As I wrote in Lee Marvin Point Blank, the actor proved to be more versatile on TV than he ever was on film so consequently, moments of genuine poignancy proved less elusive on the small screen with several ‘Lump-in-the-throat’ moments, with one in particular coming to mind; A Twilight Zone episode he appeared in back in 1963 that still resonates today.
The episode was “Steel,” written by Richard Matheson and based on his short story. It’s one of Marvin’s best performance and given in less than a half hour’s time. It takes place in the near future with boxing outlawed due to its inherent brutality. Replaced by battling robots, former boxer ‘Steel’ Kelly (Marvin) and his partner Pole (Joe Mantell) have trundled their broken down robot, Battling Maxo, into town for his next bout. The problem is Maxo, like Kelly, has fought too many fights, so Kelly decides to go in the ring as a robot against the formidable robot opponent, The Maynard Flash.
The viewer is obviously pulling for Kelly but the result is inevitable. Watching Marvin throughout the episode is an exercise in textbook poignancy. Whether witnessing his empty boasts of his prior career, or seeing him writhing in pain on the floor near the episode’s climax, his character elicits the same emotion as Death of Salesman’s Willie Loman. He is tragic, but he never gives in to the tragedy of his own situation, making him all the more torturous to watch.
Author Steven Jay Rubin’s new book, The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia garnered some major exclusives about the show and the Steel episode in particular.
Most notably, an interview with the actor who portrayed Marvin’s robotic opponent, The Maynard Flash. Former boxer and stuntman Chick Hicks stated to Rubin:
“I knew Lee Marvin for a long time, and he was a real man and a great guy. During the fight scenes, while filming I had two pieces of plastic over my eyes [to make me look like a robot] and I was pretty new to the business, so instead of putting little holes in them, so that I could have some air in there, I sweated and I was just looking at a blur most of the time, and I ended up hitting Lee a couple of times but the tough Marine that he was never complained.
He always would say, ‘Don’t worry abut it, Chuck. I know your problem.’ Yeah, he was a drinker, but a real great man underneath that plastic and skin.”
By the way, I’ll be interviewing Steve Rubin in an upcoming issue of Filmfax Magazine so be sure to be on the look out for it as he told me some things he left out of the book: *wink, wink*