If you have not read part one of my interview with Dwayne Epstein, author of the new biography Lee Marvin: Point Blank, just click right here and you would be directed right to it. The book is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and bookstores everywhere. In part two we discuss “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Killers,” Robert Aldrich, Angie Dickinson, The Inglorious Bastard Sons Lee Marvin and much more.
John: Let’s jump over to John Wayne. They made three films together; two of course were with John Ford. How did they get along?
Dwayne: Oh, they got along very good, they liked each other. In terms of their persona and screen chemistry, Lee Marvin’s first wife told me something great. That if you watch them on screen, “they both do what they do, they have their own thing, but,” she said, “John Wayne was like a big old bear, the way he appeared on screen, and the way he acted. Lee was more like a panther; he was sleek, he could pounce on a moment’s notice with coiled energy and with that in mind they kind of danced around each other and they had that great chemistry.” I like that image of them, one’s a bear and one’s a panther. They got along great. They really liked each other. There’s a story that didn’t make it into the book that I can tell you real quick. This was told to me by Kennan Wynn’s son, Ned Wynn or Tracy Wynn, I don’t remember which one because I interviewed them both. Anyway, Kennan Wynn was Lee Marvin’s best friend. When he was between films and not having a project lined up; he would drink and he and Kennan Wynn were drinking buddies. I believe it was Tracy who told me that that generation of men were pretty tough and he said, “John Wayne was probably the toughest of them all. My father and Lee got drunk and went down to Mexico and partied on John Wayne’s yacht and John Wayne took it to a point and then said, ‘that’s it’ and threw them off the yacht and into the Gulf of Mexico.” He only took crap from them up to a point.
Dwayne: Absolutely, absolutely, I agree completely. He would up winning the British Academy Award for that in conjunction with “Cat Ballou,” but it was for “The Killers” as well.
John: There’s a line in that film which he utters a couple of times, “Lady, I don’t have the time,” and you write in the book that it was the kind of catch phrase that would be emulated by future action stars like Clint Eastwood (“Go ahead, make my day”) and I think this goes back to Lee Marvin being the “grandfather” of the modern action heroes.
Dwayne: The first action hero, absolutely. The proof is in the fact that the director of “The Killers” was Don Siegel who later went on to help create Clint Eastwood’s screen persona. He directed many of Eastwood’s best films and did it first with Lee. There’s a lot of things Lee did in that film that I found out, you know, most film historians or cinephiles will tell you the director is the author of the film or the director is the creative entity and that everyone works around the director. Certain actors have the ability to create their own niche, about what is created on screen, creating a kind of a linear theme throughout their work. In the case of Lee Marvin, it definitely comes through. Most of the really cool things you see Lee do in that movie was the result of Lee, not Don Siegel. The end scene that Lee has was all Lee Marvin. Clu Gulager told me it was amazing watching him do that. He rehearsed, oh by the way, he was drunk when he shot that. Like I said, there were a handful of times when drinking did interfere with his work. One of the reasons during that period when they made the film is that a day or two before they started filming was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Marvin was a big Kennedy supporter. He campaigned for him. It didn’t affect him as much as it did Angie, but for different reasons. Yeah, he drank and his marriage was having trouble when he shot that end scene. Clu Gulager told me he did that without any padding under his clothes, no knee pads or anything like that. He said, watching him do that and being a big man and fell the way he did, he could have broken his collar bone, his knee cap, but he just got up and kept on doing it, which is amazing. You know when he aims his finger at the cops when they coming, Charles Bronson later did it in “Death Wish”, Robert DeNiro did it in “Taxi Driver,” but Lee Marvin did it first.
John: It was the first made for TV movie or was suppose to be.
Dwayne: Exactly, and the thing is, now granted the timing was bad because Kennedy had been assassinated, even though it was meant to be the first TV movie, it was clearly way too violent for TV at the time. So they shelved it. Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA, he decided to shelve it and later they released it in theaters where it became a big hit! You mentioned about Lee being an anti-hero, that phrase gets tossed around a lot, but in the truest sense of the word, he was in that film. In the sense that he is the main character, but there’s nothing…if you think about what this guy does for a living, he’s not a hero at all. I understood an antihero as someone who is perceived as a hero but does not have the normal heroic, for lack of a better word, principals or ethics that would be what Lee Marvin’s character was. You would not want to know or meet this guy in the street.
