Tuesday 2 February 2021

“They wouldn’t come on the set scratching their heads.” - Part 2 of Tom Ryan's legendary 3RRR 1980 interview with Lee Marvin

Editor’s note: This is the second instalment of a four part series devoted to a lengthy interview by Melbourne critic and scholar Tom Ryan with Lee Marvin. The interview was conducted on Melbourne Radio3RRR in 1980. This part deals with Martin’s time working with Fritz Lang, Henry Hathaway, Samuel Fuller and Marlon Brando among others and his work in series television. Part One can be accessed if you click here – 



TR: In ’54, it was The Big Heat with Fritz Lang. Is that the first “great” film that you’re in?


LM: I did one right before that. I was hired in costume, with Brando, for The Wild One. It finished a week or so before the Fritz Lang film started. I talked to him and his people said, ‘No, he’s not right.’ So he says, ‘We’ll get him a haircut and shave the beard off and he’ll be alright. (then, mimicking) I high-er you for vat you are, not vat dey t’ink you are.’ Yes sir. Because he was from UFA, you know, the old Berlin film industry. A magnificent guy.


Fritz Lang

I’ve read interviews with Henry Fonda and others saying that he was a very difficult director to work with because he would stand just off camera, yelling directions.


Why not? He knew the medium. And he could lay the lines over later. But, no, I didn’t find him difficult at all. In fact, I wasn’t there for the first day of filming. I started about three days in. I went to work that day and I was standing around and there was a desk in the corner of the sound stage that had a name card on it saying ‘Fritz Lang’ along with this big magnum of champagne, well-iced, with about eight or ten glasses upended in it. I waited by it for him, he came over and I said, ‘Mr. Lang.’ I said, ‘Is there anything I should know before I get started?’ And he said, ‘No. I hire you for vat you are.’ He said, ‘Vould you care for a drink, yah?’ I said, ‘No, not when I’m working.’ He said, ‘That’s good. You I don’t worry about.’ And then, pointing to the leading man at the other end of the stage, he says, ‘It’s that SOB that I worry about.’


Glenn Ford?


Yeah, please. I went, ‘Mmm.’ So he gave me a little lift. And about eight weeks later, I happen to look over by the door and there’s a new actor comin’ on, and he’s pointin’ at me. They all had their technique.


Did he take a lot of time setting up shots. Was it a quick job or was it something he was gonna take a lot of time over?


No, he’d never ad-lib. He came to the set and, as they say, he’d done his homework. He knew exactly the scene, how he wanted it lit, and where everybody had to move. I mean you didn’t make any ‘Well, it feels better if I…’ ‘You shtand right zere.’ You didn’t become inventive in your movement for him ’cause he’d already cut the film in his head. It was a marvellous way to work, and once you got over that hump of being creative you simply did that part. And it fits in much better.


Marvin, Gloria Grahame, The Big Heat

Are you happy to accept that sort of a role in a film, when it’s all strictly defined, or do you prefer that ‘creative’ freedom that you didn’t get with Lang?


It depends on who’s directing. But absolutely. Some men I’d do anything for, others I’d say, ‘Now wait a minute. That’s not very natural,’ or something. But men like Lang knew, I mean they really knew. Hathaway, guys like that. They wouldn’t come on the set scratching their heads.


Were you under contract at this time?

I was never under contract. 


Why was that? You were working at Columbia when Harry Cohn was there.


Yeah. I did eight in a row there, but the reason for that was there’s a lot of roles in films that aren’t really well-described, or well-defined. And I kinda got to be called a trouble-shooter: they didn’t know what to do with a role, they’d say, ‘Give it to Lee Marvin, he’ll do something with it.’ Of course, the roles weren’t that important. Or maybe they were; I don’t know, but you know what I’m saying. When in doubt, they’d throw it at me.


Why do you think that was?


I dunno. Maybe it was because maybe I didn’t care. Maybe I knew I wasn’t going anyplace and in those days I couldn’t be intimidated. You know, I’d made it through the war and as Jimmy Whitmore, a friend of mine, said, ‘After 1945, it was all gravy.’


And you were seriously wounded in the war?


Yeah, yeah.


You worked with Brando on The Wild One and, of course, the inevitable question is: did he sit you on his knee as I heard he sat Sarah Douglas on his knee on the set of Superman, or was he somewhat more aloof than that?


He wasn’t aloof. He used to baby-sit for my children. No, he was straight. We had our shoot-out early in the film and he was just beautiful to me.


Marlon Brando, Marvin, The Wild One

That was when he’d just started too…


He’d done The Men before that. That was his first film, I believe.


How does his acting style sit next to your style, which seems to me far more relaxed?


Well, I think I know about as much about Method as he does because I studied with some pretty heavy guys. It’s just that I didn’t use it like he used it. He was dynamic. My God, I saw him in Streetcar on Broadway. He just flattened the house: they couldn’t belieeeve his Stanley Kowalski. Nothing like that had ever happened in the American theatre. He came out there and just went whammo and knocked everybody outta their chairs. He was just great, really stunning.


I get the sense that you’re very self-effacing which I suppose fits with the roles that you play. You’re very quiet about your approach to it. You’ve said that you had no ambitions, that you were going nowhere…


Well, it was a lot better than where I’d been, just let me put it that way. I didn’t think I’d ever get anywhere, that maybe someday I’d get to be a feature player or a supporting player. I never thought I’d get a lead in that industry. I’d started out with leads on live TV and worked my way down to bit parts. And the next thing you know, I was being called up for extra work and I realised the wheel was turning the wrong way, so I got outta town.


