed with Marvin over Marvin’s drinking. Bronson considered it highly unprofessional for Marvin to arrive on the set drunk and even threatened to punch him. Bronson was able to add a personal touch to his character in the movie. When his character mentioned that his father was a coal miner from the Silesia region of Poland, he was paying homage to his own father who was a coal miner in Lithuania. As a boy growing up in Pennsylvania, Bronson even worked in the coal mines.
Before tackling acting, Jim Brown was a standout football player. In fact, The Sporting News named him the greatest football player of all time in 2002. In the late 1960s, Brown was balancing his football career with his acting career. While filming The Dirty Dozen, in which Brown played Robert Jefferson, he missed the beginning of training camp for the upcoming season because bad weather forced a delay in shooting the movie. Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, Brown’s team, was so angry about Brown’s absence that he threatened him with a hefty fine. Brown responded by announcing his retirement from the sport of football.
Playing Victor Franko in The Dirty Dozen earned John Cassavetes Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Cassavetes profited heavily from the recognition he received from his appearance in The Dirty Dozen. He was able to get the financial support that he needed to direct and produce his next project, Faces, in 1968. This film earned three Academy Award nominations, for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Richard Jaeckel’s stout, rugged appearance meant he was often typecast as a touchy, scrappy cowboy or a rough, scrappy soldier. He was the latter in The Dirty Dozen, playing the role of Sergeant Bowren. Although Jaeckel’s Hollywood career spanned six decades, his biggest volume of work came in the late 1950s through mid-1970s. In addition to The Dirty Dozen, he appeared in 3:10 to Yuma, The Naked and the Dead, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Devil’s Brigade, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, just to name a few.
Ernest Borgnine, General Worden in The Dirty Dozen, included anecdotes from his time on the set of the film in his autobiography. In it, he recounts that Lee Marvin was not only an alcoholic but a racist. He often spoke of his co-star Jim Brown in a racist and derogatory way when Brown wasn’t around, which made Ernest Borgnine and the other cast members very uncomfortable. The Dirty Dozen was filmed during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just recently passed and racial tensions were still high. The rest of the cast, however, treated Brown with the respect and dignity he deserved.
Playing Major Max Armbruster in The Dirty Dozen was just one of the highlights of 1967 for George Kennedy. Just before filming started on The Dirty Dozen, Kennedy wrapped up shooting Cool Hand Luke opposite Paul Newman. For his performance in Cool Hand Luke, Kennedy earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Trini Lopez was a rising Latino guitar player and singer, hailed as the next Ritchie Valens when he accepted the role of Pedro Jimenez in The Dirty Dozen. Filming took longer than expected, though, and Frank Sinatra encouraged Lopez to walk off the set, saying that the movie was ruining his singing career because it was keeping him away from the recording studio. Lopez heeded Sinatra’s advice, and the script was altered so that his character would be the first to die. In fact, the death was done off-screen due to Lopez’s absence. Contrary to what Sinatra told him, leaving the film early was detrimental to Lopez’s career and he never reached the pinnacle of stardom as he hoped.
Jack Palance was originally offered the role of Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen but he opposed the racist dialogue of the character, so the role went to Telly Savalas. Like his later TV character, Kojak, Savalas was bald as Maggott in the film. Two years prior, he shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told and continued to shave his head the rest of his life.
Donald Sutherland was a last-minute addition to the cast of The Dirty Dozen, taking the role of Vernon Pinkley when another actor dropped out. One iconic scene in The Dirty Dozen shows Sutherland’s character pretending to be a general inspecting Robert Ryan’s troops. Originally, it was Clint Walker’s character that was supposed to impersonate the general, but Walker was uncomfortable with the scene. The director had the scene rewritten to use Sutherland’s character instead, and the comedic turn (yes, there's a lot of war comedy in The Dirty Dozen) gave the then-obscure Sutherland a chance to shine. It was this one scene that impressed the producers of the 1970 movie MASH and led to Sutherland being awarded the role of Hawkeye Pierce.