John: I always looked at an antihero as someone who goes his own way.
John: He might be on the side of the law and then again he might not be. He actually had his own code that he lived by.
Dwayne: Right. He does what he wants to do and morality be damned, he has his own reasons. Marvin always played characters like that.
Dwayne: Right, exactly, his own and that’s what his character in “The Killers” was very much like. From what I understand, it greatly influenced Quentin Tarantino in “Pulp Fiction,” in that, the repartee between John Travolta and Sam Jackson in that film, it came out of Tarantino’s love of “The Killers” and the way Gulager and Marvin spoke to each other. These guys are hired killers and yet they talk about what they are going to have for lunch and about how the business is going and how you get started. That’s the kind of dialogue you would expect from Tarantino.
John: Yeah, it’s a film that has grown in stature over the years.
Dwayne: Absolutely, it has, in spite of the cheap budget.
John: Yeah, the cheap budget is plain to see, but it’s a good, strong film. You mentioned his politics. Was he political at all?
Dwayne: He was up to a point. His first wife told me that after Kennedy was assassinated he never talked politics, well, he talked politics, but he was never public about it. You wouldn’t see it come up in interviews either after a time. But I do know what friends would tell me what political feelings he had were definitely liberal. He had been a Democrat his whole life, his parents were Democrats, and what I find interesting is when you read blogs nowadays days and people are Lee Marvin fans, especially the younger ones, because of who he was on screen they make the mistake or thinking of him like John Wayne or Bruce Willis. His politics were not anything like that. John Wayne was John Wayne and Lee Marvin was Lee Marvin. They call him a badass and say he would take on Obama and kick his ass, but you guys are wrong! He would side with Obama, believe me. Now granted, he wasn’t liberal about everything. He was very, very strong on anti-gun laws because he believed if you took away the guns from its citizens you’d have Poland in 1939. He would tell people that in conversation, but he also believed very much in many liberal causes. I was surprised to find out that for a guy of his generation he was actually pro-gay rights, he was pro women’s lib. His wife Betty told me he was one of the first feminist she ever met. He was very liberal which I think is cool. He was not alone there, in terms of his generation, on being on the left. Everybody was not John Wayne. Burt Lancaster was liberal, Kirk Douglas was liberal and they were bad asses in their own way.
Dwayne: Oh yeah, that was his biggest hit.
John: He worked with Robert Aldrich three times over the years…
Dwayne: Yeah, once every decade. The first one was “Attack” and then in the sixties it was “The Dirty Dozen” and in the seventies he did “Emperor of the North.” In the eighties, Aldrich was going to do “Death Hunt,” but there was a scheduling conflict so he wound up not being the director of that.
John: Was there some kind of an affinity between them? They worked so well together.
Dwayne: Well, yeah, the projects they worked on were in keeping with their own personal philosophy or in their way of doing things, and Marvin said too that one of the things he liked about Aldrich was there was no messing around with Aldrich. He liked the way he cast his films, he’s a great story teller and the way he puts a film across and there is no BS with him. You want to get a shot done; you get it and move on. That was important to Lee.
John: He didn’t like wasting time.
Dwayne: He wasn’t a deep thinker about these kinds of things. He didn’t over analyze stuff and neither did Aldrich.
John: In his acting style, he wasn’t really, I’m going to use the word Method, even though I know he wasn’t a Method actor, he could basically go in and out of his role without having to live his part.
Dwayne: Absolutely, and he personally would rant and rave in interviews about his utter dislike of method actors, it was a waste of time.
John: Yet, he worked with Brando.