When M Squad came along – Frank Ballinger – was that the kind of work you’d been looking for?


No, I’d tried to avoid it. But a friend of mine had been touting me on it, not my agent, and I got trapped into that. But at least I hadn’t signed anything and they thought I had, so financially it worked out very well. 

Marvin,  M Squad


Are you happy with M Squad?


Yep. A lot of hard work. The difficulty I had, I think any actor has, is tying his face and his name together. And TV could do that because so many people would see it once a week, and eventually they got to know the name Lee Marvin. Because, when I first started, they thought I was a girl. I’d get calls and I’d show and there’d be 35 ingenues and me and they’d say, ‘Whoops!’ I didn’t have a masculine-sounding name. 


What about The Lawbreaker, which came a few years later? Obviously you hadn’t been disillusioned by the strenuous TV work of television or by what’s become at this point an increasing number of more demanding film roles.


Well Lawbreaker was a very interesting thing, a documentary. We got the real people, if we could, and they’d recreate their own crimes. They’d shoot that and I’d just merely narrate it – like an over-the-shoulder thing – and I found it fascinating because I was into police work after M Squad. I went around the country, to the Chicago police, and dug into the system, so to speak. And I thought it was right to get the real performances. 


We had a cat burglar once, I remember, and I was talking to him and he’d spent about six or seven years in, and I asked him how long it would take him to cross a bedroom, say about 12 feet across. He said, ‘Oh, about 45 minutes.’ That’s with the person sleeping. I said, ‘Why don’t they wake up?’ He said, ‘Lee, what you do is think nice thoughts. Like autumn leaves and flowing creeks.’ He said, ‘If you have a bad thought, they’re gonna wake up.’ That’s spooky stuff. You’re talking to the real guy.


Babe Unger was the producer of that show, and also the writer. So he did the work. He’d done Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford [Marvin appears to have mixed him up here with Lawbreaker co-producer Vernon E. Clark]. He’s a very fast, concise, exact man. So really my whole role in the thing was just the narration. In other words, it wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t like carrying the series. The criminal was the guy we stuck with, or the policeman. Or whoever it might be.


To my knowledge it was never screened in Australia and I’ve never seen it. So it wasn’t the sort of thing where you’d come along and dub your voice-over afterwards?


No, no. I had kind of like a control room with this big screen. I’d do the lead for the day and you could see it off-air up there and I’d say, ‘This is Chief Dan so-and-so.’ And I’d say, ‘Dan, how’s it going?’ Then he’d talk to the camera. I didn’t have any acting scenes in it. I was just this authoritative voice, representing the ignorance of the audience as to how the law really works, the police part of it.


And around this time, you first worked with Sam Fuller in an episode of The Virginian, where you played a heavy again.


Yeah, that was kinda funny because they wanted me to be the judge and I said, ‘No, I don’t wanna be a judge.’ But I read the script and said, ‘I’ll play the heavy.’ So they got Lee J. Cobb to play the judge, and he ended up doing the series. It was a good heavy, though. I always liked good heavies. 


Lee J. Cobb, Marvin, "It Tolls for Thee" episode
from The Virginian  directed by Samuel Fuller

So Sam was the director. ‘Haha, my boy!’ (imitating Fuller) Nothing has changed: the cigars came out and off we went. And we had a lot of fun. We were on location on some very rocky mountainside, and he’s, ‘OK, kid, you see that rock over there? You climb on up there: it’ll take about a half hour. You take three rounds with you and when I give you the signal – I’ll drop my hat, right? – you fire at the stage-coach as it goes by. I said, ‘OK.’ So huffin'-and-puffin’ up the hill I climb and I‘m settling down behind a rock. I can see the camera and I’m just sittin’ there and waitin’ for the stage-coach and I look down and here are three blank cartridges from the same kind o’ rifle I’ve got. From years ago, all corroded in the sun. And I said, ‘Why that son of a gun, he’s done this shot before.’ Probably with the same stage-coach too, for all I know. Maybe the same horses as well.


Did you point that out to him?


I just looked at him and laughed and he looked at me and laughed. ‘Hahaha, kid. You’ll learn.’


Around this time, you also worked with Robert Aldrich, on Attack! And one gets the sense of the same things going on inside Robert Aldrich’s head that are going on inside Sam Fuller’s. A violence there, ready to explode.


Yeah, sure. Very much so. They were very similar in that respect, but it comes out in different ways for both men. 


Marvin, Eddie Albert, Attack!

Aldrich wanted me to play the sergeant and I said, ‘No, I don’t want to play a sergeant,’ ’cause I’d already done one. So he said, ‘What about the colonel?’ What colonel? I’d forgotten that because, when you read a script that fast, you just read your own lines to see if it’s there or not. So I read the colonel and said, ‘I’d love to.’ Having been a private first-class, I knew what colonels were really like. So I made him a bit of a bastard.


And that’s the first time you worked with Jack Palance as well, isn’t it?


Is it?


It’s a question tentatively posed.


I know I’ve done four or five with Jack. No! I dunno. When did I Died A Thousand Times  come out?


It’s before that, about ’56 I think. And Attack! was ’57.


OK. So it was my second time with Jack.

Marvin (left), Jack Palance (seated right),  
I Died a Thousand Times

Coming Soon Part 3: The Duke, the Hungarian & the Irishman – “All my dearest memories about some of the great old-time guys are to do with their screaming ability.”


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