During World War II many Hollywood stars served in the military but few saw real action. Most made films (think Ronald Reagan) or entertained the troops and never left the country. A few were sent overseas. Some saw combat and a few were genuine heroes.
Lee Marvin falls somewhere between grizzled combat veteran and genuine hero. Born in New York City of a middle-class family in 1924, the actor was a real troublemaker in his school days and joined the U.S. Marines before World War II.
He tasted real combat during some 20 island invasions in the South Pacific, and was wounded — supposedly taking a Japanese bullet in his posterior, severing his sciatic nerve — in the Saipan campaign. He later received a Purple Heart, and is now buried (he died in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack in 1987) in Arlington National Cemetery.
Unlike other Hollywood luminaries, Marvin wasn’t a star before his military service. But by the early Fifties, he certainly was grabbing everyone’s attention. If only because of director Fritz Lang’s 1953 noir thriller The Big Heat, in which Marvin’s tough guy character throws a pot of scalding coffee in Gloria Graham’s face. A shocking moment, even by today’s super-violent Hollywood standards.
He was a drunk, on-screen and off, and starred in the most violent films of his age (from the Fifties through the Seventies), wrote a critic for the British national newspaper, The Guardian. But, first and foremost, he was a fantastic actor.
The British press is rolling out the compliments because of a London reissue in April of director John Boorman’s 1967 MGM outing, Point Blank in which Marvin plays a driven character (named Parker) in pursuit of $93,000 that has been stolen from him. The portrayal has been cited, again in The Guardian, as evidence of the actor’s inextinguishable greatness as a movie icon.
The British film journal Sight & Sound devoted a four-page spread to the Point Blank revival. As (director) Boorman got to know Marvin, he learned of the damage done to the man by the war and his unresolved violence. In the Pacific, Marvin had done bad things that never left him, wrote critic-author David Thomson.
This is not to say that Marvin was some sort of psycho who played violent characters throughout his career, which encompassed more than 100 titles including M Squad, a highly-rated NBC police tv series (1957 to 1960) that cast the actor as a Chicago plainclothes lieutenant.
After all, Marvin won an Oscar for the two broadly comic roles he took on in 1965’s Cat Ballou, and actually sang reasonably well in the 1969 movie version of the musical Paint Your Wagon.
It was as a screen tough guy with little restraint that has earned Marvin his most lasting plaudits. A cynical man’s man, he enjoyed a tangled personal life — research the name Michele Triola for further details — and battled the bottle pretty much all his life.
Ironically, he and Ronald Reagan costarred in director Don Siegel’s 1964 thriller The Killers, an update of the 1946 original that so memorably costarred Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. The remake was nowhere near as good as the original, but it’s still worth a look to see two very different World War II vets in the same picture.