Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lee At War

Twenty years ago today, we lost a wonderful actor and one of the screen’s great badasses. Lee Marvin died August 29, 1987 in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack. He was 63 years old, although years of late-night carousing and hard drinking, along with his naturally craggy features and gravelly voice, gave the impression of an older man. Marvin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Marine Corps and a Purple Heart recipient who was wounded at Saipan.

Richard Harland Smith at Turner Classic Movies' Movie Morlocks blog is spearheading today's Lee Marvin Blog-A-Thon, and it's an honor to be asked to join him in celebrating one of our favorite actors. If you get some extra time today, check out Richard's salute to POCKET MONEY and PRIME CUT and follow the links there to many other Lee Marvin tributes all over the Internet.

Marvin began his acting career around 1950, and his combat experience, steely countenance and tough-guy charisma made him a natural for military roles. He bounced back and forth between film and television for more than a decade, playing a lot of gunfighters, soldiers, mobsters and assassins, almost always in supporting roles. In 1957, he landed the lead role of Lt. Frank Ballinger, a two-fisted Chicago police detective, in the NBC series M SQUAD. If M SQUAD is remembered at all today, it’s for its swinging jazz theme composed by Count Basie and its opening titles, which were hilariously parodied by Leslie Nielsen and the Jerry Zucker/Jim Abrahams/David Zucker triptych in the 1982 TV series POLICE SQUAD! Although M SQUAD ran three seasons and 117 half-hour episodes, it’s rarely seen anymore and is ripe for a DVD release.

After M SQUAD left the air in 1960, Marvin continued as a popular guest star in episodic television. One of his most memorable roles during this era dovetailed nicely with his stint in the Marines, portraying a hardassed demolition expert in “The Bridge at Chalons,” a 1963 episode of the smash ABC series COMBAT! that was chosen to open the show’s second season. Starring Rick Jason as Lt. Gil Hanley and Vic Morrow as Sgt. Chip Saunders, COMBAT! had made a name for itself during its inaugural year for its film-level production values and its bleak portrayal of war.

Written by Bob and Esther Mitchell (whose screenwriting credits run the gamut of shows from PERRY MASON to BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY) and directed by Ted Post (who eventually branched out into features, including Clint Eastwood’s HANG ‘EM HIGH and MAGNUM FORCE), “The Bridge at Chalons” stars Marvin as Sgt. Turk, who is assigned by the Army brass to blow up a bridge deemed vital to the Nazi cause. Saunders and his men are ordered to accompany Turk to Chalons and provide cover and assistance. For Turk, this simply won’t do, as his bitter attitude and cruel behavior towards Saunders and his men make it clear that Turk is a very hard man who must have suffered some deep loss during his time in combat. After most of the party is either killed or forced to return to base, Turk and Saunders are the only ones left to carry out the mission, which means that the two, who despise each other, will now be forced to rely on each other to survive.

According to author Jo Davidsmeyer, whose COMBAT!: A VIEWER’S COMPANION TO THE WWII SERIES is the likely authority on the television series (and was consulted during the production of Image Entertainment’s DVD box sets), Marvin was highly respected and quite popular on the set. Actor Conlan Carter, who played Doc, said, “He was a piece of work, boy. The fun part of him was not so much in the acting, though he was good and he did what he did well. But he was a hard drinker. After the shoot was over for the day, man, could he put them down. Tell the stories! And he had incredible recovery. He could drink to one, two, three o'clock in the morning and show up on the set the next day and look like he'd never been out." Tom Lowell (Billy) remembers how Marvin’s Marine career came in handy during shooting. "I always thought Lee Marvin was so cool. The way he came in and had his rifle slung that way. Remember the way he had his elbows looped through the strap. That was so cool. I tried to do that for every show after that and Dick (series regular Dick Peabody, who played Littlejohn) would look down at me and say, 'Don't even try it.' After Lee Marvin came on, everyone wanted a rubber band wrapped around their helmet." Director Post contributes an audio commentary track to the episode on Image’s DVD, and spends nearly the entire hour talking about Marvin and what a fine actor he was.

It’s certain that the late Morrow (who was killed making TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE in 1982) possessed a hearty respect for Marvin, as the two actors crackle during their scenes together, many of which were shot on location and at night, usually a luxury in episodic television. As superb as Marvin is in his only COMBAT! episode, it’s hardly surprising that he soon made the permanent leap to motion pictures, and it was his Best Actor Academy Award for 1965’s CAT BALLOU that allowed him to escape the grind of television forever. Almost.