Dwayne: Yet once again, ironically enough, he always said two of the best actors he ever worked with were Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, which both of course, were two of the biggest proponents of the Method, but they were talented, it wasn’t an act with them. It’s who they really were, especially Marlon Brando. There’s a famous incident when they were making “The Wild One” where Brando wasn’t taking seriously their scene together, bringing his attention level just short of Lee Marvin’s eyes. He was looking at his feet and mumbling a lot. During the rehearsal Marvin was smoking a cigarette and to get his attention he flicked his cigarette into Brando’s face. That got his attention! Marvin said too, that was a good way to get his attention, but be prepared because once you got Brando’s attention, you better be prepared for it, otherwise he’d run right over you. He said that was the great thing about Brando, his intensity was real and it was great working with him. In contrary to popular opinion, there was another thing out there that these guys were rivals and they hated each other, not true at all. These guys were professional actors. They knew their job and they knew how to do it and naturally they got along fairly well. They weren’t great friends, but they got along. In fact, Brando baby sat for Marvin when he and his wife would go out to dinner.
Dwayne: Which is kind of cool. I think Brando was five or ten years younger than Marvin, so consequently that age difference was a factor.
John: By the time Marvin won his Academy Award; he was what, in his mid-forties?
Dwayne: Actually, I think he just turned forty.
John: Let’s move on to “Point Blank,” a great film and Lee Marvin was the perfect actor for the role, and I think all you have to do is watch the Mel Gibson remake (Payback) to realize everything that is wrong with films today.
Dwayne: Oh absolutely! Oh, by the way, there is a film out now called “Parker” with Jason Statham which is based on the same character and story, but there’s another version that pre-dates it too with Robert Duvall called “The Outfit” that was made in seventy or seventy-one.
John: I have heard of the film, but I haven’t seen it.
Dwayne: Yeah, that’s also based on the Parker novels by Donald Westlake.
John: How did he get involved with this project?
Dwayne: It was while he was making “The Dirty Dozen” in London. John Boorman approached him, I never got to speak with John Boorman, but this was in Boorman’s autobiography, “Adventures of a Suburban Boy” where he says he visited Marvin on the set and pitched the idea of “Point Blank” to him. Marvin liked it. The thing about Marvin, at that time, he had just become a major star. It was during the filming of “The Dirty Dozen” that he took a day or two off to fly back to Los Angeles to accept his Academy Award, so he was a major star. The only thing John Boorman had done was a movie with the Dave Clark Five, called “Catch us if You Can,” (aka “Having a Wild Weekend”) so it was not like he was being approached by John Ford or Robert Aldrich. He was being approached by someone who was just beginning in the industry, but he liked Boorman’s ideas, where the story would go and they got together on that. One of my favorite stories about Lee Marvin, I love this, and John Boorman tells this in his autobiography, when Marvin agreed to do the movie he met with several producers, the heads of the studio, MGM and his own agent, Meyer Mishkin and others, and had a production meeting about how this was going to move forward. Now, at the time, like I said, Marvin had just become a major star. “The Dirty Dozen” was just about to be released and the buzz on it was humungous, he just won the Oscar for “Cat Ballou,” so he was the “King of Hollywood.” So, during the meeting he asked how this was going to work, “do I have script approval?” and they said “yes.” “Do, I have cast approval?” and they said “yes.” “Do I have final cut?” and they said “yes.” When they said yes to everything he wanted, Lee Marvin got up and said, “Great, I give all that to John!” and he walked out of the room.
John: That’s a great story. He had a lot of faith in Boorman.
Dwayne: Yeah, now I can’t imagine Stallone or Bruce Willis doing something like that!
Dwayne: Yes, he did.
John: Which was another film Lee was very proud of, yet it did no business.
Dwayne: That’s right and it always disappointed Lee. There were a couple of films for various reasons that were very, very important to Lee and the ones that were didn’t do very well, “Monte Walsh,” “Hell in the Pacific,” and I believe he felt that way about “The Killers,” though that was a hit, but it took a while for it to become a hit. It was important to Lee because everything he felt about warfare or war in general was said in that film. It really bothered him that it flopped because he worked so hard on it. He lost twenty pounds during the making the film.
John: And he worked with a great actor on the film too.
Dwayne: Toshiro Mifune was his all time favorite actor. This is the days before bro-mances but Marvin was very public about his love and respect for Toshiro Mifune. He just thought he was the best, he idolized Mifune and they got along great and worked together well even though Mifune couldn’t speak English and Marvin couldn’t speak Japanese. Their mutual respect for each other carried them forward.
