Lee Marvin: A Man's Man, Pacifist, Progressive, And Complicated

Icons | February 19, 2020

Left: Lee Marvin guest stars on the CBS game show, PASSWORD. Image dated June 14, 1962. Right: Marvin on the cover of Gun World magazine, December 1967. Sources: CBS via Getty Images; eBay

Lee Marvin was one of Hollywood's tough guys, taking no guff in such films as The Killers (1964), The Professionals (1966), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Point Blank (1967). Marvin walked like a man and talked like a man -- and yet, for someone who seemed so close to his characters in many ways (he served as a Marine in World War II), Marvin was more complex. Marvin was no hippie, but he held views that were clearly in line with the changing times, even while his on-screen persona was relentlessly macho.

Lee Marvin Was A Problem Child And A Fighter

Lee Marvin started as a handsome extra (famouspeopletoday)

Lee Marvin grew up in New York City. His father was an advertising executive and his mother an editor and writer for the fashion and beauty market. Sounds like a good start for a happy if not privileged childhood -- but Marvin revealed that his father was abusive and his mother failed to provide the motherly love kids need. So Marvin acted out at school, getting kicked out of just about every prep school he attended for fighting.

He also ran away a few times, including once at the age of four. Marvin once said, ″I claim the Marine Corps taught me how to act.″ He was referring to acting in movies but perhaps, it could be applied to other aspects of his life. 

He Was A War Hero

Playing military men wasn't much of a stretch for Marvin (tvovermind)

Lee Marvin joined the U.S. Marines in 1942, when he was 18 and World War II was in full swing. Marvin was a survivor of the Battle of Saipan, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the entire war. Marvin suffered a grievous injury in the battle, and received the Purple Heart Medal. He was also decorated with the Presidential Unit Citation, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Combat Action Ribbon.

Recovering from his injuries, Marvin was discharged in 1945 with the rank of private first class. He had actually risen to the level of corporal earlier in the war, but had been demoted.

Marvin Was A Movie Extra Who Became A Star

Lee Marvin in 'Shack Out On 101,' 1955. Source: bnoirdetour.wordpress.com

When Marvin came home, he went to work as a movie extra, without complaint, but he didn’t find success in Hollywood overnight. One of his earliest jobs was an uncredited role in the 1951 comedy You’re in the Navy NowIn a stroke of luck, the director, Henry Hathaway saw something in Marvin and invited him to Hollywood. When Marvin couldn’t find an agent due to his lack of speaking roles, Hathaway gave him some dialogue. As Marvin said, ″Hathaway picked me out of that movie, he picked Charles Bronson and he picked Jack Warden. So maybe, he had an eye.″

H intense character made him perfect as a military officer or Wild West gunfighter in many of his early roles. Successes included his role supporting Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), his turn alongside Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, and Ernest Borgnine in Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), and his three seasons in the lead role as Lt. Frank Ballinger, a Chicago cop, in the TV series M Squad (1957-60). Eventually, he showed his comedic range, winning an Oscar playing a drunken gunfighter and his evil twin in the Jane Fonda comedy western Cat Ballou

Hard Drinking, Hard Living Man’s Man

Cat Ballou, Marvin's Oscar winning performance (pinterest)

Those who knew Marvin said the war took its toll on him. He drank a lot and smoked a lot of cigarettes, not unlike many men from that era. The famous director, John Boorman told the best drinking story of Marvin, or anyone for that matter. Here's a summary of the story from The Guardian

Boorman's famous memory of Lee, s**tfaced in Hollywood at dawn, hailing a cab and saying, "Take me home; hills above Sunset Plaza … Uh, somewhere." Failing to find it, Marvin found a kid selling maps to the stars' homes. "OK, this is me, drive up here." And arriving to hear the new owner of the house tell him, "Ah, Mr. Marvin, you sold me this house four years ago."

According to his biographer, Wayne Epstein, “because his mother was a working woman when he was a child, he didn’t see women necessarily as the lesser sex. He saw them as equal and he treated them as such. As his lawyer said to me, he treated women as equals in all their various gradations.”

Lee Marvin Supported Gay Rights

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and Carroll O'Connor in 'Point Blank' (1967). Source: IMDB

Despite being from a bygone era, many claim Marvin was ahead of his time on many social issues. He publicly supported gay rights in the Stonewall Riots era, going on at length in a 1969 Playboy magazine interview. Though his language might not pass muster today, the general live-and-let-live idea that, as he said, "what transpires between two adults is definitely their own business," were well ahead of their time:

The way the law treats [gay men] is really sick. If I were a homosexual and I saw a cop, I'd shudder. The motivation that makes a man get into the vice squad has got to be one of devious intent. ... His line is "Look at that perverted son of a bitch!"After acquiring firsthand evidence, which he gets in a men's room, he then arrests the homosexual. He's sicker than the guy he arrested. There's no chance for a happy homosexual -- presumably there are such individuals -- who's just pursuing his own individual sexual outlet, 'cause here comes the fuzz.

Lee Marvin Was A Pacifist With A Soldier's Resume

Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in 'Hell in the Pacific' (1968). Source: IMDB

Though his looks, diction, and general badass swagger made him an in-demand lead actor for war movies and vigilante films, something else got in the way: his pacifism. Marvin was anti-war, having lived the horrors first hand and had a particular objection to the Vietnam War. Though one of his persona-defining roles came in The Dirty Dozen, he said it was his least favorite film due to its unrealistic depiction of war. Coming off of The Dirty Dozen, he was offered the part of Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare (1968), but left it for Clint Eastwood. He turned down the title role of Patton (1970), which won George C. Scott an Oscar. His favorite war movies he made were Hell in the Pacific (1968) and The Big Red One (1978), because they showed war in a sufficiently real and unpleasant light.

Just Think How Big He'd Have Been If He'd Done 'Dirty Harry,' 'Patton,' 'Deliverance' and 'Jaws'

Cling Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg on the set of 'Paint Your Wagon.' Source: Reddit

Speaking of movies Marvin didn't do, the list is remarkable. Marvin turned down the chance to play Harry Callahan in 1972's Dirty Harry (it became a signature role for Clint Eastwood) and bailed on the Paul Kersey part in 1974's Death Wish (it went to Charles Bronson). He was director Sam Peckinpah's first choice for gang leader Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch (1969), but opted to join Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg in the flop Paint Your Wagon (William Holden played Pike). He turned down the role of Quint in Jaws (it went to Robert Shaw). Marvin was asked to play Lee Van Cleef's role in For a Few Dollars More (1965) but opted to make Cat Ballou instead -- a good choice. Marvin was asked by John Boorman to play alongside Marlon Brando in Deliverance (1972), but convinced the director that he and Brando were too old (the parts went to Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds).

Lee Marvin Is In The Legal History Books

A true military hero entombed in Arlington Cemetery (pinterest)

Rather famously, a six-year relationship of Marvin’s went all the way to the Supreme Court and was eventually dubbed the “palimony” case. In the suit, a woman claimed that while she lived with Marvin for six years, he promised her half of his fortune. The Supreme court upheld Michelle Triola Marvin’s (she changed her name to Marvin though they were never married) right to sue but only awarded her a small sum of money.

Toward the end of his life, Marvin enjoyed the sweet silence of the desert. ″I don’t have horses or dogs. Don’t buy nothing that eats. There are a bunch of coyotes around the house. I like them. They’re more interesting than a bunch of dogs.″

Tags: Lee Marvin | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Dirty Dozen | Things You Didnt Know | War Movies | Westerns | What Did He Do?...

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!