23 years after his appearance on COMBAT!, Marvin acted on television for the last time in THE DIRTY DOZEN: NEXT MISSION. One of his most popular films had been 1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, a raucous, violent, crowd-pleasing actioner set during World War II that cast Marvin as Reisman, a hard-nosed Army major in charge of training and leading twelve convicts on a suicide mission into German territory. Directed by Robert Aldrich and featuring an all-star cast including Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine, pro footballer Jim Brown, Richard Jaeckel, Charles Bronson, TV star Clint Walker, singer Trini Lopez, a young Donald Sutherland and John Cassevetes (who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), THE DIRTY DOZEN was a major box-office smash, and, in retrospect, it’s surprising it took MGM almost two decades to reprise it.

In NEXT MISSION, which is included as an extra on Warner Home Video’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD of THE DIRTY DOZEN, Marvin looks weary and quite a bit older. He also may be drunk in a couple of scenes. Working under the influence was not an uncommon practice for Marvin; one story claims that after he and actor Richard Burton introduced themselves to each other at a party, a fellow guest had to remind them that not only had the two already met, but they had starred together in a picture, 1974’s THE KLANSMAN!

As an aside, I debated writing about THE KLANSMAN, one of the most amazing, tasteless and depressing melodramas ever filmed, but I didn’t feel up to subjecting myself to this ugly film again so soon.

Like many sequels, NEXT MISSION is really a remake. Once again, Reisman recruits twelve hardened military prisoners, all sentenced to death or years of hard labor, to undertake a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. This time, they are to assassinate Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), a Nazi general, before he can assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Allies feel that Hitler’s erratic behavior is certain to clinch the war for them in just a few months, whereas if he is assassinated, his replacement will likely be able to rejuvenate the Nazi forces.

Although NBC also lured Borgnine and Jaeckel back to reprise their roles from the first movie, the rest of the cast is comprised of B-level TV actors without the stature of Bronson, Brown, George Kennedy et al.: CHIPS star Larry Wilcox (miscast as an eccentric Kansas cropduster), Sonny Landham (48 HRS.), Ken Wahl (not yet on WISEGUY), Gavan O’Herlihy (DEATH WISH III) and no one else you’ve heard of. Director Andrew V. McLaglen (THE WILD GEESE) shot Michael Kane’s teleplay in England with full awareness of where to place the pyrotechnics and stuntmen for maximum impact, but the familiar story (with exact scenes and dialogue pulled from Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller’s original screenplay), unfamiliar actors and an unenergetic Marvin make THE DIRTY DOZEN: NEXT MISSION an average shoot-‘em-up at best.

NBC aired NEXT MISSION on February 4, 1985. It was Marvin’s penultimate picture; he acted for the last time as the top-billed star of THE DELTA FORCE, Cannon Films and director/producer Menahem Golan’s jingoistic take on the 1970s disaster-film genre. Marvin has surprisingly little screen time, as Cannon contract player Chuck Norris handles the heavy action, while colorful character actors like George Kennedy, Bo Svenson, Robert Forster and Martin Balsam chew the scenery. An inauspicious swan song, perhaps, for one of cinema’s great badasses, but at least it featured Marvin the way we’d like to remember him: barking orders and kicking enemy ass.


Neil Sarver said...

I really enjoyed this post. I haven't seen The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission since, well, probably since 1985. I think it's excellent that they included that as a bonus feature on the DVD. More companies should do things like that.

Ignacio said...

when i think of lee marvin i think of him as the gangster vince who throws scalding coffee in the b-girl's face in "the big heat." he was a great, unpredictable villain who possessed enormous physical grace and was right there with richard widmark (if less tormented) when it came to projecting psychotic menace.

as liberty vallance in "the man who shot liberty vallance" he bullied jimmy stewart and was a coward whenever he ran into john wayne. if this isn't one of the best westerns of all time i don't know what is.

and then lee marvin starred in the brightly-colored yet psychologically noir "point blank," the best adaptation of a richard stark crime novel ever. directed by don siegel? (there's also a great james brown wannabe who is a knockout onstage during an extended nightclub scene, his screams on the beat punctuating the violence which eventually ensues backstage.)