L.A. Times film critic and arts editor Charles Champlin died last Sunday at the age of 88 from complications involving Alzeheimer’s Disease. Being a lifelong movie fan, as a rule, I’ve never been a particular fan of most film critics, but Champlin was an exception. I found the more well-known critics to be pompous, pretentious and more often than not, just plain wrong about the films they reviewed. For the most part, that exception was Champlin. He wrote of films from a place of appreciation, and was generally less stuffy and esoteric than many of his contemporaries. To me, that translates to a simple yet all encompassing difference: He genuinely liked movies.
When I was in the earliest stages of researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, I traveled with fellow biographer Marshall Terrill (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel) to Lone Pine, California, for the annual film festival held there. It was a rather small town affair for anything deemed a film festival, yet there were a surprising number of interesting guests and speakers. Marshall told me to be prepared to catch a good interview on the fly so with tape recorder at the ready, I did just that. Since Lee Marvin had filmed the likes of Stranger Wore a Gun and Bad Day Black Rock in Lone Pine, I was fortunate enough to speak with such co-stars as John Ericson, John Mitchum, Anne Francis, and several others.
At one point, I found myself simply having chat with Charles Champlin. When I told him I was working on a book on Lee Marvin, he began giving me his thoughts on Marvin, at which time I asked if hed be willing to go on record. He simply nodded as I fumbled with the tape recorder. Below is the transcription of that all too brief conversation which was already at full steam by the time I hit ‘RECORD.’ Enjoy…..
Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at Lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.
Champlin:…I could put you in touch with Frankenheimer.
Epstein: I would love that!
C: Because you know they did Iceman Cometh and Iceman Cometh is one of the best things Lee Marvin ever did. But I think they worked together two or three other times, at least in live television.
D: Right. I was just going to say that I think they did some TV together.
C: Yeah. And John was a terrific admirer of Lee Marvin’s.
D: I know he took a lot of flack in the beginning for casting Marvin and not Jason Robards, which everybody anticipated him doing. He said in an interview at the time that he didn’t want somebody who knew the part inside and out and wouldn’t add anything new to it.
C: That’s exactly right. It made sense. Marvin was an interesting man. In some ways a tragic figure. You always had the feeling about Lee Marvin that there was more work that should have been done.
Lee Marvin as ‘Hickey’ in Frankenheimer’s film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)
D: Capable of a lot more than…
C: He’ll be remembered for Cat Ballou. But it’s a problem that actors always have. I remember interviewing Robert Ryan once. Of course, they were both in Iceman…
D: Several films; The Professionals…
C: ….Dirty Dozen. Ryan said, “I made 75 films and all but three of them were dogs.”
D: That’s a great quote. I remember reading that.
C: Of course, it wasn’t true. Ryan brought great dignity to everything he did. He was one of those actors that couldn’t do anything wrong.
D: Terribly underrated.
C: I told John Ericson here that the first laser disc I bought was Bad Day At Black Rock because I thought Ryan was just wonderful. His villains were heroic, too. It’s nice to go both ways. He dared to go both ways.
D: I thought he was most….he was like evil personified.
C: Absolutely right. Like I said, Marvin was a terrific actor, too.
D: What quick thought come to mind when you think of Lee Marvin?
C: I have one of those memories of Lee Marvin explaining in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools how he never made it in baseball because he couldn’t hit a curve.
Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.
D: Curve ball low and inside, to Michael Dunn. Great scene.
C: That’s my memory. I never did an interview with him, to my knowledge, that I can remember. Cat Ballou of course was just a classic piece of film acting and film making, really. It was a wonderful idea. It’s Elliot Silverstein’s best film by far. There’s no question about that.
Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).
Marvin had a great versatility. Probably, he tended to get typecast, I suppose in those action roles because he did have a kind of lean and hungry look about him. But he was a good actor. I just think that all actors are the victims of what they can do. I think there’s so many. Maybe Ryan, too, is a causality of a system that puts you in a certain niche. Then it’s hard for you to get a decent role.
D: Maybe more so than Marvin because Ryan never seemed to have the kind of choices in roles that Lee Marvin did.
C: Yeah, well that’s true. Thank you very much.
Once I turned off the tape recorder, Champlin was as good as his word and did indeed put me in touch with Frankenheimer. Naturally, I wished I had spoken with Champlin at greater length but still feel very fortunate to have the time with him that I did. Yet again, another example on my part of not appreciating my luck at the time. He will be truly missed.