Tuesday 16 February 2021

“Little shadings can really spook an audience.” Part Four of Tom Ryan's legendary 1980 interview with the great actor Lee Marvin - THE KILLERS, CAT BALLOU, MONTE WALSH and THE BIG RED ONE

"...with a 44 Magnum..." Lee Marvin, The Killers

In 1964 came The Killers which I understand was the first movie ever made for television.

I just thought it was another special. It ended up being one of those crazy deals, right. Where they pay you a TV salary and then release it as a feature. Just the inner sanctum working: the money boys. What they would do was repay me if it was ever released as a feature, that is, repay me my same salary. But of course my television salary was a lot different from my movie salary, so they stole one on me.


The story that’s come down now is that it was too violent to show on television.


Oh, come on.


Well, in the early ’60s…


That’s what they say, but their attorneys tell ’em what to say, don’t they. Their solicitors.


Right. And that was Ronald Reagan’s last film and you plugged him in it.


Yeah, with a 44 Magnum.


It’s one of my favourites of yours. I’ll never forget you by the car going bang, just as you’re about to die, making a gun with your fingers.


Yeah. I’ll tell you how we got to that. There’s a scene where Clu Gallagher, the guy I’m training, and I are in the hotel room. I go into the washroom to wash my face and I have my jacket off and I have this pearl-handled, model-piece, sawn-off six gun in the back of my belt. That was my back-up gun, which you never saw again in the film until at the end when I’m hit and I’m out by the car and a cop pulls up to give me a ticket. I’m really reaching for it, but I just can’t get to it. It’s still there.

Clu Gallagher, Marvin, The Killers

You’re going through the gesture without the actual… It’s one of the great black jokes to finish the film with.


Yeah. The thing I liked in that too was Don Siegel, you know. A wonderfully creative guy. I did a lot of stuff with him early on – an episode on a series that, I think, was called The Doctor. It had nothing to do with a doctor but it was an anthology series for Bing Crosby. Anyway, we went back a long way together and when I come in to do Ronnie and Angie [Dickinson] – because now I know who owes me the money, or where it is – I’m hit and so I stumble down on to the carpet. As I go down, I said, ‘Don, let me say somethin’.’ And he says, ‘OK.’ And as I go down, I say, ‘Oh, God.’ And then she says…. And then I say, ‘I’m sorry, lady, I ain’t got the time.’ In other words, it takes the curse off the man, the killer. Just little shadings that can really spook an audience.

Don Siegel

There’s something really likeable about almost all the characters you play. They’re usually heavies, killers, and yet they’re so appealing. They’ve got that energy and they’re very funny too. I don’t want to get moralistic here…


Go ahead.


… but do you get disturbed by the way you’re able to make a killer attractive?


Not at all. Because this is not The Godfather. I’m not doing those roles. Or I haven’t been invited to, however it goes. I just think that in a lifetime we have known killers and they do have a human side to them. I think a great example of that is in Huston’s film, Asphalt Jungle. You remember one of the heavies, the one played by Anthony Caruso? He has a wife with a sick baby and the baby’s puking and mewling in the cradle and he’s trying to quiet it down before he goes out and does the job… and then he gets killed.


It’s those human elements that an audience can relate to. Just to be a heavy is nothing.


Mention of The Asphalt Jungle reminds me of Sterling Hayden.




That was his name.


Sterling Hayden, The Asphalt Jungle

There’s something about his career in Hollywood that seems to have things in common with yours. I’ve read ‘Wanderer’, where he’s the man who doesn’t care too much about what he’s doing, but he’s got a life to live quite apart from being on the screen or working in the industry that is far more important to him.


Well, I can’t relate to that too closely. But I think that Sterling has done some very interesting things. The Killing. I mean, wow. I love his deceitful cop in The Godfather. Stuff like that, it’s just good acting. And like all actors, he’s had some bad roles too. But I think he was much more sincere in his life-style than I was. You know, he was a man of the sea and he did believe in all that and I guess still does. I talked with him a few times, but never about anything heavy. I just don’t talk about stuff like that: that’s my life.


1965 is Cat Ballou and the Academy Award. Do you remember that role with affection?


