“You know, as character actors we play all kinds of sex psychos, nuts, creeps, perverts, and weirdos. And we laugh it off, saying what the hell it’s just a character. But deep down inside, it’s you, baby.” — Lee Marvin

“It was fun for me to play that dangerous guy. It was a dangerous kind of a character. One of the bad facets of yourself that you blow up. Well, that’s intellectual. I don’t hang out there too much, you know. But still: how bad could I be? What would I do? What could I do? So I think one of the fun things of acting is to put on the bad rags, and get paid for it too, and not kill anybody.”
– Lee Marvin on playing Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

It’s Lee Marvin’s birthday today.

In Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin is almost a force of nature. And let’s face it, it’s not easy to be credible as a threat to John Wayne, or the HEAVY opposite Wayne. But Marvin pulls it off. He is deliriously sociopathic and unpredictable. He dominates.

His death scene in the film is magnificent. Watch the phases of it:

His body bolts backward with the blast, he falls down to his knees, he staggers up awkwardly, and then launches into a sideways swan dive.

I love good death scenes because they require faith on the part of the actor. Nobody can tell you what it’s like to die. You have to take a wild guess at the experience. It’s not like love or grief or murdering someone or being a terrorist or being a housewife in the 1950s. You can find out what those things feel like, through research and talking to people. Not death.

In that quote from him is the essence of good acting. Acting is questioning. Every good actor I know is inquisitive, fascinated and curious about other people. They question things. They LISTEN to the answers. They want to understand other people, even the bad people. They KNOW they don’t know everything.

So Lee Marvin ruminates. He knows what is required. He knows the function of the role in the script. He knows it’s John Ford and John Wayne. What is my FUNCTION here? A good actor will know the answer, but will keep asking questions.

For Lee Marvin, Liberty required a leap into the unknown, the speculative, the imaginative: “How bad could I be? What would I do? What could I do?”

Here he is, on working with John Ford:

 
 
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8 Responses to “You know, as character actors we play all kinds of sex psychos, nuts, creeps, perverts, and weirdos. And we laugh it off, saying what the hell it’s just a character. But deep down inside, it’s you, baby.” — Lee Marvin

  1. Carolyn Clarke says:

    I remember him in “M Squad”. It was one of my mother’s favorite shows. He is such a bastard in “Liberty Valance” but you can’t stop watching him because of his viciousness and unpredictability. But my personal favorites are “The Professionals” and “The Dirty Dozen. He showed a softer and honorable side of his character in both of these roles. I watch “The Professionals” every time its own mainly because of the connection between him and Burt Lancaster. And the cast in both of these movies is so much fun. Maybe not great cinema, but great entertainment.

  2. TraceyK says:

    He was amazing in “Point Blank”, one of my favorite films.

  3. Rachel says:

    Have you ever seen him in the original Dragnet? Not the color ones that are endlessly repeated on TV, but the B&W one from the 1950s. They are amazing! I first learned about them from the late Terry Teachout
    https://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2017/05/in-praise-of-drabness.html?fbclid=IwAR1sO85djpQ-EVJpB0pgO_A38uLaMnLByWNFQyzUEvWiRFKbqDzV6WOOEos

    I found a few on Amazon Prime during the great lockdown and they are every bit as good as he described.

    Anyway, here’s the one with Lee Marvin. Devastating.

    https://youtu.be/FZu-5SVqAT0

    • sheila says:

      Rachel – No, I have not! Thank you so much for the links – I will absolutely watch. I love going back and seeking out early TV episodes – Dean Stockwell’s Twilight Zone, eps, for example – or Robert Duvall’s Twilight Zone ep – so many great opportunities for these now legendary people. Thanks for the link!!

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