Martin Luther King would have marked his 88th birthday on Monday, January 15th. I thought I’d take the opportunity to recount Lee Marvin’s contribution to civil rights during the 1960s. Granted, it is indeed an extremely minor contribution compared to Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders but in his own way, Lee indeed contributed.
One would think, based on his upbringing, that Marvin would hardly be in favor of civil rights and equality for all races, particularly African-Americans. His mother Courtenay Marvin was an old-world southern Virginian and all that would entail. However, his father Monte Marvin had been in command of a black calvary unit during WWI and had a much more liberal view of African-Americans. Then again, according to Lee’s brother, Robert, both parents hit the roof when Robert briefly dated a young black woman. And yet again, both boys were cared for by a black maid named Erlene whom they adored. Growing up on the eastern seaboard also meant encounters with various races throughout their formative years, resulting in a rather different view of black people than the one held by their parents.
All that said, Lee Marvin was still very much a product of his time and not above using racially-charged language. However, if one believes that actions speak louder than words, even in those less enlightened times of the early 1960s, Marvin’s more liberal attitude was very much in evidence. Case in point: his lifelong friendship with black actor, Woody Strode. They met during the making of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and remained tight for the rest of their lives.
I was extremely fortunate to get what I believe to be the last interview with Strode. His love of Lee Marvin (as well as John Ford) knew no bounds. Their hilarious initial meeting on the set of the film is well-documented in Lee Marvin Point Blank. Strode, by the way, was not as happy working on the film with Hollywood icon John Wayne. Consequently, he did enjoy watching Ford tease both James Stewart and Wayne unmercifully for the sake of the performances he wanted from them. Like Ford, Marvin also teased the two conservative Republicans, particularly, Stewart. Reportedly, he needled Stewart by telling him that when the black man rises up, Stewart had better be rightfully frightened in his sleep. He may of course simply had been in character as Liberty Valance but such comments rankled Stewart and tickled both Strode and Ford.
Several years after Liberty Valance, Marvin and Strode appeared on screen again, this time in Richard Brooks’ underrated western adventure, The Professionals.
It remains one of Marvin’s best films and should be required viewing by any fan. According to Woody Strode, it was Lee Marvin who managed to get Strode earlier screen time in the film. Again, all is explained in Lee Marvin Point Blank and is not said to deter from Burt Lancaster in any way. The man was only human and had his own foibles and insecurities as anybody else does. In fact, Strode explained to me why he only appeared in the outfit he wore in his opening scene, only in that opening scene. Want details? Gotta read the book.
This may all sound far afield from the original intent of this blog entry but it actually does serve to make the point concerning Martin Luther King Day. King fought and died for civil rights as we all know and Marvin may not have done nearly as much but he did his part, getting his good friend unheard of billing in a period western. More to the point, as King famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” According to Woody Strode, Lee Marvin upheld that creed and became one of the few white friends Strode had in Hollywood. One of the last times Strode saw Lee Marvin was after his success in Europe’s popular ‘Spaghetti Westerns.” As he tells it:
I hadn’t seen Lee for about four years. I got a job in New Mexico called Gatling Gun (1972). By now, I got a Mercedes. The good life had touched me. I called Lee. I said, “Lee, I’m working in New Mexico and I’m coming to see you when I finished.” We finished the picture. I didn’t let him know I was driving a Mercedes. Well baby, it took a couple of days for us get there. I parked out in front of the house, I think in Tucson. I honked the horn. He come out saying, “Who the hell is honking that horn?” He come outside and I said, “Hello, you son-of-a-bitch.” He said “Woody!” I said, “You see what I’m driving?”I got to the fucking money, in a foreign country.” …..So, we had our little weekend. […] When I got there, a writer from Australia was doing an article on Lee Marvin. He saw our relationship and said, “You guys are like brothers.” I been in Europe almost four years and he ain’t seen me in years. I’m in a Mercedes, got a little bank account. It made him feel good.”
As was said, they were like brothers.
If that’s not a worthy story for Martin Luther King Day, I don’t know what is.