Monday, February 18, 2013

"Lee Marvin: Point Blank" - Dwayne Epstein's New Biography of The Merchant of Menace

In Lee Marvin: Point Blank, author Dwayne Epstein puts together a convincing portrait of the enigmatic actor that New York Times film critic Vincent Canby once called "The Master of Menace." Epstein augments Marvin's insightful letters and colorful quotes with anecdotes from family, friends, and especially former wife Betty Ebeling Marvin. The result is a lively biography of a dedicated, hard-drinking actor whose detached, violent "heroes" came alive vividly in films such as The Dirty Dozen, The Killers (1964), and Point Blank.

Born in New York in 1924, Lee Marvin--like his brother Robert--was named after Robert E. Lee. Their mother, Courtenay, was an ancestor of the famous Confederate general. Author Epstein speculates that Lee Marvin suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder as a youth as well as dyslexia. The young Marvin displayed a rebellious nature at home--he and his mother never got along--and in school. Later in life, he boasted of being expelled from fifteen schools.

He eventually played authority figures
in war films like The Dirty Dozen.
For a young man who often defied authority, it's ironic that Marvin not only enlisted in the armed services in 1942, but chose the Marines. However, as Epstein points out, "it was a time of extreme patriotism" following Pearl Harbor; Marvin's brother and father, a World War I veteran,  also enlisted. Undoubtedly, his years as a Marine shaped the rest of Marvin's life. Excerpts from his early letters show a young man at conflict. He proudly discusses his test scores and marksmanship, but also writes "sometimes I wonder what I joined up for." Marvin participated in many bloody battles following his deployment to the Pacific in 1944. When a wound ended his military career in 1945, Marvin "could not shake off the intense feeling he was experiencing: anger, frustration and worst of all, survivor guilt as the war stubbornly wore on."

Following the end of the war, Marvin contemplated working as a forest ranger and car salesman before becoming a plumber's apprentice. However, Marvin's career took a different path when he became involved in a Red Cross benefit called "Ten Nights in a Barroom" in Woodstock, New York, in 1946. That eventually led to a summer stock gig with the Maverick Theater in 1947. Epstein notes that acting provided an "outlet to express his inner demons that had been frustrating him since the war." Marvin used his G.I. bill money to attend the American Theater Wing, which led to small parts. However, he later said that Broadway "was a damn bore...the New York stage is a hustle." When colleague James Doohan (Star Trek's Scotty) recommended Marvin move to the West Coast, Marvin took the advice.

As the no-nonsense hero of M Squad.
In Hollywood, Lee Marvin excelled in movies that featured a "much darker tone...creeping like an uninvited guest into American popular culture." He played villains and tough guys in films such as The Big Heat, Bad Day at Black Rock, A Life in the Balance, Violent Saturday, and The Rack. Despite steady work, stardom eluded him and, at the urging of his trusted agent Meyer Mishkin, Marvin took the lead role in the TV series M Squad. The 1957 documentary-style series featured Marvin as detective Lieutenant Frank Ballinger; it was a minor hit and proved that the actor could handle starring roles. In typical fashion, Marvin downplayed the series, telling the press: "Cops and robbers series sell. You don't make TV shows for fun--you make them for money."

As Epstein skilfully traces Marvin's rise to big-screen stardom in the 1960s, he paints a picture of a man struggling with personal relationships and alcoholism. Toward the end of his 16-year marriage to the former Betty Ebeling, Marvin started a relationship with actress Michelle Triola. Although they broke up in 1970, she sued Marvin in what became a landmark palimony case in the state of California. Marvin, meanwhile, married Pamela Feeley, a former girlfriend from his summer stock days. They remained together until his death in 1986.

With Lee Marvin: Point Blank, author Dwayne Epstein has written an engrossing, well-researched biography of an unlikely Hollywood star. He praises Marvin's best films (The Professionals, Point Blank), but also provides honest assessments of the bad ones (The Klansmen). I don't buy his contention that "the roots of physical aggression were genetically set in place long before (Marvin's) very existence." Indeed, Epstein does a fine job of explaining the events that shaped Marvin's persona on and off the screen--and that's no easy feat. The 303-page book features candid black and white photos, an index, footnotes, an in-depth bibliography, and a list of roles that Marvin turned down (e.g., Patton). It's a must for Lee Marvin fans and is also recommended for any film buffs interested in American cinema in the 1950s-70s.

Independent Publishers Group provided the Cafe with a review copy of this book.


  1. Great review, Rick. Marvin's one of my favorite "tough guy" actors, and also, I think, one of the most literate of that genre. And "Point Blank" is an absolute classic; for the violence he displays in that movie, it's the threat of violence that makes him most menacing.

  2. Sounds great. Can't wait to read it. Thanks for the heads up.

  3. Rick, this sounds like an interesting read. I think one can learn a lot about a person from reading his letters so I liked hearing that Epstein took the time to read Lee Marvin's own words. Thanks for posting about this "enigmatic" actor.

  4. Another terrific review, Rick. I love Lee Marvin although he usually played in violence-prone movies that I might have had a hard time sitting through. But my favorite role of his might have been in THE DIRTY DOZEN, no big surprise there. But he was such a charismatic screen presence. Nobody looked like him.

    I have a short Lee Marvin Story, Rick.
    Once, years ago when I was young and attractive and heading home from work, I found myself on Broadway looking for a cab. I was newly married so I was not on the loose.

    But - a cab stopped and I got in and we start up the avenue and on the next corner I spot Lee Marvin standing in the street trying to hail a cab.

    The cab driver sort of recognized him and slowed a bit and I kind of half-hoped he'd stop though picking up secondary passengers is forbidden in NY. Or at least it used to be.

    Meanwhile, seeing the cab slow up Marvin looks in. We lock eyes. It was so funny.
    He knew I recognized him and gave me the sweetest smile as if he knew everything that was going on in my mind before I did. He was SO handsome.

    Anyway, nothing happened, the cabdriver thought better of it, we drove on. I said to him, "Why didn't you stop? THAT was Lee Marvin!!"

    (Oh how I'd wished we'd given that man a lift. Ha!)

    The cab driver laughed and shook his head.

    I'll always remember the smile.

    1. That's a great story, Yvette! Thanks so much for sharing it here.

    2. Yvette, I loved this story you shared with us!

  5. This sounds like a good read on a man with a compelling screen presence. Thanks for reviewing!

  6. Rick, I'm a huge fan of Lee Marvin and loved his eccentric style of acting.

    What a great story Yvette!! I also, have a Lee Marvin story to share.. although, it is not as exciting as yours.:) He used to live in Tuscon and my husband was working with his son-in-law, on a construction job, at the time he lost his battle with cancer.

    I have driven by his modest home a couple of times, but.. our paths never crossed. When his home went up for sale, a couple years after his passing it made our local news. His wife at the time, wanted to move to New York.