In researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank, I quickly discovered how much misinformation and half-truths were still in existence concerning the actor’s life and work. One of the most persistent concerned his drinking. Yes, the man did indeed drink, and several important interview sources were willing to go on the record about it. What he didn’t do, as has so often been incorrectly written, was imbibe a great deal while working. Not an uncommon phenomenon for most alcoholics, by the way, as work is usually the last thing to suffer due to drinking.
Case in point is one of Marvin’s best films and performances, The Professionals (1966). Existing print data are overflowing with tales of Marvin’s drinking ruining the film, as quoted from such unreliable sources as Michele Triola, or cohorts of writer/director Richard Brooks. I was lucky enough to interview several key participants of the film and each of them said the opposite. The fact that Marvin did not personally like Brooks because of the way he treated people, goes a long way in explaining the stretching of that particular misnomer. However, stuntman Tony Epper, costar Woody Strode, and most important of all, production assistant, Phil Parslow, all attested to Marvin’s professionalism and the ridiculousness of the rumors. I interviewed the late Phil Parslow in May of 1995 and found his anecdotes both honest and forthcoming.
Parlsow had many responsibilties on the film, both credited and uncredited. Chiefly, it was up to him to make sure everyone required to work on a given a day made it to the set ready to work. As he told me at the time when I asked about the famous Robin Hood Party: “I was the only one from production to show up because Richard Brooks and (assistant director) Tom Shaw used to spike their phone so they could work on the script all night undisturbed. It was my job to handle any problems that came up.” Consequently, many of the tales concerning Marvin’s behavior proved more fiction than fact, as neither Brooks nor Shaw were present for it. As Parslow said in this transcript of my talk on the specific question of Marvin’s drinking:
Dwayne: Was Lee’s drinking a problem?
Phil: Actually, Lee was great the entire time except for the very last day of shooting. The last day he didn’t make the gate. We were doing the opening scene where he’s demonstrating the machine gun and we couldn’t find him anywhere. That was the only time he messed up. I couldn’t find him and then at noon he ambled on to the set drunk and embarrassed. We finally got the shot and he was really apologetic but that was the only time his drinking was a problem.
D: I’m finding out that was the typical way he worked which is not uncommon for a an alcoholic.
P: I know that’s true because both of my parents were alcoholics. I’d rather work with a drunk than a drug user any day. Drunks are very predictable and you know what to expect. Drug users, forget it. You never knew what to expect. I’ll say this for Lee – He very seldom missed a line. He could do what we called ‘sight read,’ which means read it once and have it down. I used to make bets with people about that and damned if everybody didn’t go up on their lines but Lee. He was amazing that way. He amazed everybody with that. He would drink all night and sipped all day but it never effected his work. He was always able to do the work.
Parslow also showed Marvin and Lancaster’s more generous side via this unused anecdote:
Dwayne: What was the shoot like?
Phil: I’ll tell you a funny story about that. Brooks had an actor that was supposed to do a scene but he didn’t for some reason. I didn’t want to, but Richard wanted me as a last minute replacement. I was nervous about messing up in front of Brooks. The scene where Lancaster comes in shackled while he spoke to Marvin, I undid the shackles and was supposed to say, “You can have him.” Well, I fumbled with the lock and we had to do several takes. When Brooks started in on me about it, Marvin spoke up on my behalf first, saying it wasn’t my fault. Burt then did it by saying the lock was causing problems. They were good guys that way.
There you have it, as witnessed by those who were there, such as Phil Parslow’s previously unused quotes and those even more meaningful quoted that did go in the book. Lee Marvin may not have been an angel but he was far from the devil.
– Dwayne Epstein