No, with absolute dread. It was a very difficult film to make. We shot it in 28 days – we went two over. They got on our backs about that. The director [Elliot Silverstein] was just absolutely stunning. It was his concept along with the writers’ to do it the way we did. There’d been about 65 versions of the script. Everybody’d turned it down and I was the last on the list. I loved it because of the opening line. It was two drummers, one blind leading the other, comin’ down the street. City of Wyoming, 1894, “and they dropped Cat Ballou through the gallows door”. 


They already had the other people: Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole. And I said, ‘Gee, what an idea.’ And also, I’d played a lot of westerns by then and I figured, ‘Hey, what does happen to these guys?’ It was a comedy of course, but I didn’t play it for comedy; I played it for tragedy. And it is really a tragic film for Kid Shelleen and his brother, Tim Strawn. Tim is the black, black heavy: there’s just no peace for him. ‘Long time, no see,’ cobaloomey! that’s it.


Because he’s the user whereas Kid Shelleen is sort of innocent.


Yeah, right. There was some beautiful dialogue in that thing. They really worked it over well. “The last time I was in Tombstone, the OK Corral was a roller-skating rink!” Ah, where have they gone? You know. And so it is: the demise of the gunfighter, which is real sad…. They’ve done a lot of them now, especially in Buffalo Bill type shows: you know, the guys who were on the circuit after it was all over. Joel McCrea did it once and God knows how many times it’s been done since.


If we can jump forward a few years, there’s a film of yours that’s a favourite of mine: Monte Walsh.


(Murmur of approval) Oh good.


Which very much links up with what you’re saying about the gunfighter who’s gone past it. How involved were you with the preparation for the film?


Very much so. I was out in Palau at the time, building a boat, a fishing boat. The writer [David Zelag] Goodman and [director] Bill Fraker came over and showed me the script and the sketches and everything. And I said, ‘Let’s go.’ They’d already been to Paris and got Jeanne Moreau. They didn’t have Jack Palance yet, and they didn’t want him for some reason. They said, ‘Oh, he’s past it, just a has-been.’ And I said, ‘Well, he’s the only guy that’s gonna play that role, I’ll tell you that now.’ 

Marvin, Jack Palance, Monte Walsh

So I sent my agent to go to them. Meyer [Mishkin] went in and talked to them and they said, ‘OK, well let’s call him and send him up a script.’ He was living up at his ranch in Tehachapi. So they sent him a script and never heard from him. So I got on the phone. I said, ‘Jack.’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘How are ya?’ ‘Yeah? Whaddaya want?’ I said, ‘D’you read the script?’ He said, ‘Yeah. It’s a piece of unh-unh-unh-unh.’ ‘Yeah, but I want you to do it.’ He says, ‘Why should I do it?’ I says, ‘Because we’re gonna pay you unh-unh-unh thousand dollars.’ He says, ‘I love it.’ I said, ‘Get on a plane. I’ll see you in Tucson.’ And he showed up in a black suit with railroad socks. ‘Still wearin’ the same old wardrobe, huh?’ He steals clothes from the set, you know. We got this relationship goin’ again and it really paid off ’cause he was on my side. And it was beautiful stuff. You know, you live your life and you just know the right guy for that relationship.

Jeanne Moreau, Marvin, Monte Walsh


And we stumbled across this guy, Mitchell Ryan, who plays Shorty. He was doing an O’Neill play on tour. And he came out for an interview, and they said, ‘Waaaal, mmh, mmh,’ and he came out of the office rather miffed. I said, ‘Don’t leave.’ He said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this kind o’ stuff. These guys are…’ I said, ‘No. Shhh, shhh. Now sit down just a second.’ And I went into the office and said, ‘He plays it or it’s no show again, right?’ And what a threesome. It worked out.


Yes. There’s a terrific love scene, as it were, at the end after you’ve shot him. And you go to him and you say, ‘I rode the grey…’


‘I rode the grey down.’


I know we’re running out of time and I wanted to talk about Point Blank and I wanted to talk about Emperor of the North Pole and I wanted to talk about The Iceman Cometh. But I think I want to talk more about Big Red One at the moment.




Sam Fuller says that he got a phone call from you when you said, ‘I’m the sergeant.’ What made you want that part?*


He sent me the script… finally. He’d been talking about it for years. This is how it would go: I’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, Sam.’ Then Sam’d say [Marvin imitating Fuller’s famous gruffness], ‘Oh, boy. This is gonna be it, kid. You’re gonna play the sergeant.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, I gotta go fishin’.’ 


