THE LAST LEE MARVIN STAGE PERFORMANCE

The last Lee Marvin stage performance occured July 8,1956 at the La Jolla Playhouse in a revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop. Inge’s play had ended its successful Broadway run and was about to come to the silver screen in September of the same year. The film version made some major changes to Inge’s tale of disparate travelers holed up at a Kansas bus stop diner, completely removing several lead characters and their stories. More than likely it was done to highlight the performance of Marilyn Monroe (Oscar-worthy, in my opinion) as the road-weary yet hopeful chanteuse who is ‘courted’ by an energetic yet naive cowboy (played by Don Murray) off the ranch for the first time and in search of a bride. It was the role of the cowboy that Marvin essayed at La Jolla and, by all accounts, did so with equally robust energy.
The La Jolla Playhouse, founded by Mel Ferrer, Dorothy McGuire and La Jolla native Gregory Peck, pulled out all the stops for this 10th anniversary season-opening production as the local paper heralded below…..

La Jolla newspapers heralds the upcoming production of Bus Stop.

La Jolla newspapers heralds the upcoming production of Bus Stop.

 

 

The play’s director, Don Taylor (shown above in the white shirt with script in hand next to Marvin) was an actor himself, most notably as Liz Taylor’s betrothed in Father of the Bride (1950) and as the young  detective in The Naked City (1948). He continued directing on stage and film, including the Lee Marvin’s film, Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (1976).  The remainder of the ensemble was made up of some of the best veteran actors of the day….

Program playbill highlighting the veteran cast.

Program playbill highlighting the veteran cast.

Marvin’s costar Frank Cady (better known as Sam Drucker from TV’s Green Acres) told a wonderful tale concerning the short run of the play involving Marvin in an uncharacteristic anecdote retold in Lee Marvin Point Blank. Below is the telegram from Cady’s wife that figured prominently in the story….

Telegram from Frank Cady's wife.

Telegram from Frank Cady’s wife.

The short run of the play was successful enough to garner continued local news coverage, such as this image below depicting Marvin and his fellow cast members in character…

Foreground, L-R: Sally Forrest & Lee Marvin. Background L-R: Fred Clark & Susan Kohner.

Foreground, L-R: Sally Forrest & Lee Marvin. Background L-R: Fred Clark & Susan Kohner.

Marvin was no stranger to the La Jolla Playhouse, having costarred with his friend James Whitmore the year before in a production of The Rainmaker. Maybe it was the familiarity with the venue that allowed him to be so mischeivous with his bio in the play’s cast list. The enitre last paragraph is part of Marvin’s imaginative mythmaking skills….

Bus Stop's Cast bio with Marvin's imaginative last .paragraph

Bus Stop’s Cast bio with Marvin’s imaginative last .paragraph.

Not surprisingly, the local press all gave rousing praise to the production but larger media, such as Variety, also praised the play….

Variety review of Bus Stop.

Variety review of Bus Stop.

When the curtain came down on the final performance of Bus Stop, it proved to be the last curtain call for Lee Marvin’ stage career as well. As was the case with his varied TV roles, Marvin proved to be infinitely more versatile on stage than he ever was on screen, in spite of his legendary film performances. His larger-than-life persona and unmistakably resonant voice should have allowed him to trod the boards more often as other actors had done throughout their careers, such as George C. Scott or Charlton Heston. Marvin claimed as late as 1980 that he wanted to do another play and was indeed looking but could not find a suitable vehicle. First wife Betty Marvin claimed it may have just have been too much work for the old soldier who had gotten use to on camera retakes not available in live performances. Whatever the reason, as the old saying goes: “The saddest words of tongue or pen, or these four words, ‘what might have been.'”

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RARE LEE ON STAGE

One of the myriad of things that separated Lee Marvin from the current crop of action stars was his theatrical background. It isn’t widely known but Marvin had extensive experience on stage from 1947 to 1951 and stated that his first real goal as a professional actor was to make it to Broadway. Following his debut at Woodstock’s Maverick Theatre, he trod the boards in summer stock productions up and down the Eastern seaboard in the late 40s as this Playbill below attests….
WATKINSGLENThe experience hardened him to the rigors of an actor’s life as he explained years later (Lee Marvin Point Blank, p. 65). It also resulted in his acceptance into the American Theater Wing on the G.I. Bill in which he steeped himself in the classics and learned the practical hands-on experience of becoming a working actor. At  the ATW, as shown below, Marvin (far right) cavorts with fellow actors in Shakespearean garb….

ATWYears later that training stayed with him and he surprised many in his later years with his knowledge of The Bard’s work (Lee Marvin Point Blank, pp. 233-234).  The ATW did lead to more work and he soon after was able to join Actor’s Equity….

EQUITY

 

He toured in such plays as Murder in The Cathedral, The Hasty Heart and A Streetcar Named Desire (not as Stanley Kowalski as one might assume but as Blanche Dubois’s lumbering suitor, Mitch). Below is a very rarely seen color image of Lee on stage from an unknown WWII drama…
ONSTAGEThe work continued and the goal was finally attained in 1950…..
playbill

It wasn’t the lead, it wasn’t the main villain, it wasn’t even an important role but the barely speaking role of a Marine in Her Majesty’s Service who escorted Billy Budd to and from his trials and tribulations. In fact, the cast list was 2 pages long with Marvin mentioned on the 2nd page….

castThe goal achieved, Hollywood beckoned and he never looked back. He would on occasion speak of doing more stage work and did do some at the La Jolla Playhouse in the late 50s. He never found the perfect project he was looking for and other than the American Film Theater’s version of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1973, legitimate theater’s loss was cinema’s gain.

 

 

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