Dwayne Epstein may not have intended to spend nearly twenty
years working on a biography of Lee Marvin, but had he not started in the
mid-1990s he would have missed the opportunity of interviewing the actor’s
older brother, many of his directors (from Sam Fuller to John Frankenheimer),
and an even greater number of friends and costars. With tireless research and
access to so many people in Marvin’s orbit, including his lawyer, his longtime
agent, and his first wife, Betty, Epstein has crafted a thorough, intimate, and
highly readable portrait of this imposing actor who became an unlikely star.
The trajectory of that career is unusual. Following combat service in World War II—which may have fueled his lifelong alcoholism—Marvin took an unexpected shine to performing, studied briefly in New York, then made his way to Hollywood, where he quickly built a reputation as a reliable and recognizable supporting player in the 1950s. But despite scene-stealing moments in films like The Big Heat, he felt that he was running in place and not achieving the name recognition he deserved. Starring in his own TV series, M Squad, accomplished that goal and fattened his bank account, but he hated the grind of television and got out as quickly as he could.
Now he was better known, and still in demand for feature-film work, but his range of choices was limited. He wasn’t a traditional leading-man type, at least not in the early 1960s. Fate, and an aggressive campaign, won him a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance as Kid Sheleen in the comic Western Cat Ballou (1965), which finally pushed him into the front ranks and opened up new opportunities. Films like The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen made him a bona fide star. Unfortunately, his winning streak was brief, and some pet projects like John Boorman’s Point Blank and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, a decade later, didn’t succeed at the box-office. It’s only in retrospect that these films have acquired the reputation they always deserved.
Marvin was a complex man. He was proud of his service during the war, but it left him with problems that, Epstein speculates, might be classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. His erratic behavior, indifference to fatherhood, and often-crippling reliance on alcohol strained some relationships and destroyed others.
He took pride in his craft, however, and despaired over the eroding quality of Hollywood movies in the 1970s and 80s; he worked less and less, and ultimately said yes to some mediocre projects that weren’t worthy of his talent.
Epstein covers all of this and more. He even offers an appendix that lists film projects that might have been. (Apparently, Francis Coppola offered him the role that went to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.) This book may not rank as great literature, but I doubt anyone will ever match its breadth and depth in assessing Lee Marvin’s life and career. The actor’s son, Christopher Marvin, contributes a poignant afterword about his father.