So eight or nine years later, I got this script in the mail and There It Was. I said, ‘Wow.’


What about the character attracted you? Why the sergeant?


Well [as if to say, isn’t it obvious?], there wasn’t any b.s. in it. Just straight, just as it was. Because he knew and I knew. We’d both been through… not the same battles… but combat, no matter where you are, is combat. And I guess the best description I ever heard of combat was a World War One statement: ‘Combat is the process by which, if your mother stepped in the front of you, you’d kill her.’ And that’s what the script contained: ‘Nothing personal, pal.’ Whammo, no time to think about it. And it was just sensational.

Marvin, The Big Red One


It’s a strange film to make in 1980, especially in the era of films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. It’s such a… well, somebody said to me, ‘It’s like a little film. It’s dwarfed by the others; it’s far more modest. But it’s also far more powerful because it creeps up on you rather than coming at you full-on.


Yeah. Well, I think one of the first films I ever saw in my life was made in 1928-’29. It was All Quiet on the Western Front. And I never forgot Louis Wolheim in that. You know, Sergeant Katz. I’d been in the service myself – I was a private first class – so I knew what the sergeants really did. My father was a sergeant in World War Two, all through Europe. And so it was really close to me and I understood it. And with the years of making war stories myself, having done a number of them, I just knew a good thing when I saw it. And I loved Sam, I loved to work with him. I knew he was right.


Why did it take you so long to work with Sam Fuller on a big project?


Well, because he hadn’t done anything in any number of years, almost ten years I believe.


But I would have thought you would have been ideal casting in so many of his films. You could have played Jeff Chandler’s role in Merrill’s Marauders

Samuel Fuller


No. At that time in his life, he was very endeared to a guy by the name of Gene Evans. And Gene was the curly, red-headed, hard sergeant: Steel HelmetFixed Bayonets. And Sam said to me – it was a beautiful line – ‘You  know the only thing wrong with the script, Lee?’ I said, What? There’s nothin’ wrong.’ He said, ‘Yeah, there is. I don’t have a part for Gene.’ Because, I mean, he was a loyal man. But it was very true: it had nothin’ to do with anybody except the sergeant, the four guys and the Kraut. You know, Siegfried Rauch. A very effective German, huh?


A very effective German... Sam Fuller obviously inspires loyalty among those who follow him.


Either that or he starts kicking butts, you know. It’s not a matter of loyalty; it’s a matter of listening. ‘Stop the gibble-gabble.’


He’s reputed to fire a gun on set when he wants your attention. Is that true?


Oh, he’d always have a guy standing by with three or four loaded pistols, with blanks. And he’d fire those things more often than we’d get to fire the machine gun. Either he’s gettin’ someone’s attention, or he wants a reaction from the actor. Oh, yeah. He blows those things all the time. He enjoys it. You ever seen the shot where he’s got two pistols and a cigar in his mouth. ‘Alright, roll it!’ You see people all around sticking their fingers in their ears.


One final question: Lee Marvin hasn’t made all that many films as the ’70s moves into the ’80s. Does that mean he’s moving towards retirement?


No. It’s just that my selectivity is changing. Not always correctly, but I think it’s changing. I remember talking with Jean Renoir – right? Not a bad man: The Grand Illusion! My God, what films he made. I was about to drop the question on him, a question posed on my adult (age-wise) lips. And I couldn’t get it out because I didn’t want to ask for the pearl. You know, ‘What is your pearl of wisdom?’ And I guess he anticipated me because he turned to me in beautiful English and he said, ‘If it doesn’t show the glory of man, don’t do it.’ I knew it! So I try to show the glory of man, I mean the potential glory, at an ongoing upward angle rather than down.



Jean Renoir (circa, 1939)
For Tom Ryan’s interview with Sam Fuller, see Gerard Peary, ed., Sam Fuller: Interviews, University of Mississippi Press, 1980, pp. 73 - 84 (first published in Cinema Papers)

For the three previous parts of this interview click on these links

Part One - Army service, Broadway and early Hollywood days Click here

Part Two  Fritz Lang, Marlon Brando, M Squad and Samuel Fuller Click here

Part Three - Edward Dymytryk, the Blacklist, Michael Curtiz, John Wayne and John Ford Click here

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