John: So, there were definitely interpreters on the set?
Dwayne: That’s another thing about the movie that made it a very difficult situation that everybody involved, the film was kind of international. There were a Chinese crew, British crew, Japanese crew. They all bunked in a Liberian steamer docked off the island where they were shooting and the steamer had a Liberian crew. It was a grand mix and consequently it was a very difficult film because nobody knew what the other person was saying.
John: Changing the subject just a bit, I was surprised to read that Lee was a big fan of Blues music.
Dwayne: Oh, I’m so glad you picked up on that, because that was one of the big revelations for me as well, finding that out. I found that out from just about everybody I interviewed. They always had a story about how Lee made them listen to his Blues records which I hadn’t read anywhere else.
John: Who were some of his favorite musicians?
Dwayne: Well, according to his wife, Betty, there’s a great story she told me about when they went on their honeymoon that Lee brought his fishing tackle and his Blues records with him, and the ones that were most important to him like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others that are in the book. Lee Marvin’s son, Christopher told me, that his father told him that when he was very young he would go hop freight trains and one time he shared a freight train with Blind Lemon Jefferson which I find to be a bit of a stretch because, I know Lee Marvin hopped freight trains when he was very young, but I think that would have been impossible to do because Blind Lemon Jefferson died in the late twenties or early thirties, so I don’t know, who knows, maybe he did. But, he loved the Blues, and when he made “Emperor of the North” he impressed everybody on the set by constantly singing hobo songs and blues songs from that time period. Keith Carradine is on record as saying, “The guy knows so much, he’s fucking spooky!”
Robert Johnson Singin’ the Blues
John: Did he appreciate any other forms of music?
Dwayne: Oh absolutely, one of my favorite stories is when he was making “M Squad,” you’ll notice, I don’t know if you watched any of the episodes from the first season?”
John: Not yet, I just got the box set and haven’t had the chance.
Dwayne: Well, in the first season, if it’s done chronologically, the music is kind of bland kind of like “Dragnet.” In the second season, because Marvin was a producer on the show, he commissioned Count Basie to write a new score and it’s much, much better. It’s a swinging kind of music, jazz influenced and when they decided to do a soundtrack album Marvin wrote the liner notes and it sold out. It was a big seller. In the episodes at the end of the original TV show, during the run of the credits, you can hear Lee Marvin on the voiceover saying “Sorry, the soundtrack is sold out, It will be back in stores very soon.” He loved those kinds of music, Blues, Jazz. Christopher said there were certain Rock musicians he liked because they had Blues roots, like the British Invasion who loved American Blues. Those performers he and his father would listen to as well as Hendrix and stuff like that.
John: At the end of the book you write about “The Inglorious Bastard Sons Lee Marvin.”
John: Would you tell us what or who this is?
Dwayne: Well, that’s kind of a play on words on my part. It’s a conglomeration of two or three things. First being, “The Sons of Lee Marvin” which was a secret organization started by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and then there is the “Bastard Sons of Lee Marvin” which is an organization similar, but it was started by a gentlemen in Orange County who, just a Gen X’er, not anybody famous, who also is a Lee Marvin fan, I know him well, Ron Walker, and he and his friends got together and decided to pay homage to Lee Marvin. The third reference is to the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglorious Basterds,” which stole heavily the film from “The Dirty Dozen.” When they made the film, I know Michael Madsen was going to play a character called Babe Buchinsky which is Charles Bronson real name, Charles Buchinsky, clearly is a homage to “The Dirty Dozen.” It’s clear when you watch the film Tarantino is a “Dirty Dozen” fan.
John: So these are basically folks who have a love for Lee Marvin.
