Wagon Train, the long-running western series (1957-1965) had many a famous guest star during its run and that includes Lee Marvin who appeared in two episodes: “The Jose Morales Story,” as a Mexican bandito (!) and “The Christopher Hale Story,” the subject of this blog entry. A regular reader of this blog recently informed me that that retro cable network, ME-TV, will be airing that 1961 episode on Monday, November 30th at 4pm Pacific Standard Time. If you’re lucky enough to get that network and have the time to do so, by all means watch or DVR it, as it’s one of Lee’s best efforts, especially the ending!
Fans of the show know that this particular episode is also a pivotal one for another reason. The show’s original wagon-masters were Robert Horton and Ward Bond so when Bond died suddenly, a replacement was immediately needed. Hence this Wagon Train episode guest starring Lee Marvin and Bond replacement, John McIntire, but he has to get thru a conflict with Lee Marvin first.
There are several interesting aspects to this Wagon Train episode for Lee Marvin fans. Marvin replaced Bond when he died before production on Liberty Valance began and here…well, you’ll see for yourself. Also, Marvin was good friends with the show’s other main cast member, Robert Horton, who enjoyed having Marvin on the show, as he told this author a while back.
There’s yet one more reason the episode is a worthy watch and I’ve long been wanting to mention it. I interviewed veteran actor L.Q. Jones back in 1995 and it remains one of my favorites. He spoke quite colorfully of the times in which TV westerns were in their heyday, and the likes of himself, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Slim Pickens and others worked constantly on the likes of Gunsmoke, The Virginian and yes, Wagon Train. Also according to Jones, their card-playing skills between scenes often earned them more money than their acting skills. Ahh, gone are the days. So, with that in mind, here’s a little anecdote about that particular episode of Wagon Train that I was not able to work into Lee Marvin Point Blank (but many other great ones did!), as told but the great L.Q. Jones….
L.Q. Jones: Did you ever play Pitch?
Dwayne: No I haven’t.
L: Pitch is cowboy bridge. It’s a brutal game. It seems so simple as to be ridiculous yet, it’ll tear you a new hole if you don’t know what your doing. You can play a hand in Pitch and maybe, you can deal it, play it in a minute, minute-and-a-half if your playing with people who understand the game of Pitch. If your playing..I’ve seen one guy leave as they throw their cards, “Aw shit!” That’s the end of that. You know what the outcome is going to be. You can’t screw it up. So we played Pitch a lot. … We’d play a lot of Hearts. You know what Hearts is?
D: My father used to play Hearts. That and Pinochle.
L: It’s great. I never good warm to Pinochle but Hearts is great fun because you play the people. God, we were playing and we had Lee and..do you know who Red Morgan is?
D: The name is familiar.
L: One of the most beautiful stuntmen of all time. He’s just one of the world’s great people. Loved to play Hearts. So he, Red, Lee, I’m not sure who the other one was..
D: Was it another stuntman?
L: Wait a minute! It probably was Frankie McGrath who was the other player and myself.
L: He was the cook on Wagon Train.
D: I couldn’t tell you. “Wagon Train” was a little before my time.
L: I’ve really forgotten. He was a great stuntman and that’s the thing he ended up doing. He was playing. He was also one of John Ford’s favorites. You never saw a picture that Ford directed that Frankie wasn’t in, as a stuntman. Totally crazy but that’s why the old man loved him. ….Anyway, we had Lee Marvin, Red, Frankie and myself. Brutal Hearts players. Of course the thing in Hearts is to either make all of them, or none of them. All the hearts plus the Queen of Spades. It’s an unwritten rule that if I stop someone from getting all of them, you give me a heart but you don’t give me the Queen of Spades. Because the Queen of Spades is thirteen, where a heart is just one. It would cost you let’s say $65 if you’ve got the black queen. The Queen of Hearts, it would cost you five dollars if you got a heart. So you just, you don’t reward a guy for saving your fanny by giving him the queen. So, we’re playing along and it’s all quiet, really no noise. Lee stopped somebody, I figure probably Frankie, from going for it. I watched Red and Red’s eyes, you could just see the sparkle. He dropped the queen on Lee. Lee went off like a cheap skyrocket. (Mimes Marvin) “You son-of-a-bitch! I’ll kill you, goddamit!” Now he’s getting so…the company’s trying to shoot..
D: Oh geez, so he screwed up the shot?
L: Right, and the A.D. screaming, “Shut up!” (mimes Marvin again) “That cocksucker gave me..” It went on for about ten or fifteen minutes and Red is rolling, we’re playing on the ground, rolling on the fucking ground. We’re trying to keep control because Lee is so mad.
Oh he was really ticked and rightly so. Finally, the director came over and said, “Lee, you’re gonna have to just shut up! We gotta get this shot and your killing us.” (mimes Marvin again) “Goddamit!” I finally said, “Okay Lee, let’s go down and get a cup of coffee.” Anything to shut him up. He mumbled and..he tried to get Red which is the wrong thing because Red is one of smoothest working. He’s probably dead by now. He was smoothest Heart players that ever existed. Then it hatched a feud that I don’t think Lee ever won out on.
D: But he kept trying, by god.
L: Oh yes. He never..I’m sure he asked for Red on a lot of his shows so he could play him, again (I laugh),