I recently discovered that prolific TV and film director Les Martinson passed away earlier this month, September 3rd, to be exact. He lived to the ripe old age of 101, succumbing to complications as a result of Alzheimer’s.
I interviewed him for my book, Lee Marvin Point Blank, in February of 1998 as he had worked with Lee Marvin on 2 anthology shows back in the 50s. He was pleasant as could be and I later learned, much to my delight, that cable TV host, Connie Martinson, was his wife! She interviewed me for her show and proudly mentioned it on the air. Talk about a small world!
In tribute to his passing, I give you the complete, unedited phone interview I did with Les Martinson below. Rest in Peace Mr. Martinson, you were a true joy an underrated talent…..
Dwayne Epstein: What do you remember about the show you did with Marvin?
Les Martinson: That was The Pepsi Cola Playhouse. That was a quality production, unlike some of the other anthologies I worked on. See, a lot ofd the other shows were even worse. They were an 8-5 show. That means you stared at 8 in the morning and you had to finish by 5. Pepsi-Cola was considered quality because you worked 8-7. That production manager was a gentleman named Carl Hickey and if you were still working after 7, he’d come in and pull the plug on you. The shows, with commercials, ran about 26 and a half minutes so we shot about 9 minutes a day. We had one day of rehearsal. Other shows were less quality, like Chevron Theater and City Detective. No rehearsal, at all.
D: What do you remember about Psychophonic Nurse?
L: It was interesting. We dressed Lee up to look…I’m from Boston. I grew up around Harvard so I knew the look of the professors from that area. We put Lee in the tweeds that made him look like a Harvard professor. Interesting to think of Lee Marvin in that part.
D: What was he like to work with?
L: [laughs] He was delightful and fun, and as an actor, very responsible. We had a lot of laughs. He used to make fun of my accent and my intensity. He was a loose cap and we had to sweat it out for those 2 days. It was like a movie but a much tighter schedule shooting nine minutes a day.
D: Was that filmed or live?
L: Oh, it was filmed. I didn’t work live until many years later and then, only briefly. D: Were you involved in the casting?
L: No, we had a casting director named Robert G. Walker.
D: Can you remember anything specific about the Psychophonic Nurse?
L: [laughs] I have to go into the darkness for that. Working at Pepsi-Cola was doing years of grinding work. In spite of that, I got fired once for going slightly over budget on a show called Frozen Escape with DeForest Kelly. We had a dog and it bit Kelly. I had all kinds of problems with that one. A lot of great directors worked on that. It was quite a trail who came and went, people like George Steven and Fred Zinneman. The producer, by the way, got me back on the show.
D: What was Lee like to work with in a scene?
L: You know how he was in Cat Ballou? He was an actor. There was absolutely no question about it, that the part he played, the shoe fit. He was the perfect prototype of how a professor should behave. I didn’t have to sit down with him and chat about the part, although with my background, I had been exposed to theat environment. He had the look and the manner down perfectly, with the narrow cuff trousers and the cardigan sweater. I didn’t have to talk to him about it.
D: It’s interesting you would say that because for most of his career, his research of a character consisted of the wardrobe.
L: I never knew that about him, honestly. Actually, I had a prototype in mind of what the character would be like and he fit it.
D: You mentioned earlier that he would make fun and needle you a little bit?
L: He wouldn’t do it directly. It was just his attitude. He had his own way, the Lee Marvin way. His eyes would light up in a way. I amused him and and was known to be pretty intense in those days. He had a lot of fun with that and I enjoyed him.
D: Now the other time you directed him was a show for Reader’s Digest Theater called How Charlie Faust Won a Pennant for the Giants.
L: That show was one of my all-time favorites. You must understand that anthology TV is a very difficult form. The canvas is very small in which to develop. Consequently, it wasn’t very good unless you were doing sci-fi or something of that nature. Audiences had to latch on in Scene 1, Act 1 with the character. That’s why anthology never worked. The successful shows were rare ones.
D: So Faust was a favorite?
L: Of all the ones I did, yes, and I did a lot of them. It was a hell of a script. It was written by Don Mankiewicz. He was Joe’s son. We had a great cast. Alan Reed played the team manager and he was perfect for it. The truth is it was Lee Marvin’s show. He was just tailor-made for the part of Charlie Faust. I should mention the art director from that show went on to become pretty famous but I just can’t recall his name. We got a lot of good press from that show. Dave Kaufman, the reviewer from Daily Variety raved about it. He want under the name ‘Daku.’ Whatever praise I got from that show, or any other, I always say the same thing: ‘I got it all for nothing.’
D: I’m sorry but I don’t know what that means.
L: I should explain that. You see, I knew the camera. I had also been a script supervisor at Metro do I knew to concentrate on the characters. In performance, there were times when I would have to say, ‘That one I worked for.’ Sometimes I would have to shape it a little or a lot. If I didn’t have to, I would say, ‘I got it all for nothing.’ Lee had an affinity for that role and was natural in it. He was simply great. In comedy, he had a built-in thermostat to his humor. Some comedians don’t and would go over the top but Lee instinctively knew what his limit was. He had a built-in thermostat on comedy that many don’t have. When you encounter a performer who doesn’t, that’s when you need a strong director.
D: What did you have to do to direct a show like that?
L: Like I said, it was in the script. I always had a marriage. I learned you can interpret a scene a 1,000 ways but there’s a concreteness to a scene that instinct take you to. It’s hard to explain. Abstract is as abstract as the written word is…it just flows. I didn’t have the luxury of great scripts in my career.
D: Do you recall the last time you saw Marvin?
L: As a matter of fact, I do. It was in an elevator on the way to some function. I said, ‘Lee!’ He said, ‘Hi there. Hey Les, you still at it?’ He was making some kind of joke about my surviving in the business. I told him, ‘I’m very proud of you. You deserve your success.’ We were going to some affair. This must have been around ‘85 or ‘86, then. He looked well and was very warm towards me.
D: Were there any other encounters over the years?
L: No, strangely enough. I would justsee him once in a while, socially.
D: Any particular incident stand out in your mind about shooting the show?
L: Not that I recall, I knew we had a ball. We got everything Mankiewicz had written and he wrote a great script. The producer, Chester Erskine, was very satisfied with what we had done. Lee was a delight. He really was like Charlie Faust. There was a lot in the plot about the superstitions of ball players which is how this kid was able to make it to the pennant without ever leaving the dugout. We had some other good actors in there as well, such as Lee Van Cleef and Johnny Larch. Boy, that show was like doing an assembly line, I’ll tell you. We had three days to film 9 minutes a day. We had no rehearsal time, at all. Doing a show like Charlie Faust in 3 days consisted of walking on the set and say hello to the actors and away you go.
D: Any final thoughts you’d like to add about Lee Marvin?
L: I would just summarize by saying he was one of a kind. He was perfect casting. You could tell he never got out of the dugout. He was their good luck charm. I’ve done thousands of teleplays but that little show, and maybe one other, was perfect comedy. You just went for a ride. You do so many that they meld together in your mind but that one [Faust] I remember being an outstanding episode.