Dwayne: I’ve been a movie fan my whole life. I grew up on movies and I know of certain iconic film stars who live on long after their lives, the most famous being Humphrey Bogart, becoming this wonderful icon, about ten years after he died in the sixties, he became a major phenom like Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, James Dean, people like that but they all go along this similar path. With Lee Marvin when I read about, “The Sons of Lee Marvin,” I had never heard about that kind of thing involving any other film personality. Not a bunch of young, independent, creative artists like Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker, Tom Waits the actor, singer and Nick Cage, the rock singer. They got together and watched Lee Marvin movies. The thing they had to have in common is not only to be a Lee Marvin fan, they had to look a little like Lee Marvin. They could actually be his sons.
Singer/Actor Tom Waits
John: Tom Waits does look a little like Lee Marvin.
Dwayne: Yeah, and Jarmusch actually bleached his hair white so he could look like him.
Dwayne: Yeah, I’ve never heard of that kind of thing before. I know there are appreciation societies for the likes of John Wayne and what have you but they are very traditional. The kind of thing Lee Marvin engenders is not like anything I ever heard of before and early on I discovered that and I thought it was pretty cool. So, his legacy lives on.
John: You mentioned earlier Angie Dickinson, I guess, they got along well. You hinted at a possible romance.
Dwayne: Angie Dickinson hinted at it with me as well because I had told her, and I was threading on dangerous water with her because I didn’t know how she would react to this, but I told her that there was a gentlemen who Lee Marvin was good friends with named Ralph O’Hara who was a bartender in Santa Monica where Lee hung out. He hung around with Lee a lot and he watched them together. I said to Angie Dickinson what Ralph O’Hara said to me, “that when you watched Lee and Angie in a restaurant along with other people, there was a definite eye thing going on where they would look at each and connect.” He said, “no matter what was going on in the room, they were staring at each other and you can see there was definite chemistry and not just what was on film but in real life.” Ralph O’Hara said to me that if Lee had his way, he probably would have hooked up with Angie Dickinson. So I mentioned that to her and she took a long pause and said, you know, it you would have told me then that Lee digs me that way, I would have probably said no. And she said, strictly because of the way he acted around her. And I think that goes back to one of those things where I think it goes back to him being shy around women and kind of boyish. I think if he had really deep feeling for another woman he wouldn’t always kind of know how to express it. When I told her what Ralph O’Hara told me, she said, she’s flattered and it’s a pity, lord knows how it would have gone had he had acted on his feelings. By the way, he worked together with her more than any other actress.
John: At least three times.
Dwayne: Once on television early in her career, she starred in an episode of “M Squad” and they also worked together in a couple of Bog Hope specials.
John: Much of his early career was mostly westerns and gangster films.
Dwayne: …and war films. I would venture a guess that probably “Point Blank” and “Monte Walsh” were the only films he ever had a romantic interest at all. That was another thing about him, actors who would dabble in being brutal or dark on screen, but they wouldn’t pursue it persistently throughout their career, my favorite example being Richard Widmark, one of my favorites. His screen debut was one of the most devastating psychotic performances I have ever seen. He got an Oscar nomination but he never played that guy again, the character he played in “Kiss of Death.”
John: Supposedly, from what I read, he was a very nice guy in real life.
Dwayne: Absolutely, which you kind of have to be in juxtaposition of the screen image, but he never did that again. Yeah, he played mean guys later in his career but never that psychotic. Marvin, once he established himself, always, was never afraid to back off from playing those kinds of guys and more importantly he didn’t look to play romantic leads. He didn’t look to play romantic comedies or romantic musicals. If he did those types of films he did them in the realm of being as tough and mean and as dark as possible which doesn’t include a lot of time for domestic relationships. You very rarely saw him play a character who was married for instance or had children, even when he got older. The characters past in his films were often very mysterious, sometimes you found out as the time went on, and usually his past involved careers in violence. He didn’t want to sugar coat his image. His image was what it was, even as he got older.
Dwayne: I think it’s out on DVD, I know it was out on VHS but it was kind of hard to find for a while but I think it did come out on DVD. I absolutely love that film, I think it’s terrific.
John: Yeah, after reading about it in your book, I told myself I have to put that on my list to watch.
Dwayne: Keep in mind that though it takes place in the thirties and Lee’s a hobo, it’s not a nice film. It’s not that folk lore hobo philosophizing kind of stuff. The dialogue is kind of like that but there is not at all. 56 mins It’s very, very violent. When the film first came out, it flopped. The audiences didn’t go see because they didn’t understand the title and the studio didn’t know what to do with it. The original release title was originally the “Emperor of the North Pole” and then they took the “Pole” off and made it “Emperor of the North.” Then they added an ad campaign that said, “it’s not a place, it’s a prize.” People didn’t understand what the movie meant and the critics missed the point completely. They took it completely on face value, that this was just violence for violence sake. What they missed out on was Aldrich’s point that Marvin was symbolically the rugged individualist and that Ernest Borgnine was authority and the establishment coming down on the rugged individualist. The Keith Carradine character was something Robert Aldrich himself didn’t really care for, the youth market. You know, studios were always catering to the youth market especially in those days in the early seventies. And you see Keith Carradine’s character siding with whichever side is winning at the time.
John: (laughing) That’s how Aldrich saw the youth of America.
Dwayne: And on that level I think it’s a brilliant film. I think he really gets his point across. Marvin’s great in it.
John: I’m going to have to hunt for that one. One more question. Let’s go back to “Cat Ballou.” He won his Academy Award for that film, but I was looking at who he was up against that year.
Dwayne: It was an interesting year!
John: Yes, Rod Steiger, Olivier, you know Lee’s performance was good, but I think he gave better performances.
Dwayne: Oh, absolutely, and I even say that in the book. Somebody who interviewed him put that to Marvin and he even said, “It was certainly not the best performance I ever did.” It was an Oscar kind of track film is how he put it.
John: Yeah, it’s when you look at the competition that year…
Dwayne: I thought the best performance was from Rod Steiger that year for “The Pawnbroker.”
John: He was fabulous and a great film!
Dwayne: …and I believe Richard Burton was also nominated for “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”
Dwayne: …who he was amazing! I don’t know how they picked Marvin. I’m not putting Marvin’s performance down, I liked it a lot, but I think it was more about, which they still do on occasion, more about his body of work than that one particular performance.
Dwayne: I think there was an element of that for “True Grit,” but I also think John Wayne gave a great performance” in that film as well. It’s not a typical John Wayne performance, not quite anti-hero, but he seems to go out of his way in that film to get people to not like him. He’s really crusty and you usually don’t see John Wayne get that crusty as he was in “True Grit.” But, yeah, It’s sometimes about a body of work, that’s what it was in Lee Marvin’s case, especially since he was spoofing his own image that everybody knew so well. There’s that great story about the night of the Oscars because he figured Rod Steiger was going to win. Rod Steiger was sitting in front of him and Lee Marvin leaned over and whispered in his ear, “If they call your name instead of mine, I’m going to stick my big foot out and trip you. You’re going to fall right on your ass in front of a billion people (laughter) and for the rest of the evening Rod Steiger kept looking over his shoulder and Marvin would look at him and smile.
John: But that was his kind of sense of humor.
Dwayne: oh yeah, and when Marvin’s name was called, he went up there and took his award, he made a extremely short speech famously quipping about half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the valley and then later that evening when he was on his way to one of the award dinners, during a red light in his limo, in the car next to him, he saw Rod Steiger and Steiger was apparently crying.
Dwayne: He tapped on the widow with the Oscar and Lee Marvin just beamed a great big smile!
John: Dwayne the book is fantastic and I hope it does well. A couple of people have already mentioned to me that it’s on their to read list.
Dwayne: Wonderful! Of course, I’m saying that because I want it to sell well, but more importantly, I think Marvin is ready to be rediscovered by others and I think that’s what will happen with the book.
John: Hopefully, because he deserves the recognition.
Dwayne: I think so too. He was a genuine American original.
John: Yep! Is this your first book?
Dwayne: It’s my first adult book. I’ve written some young adult biographies for a company called Lucent that did a series called “People in the News” that were for high school age kids. I wrote about Will Farrell, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Sandler, Denzel Washington, and granted it was a different kind of writing, but it did teach me the valuable lesson about how to write about a theme for biographical writing which I hadn’t done before.
John: Well, I want to thank you for your time and wish you the best with it.
Dwayne: Thank you John, I appreciate you calling.