Having started out portraying sadistic bad guys in a number of notable film noirs, actor Lee Marvin was propelled to stardom and leading man status following his Oscar-winning performance as two characters in the classic Western comedy "Cat Ballou" (1965). Prior to that particular triumph, Marvin began making a name for himself with supporting roles in "The Wild One' (1953) and "The Big Heat" (1953), with the latter showcasing a famed scene where his menacing character threw scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face. Later in the decade, he had a stint as an investigator of organized crime on the briefly popular "M Squad" (NBC, 1957-1960), which helped turn the actor into star. Following turns as a sadistic cowboy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), the titular murderer in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962), and a methodical assassin in "The Killers" (1964), Marvin changed the course of his career with his Academy Award-worthy performance in "Cat Ballou." From there, Marvin portrayed characters whose inescapable use of violence was nonetheless heroic: he was an avenging member of a Western posse in "The Professionals" (1966), the leader of a squad of soldier-convicts sent on a suicide mission in "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), and a cold, vengeance-mind thief in the unrelenting crime thriller "Point Blank" (1967). His career crested with a co-starring role in the notorious Western musical "Paint Your Wagon" (1969), in which he displayed one of the worst singing voices in cinema history, before hitting a slow, downward slope throughout the 1970s with underwhelming films like "The Klansman" (1974), "Shout at the Devil" (1976) and "Avalanche Express" (1978). Marvin rebounded late in his career with two excellent movies - the gruesome World War II epic "The Big Red One" (1980) and the methodical crime thriller set in Soviet Russia, "Gorky Park" (1984), both of which helped put an exclamation point on a sterling career.
Born on Feb. 19, 1924 in New York City, Marvin was raised by his father, Lamont, an advertising executive who was the head of New York and New England Apple Institute, and his mother, Courtenay, a fashion and beauty magazine editor. Though he studied violin at a young age, Marvin did not harbor any artistic ambitions until later in life. Meanwhile, he found himself being kicked out of one boarding school after another; at one time because he threw a roommate from a second-floor window, until finally landing at Lakewood High School in Florida. He moved on to St. Leo's Prep School in Dade County, only to drop out in 1942. Marvin went back to graduate in order to join the U.S. Marines against his father's wishes. Serving as a sniper scout in the 4th Marine Division, Marvin saw action in the South Pacific, only to get wounded in action during the Battle of Saipan, where most of his platoon was wiped out. His wound severed a nerve below the spine and required 13 months of hospitalization, which ultimately invalidated him for further service.
After receiving a Purple Heart and his medical discharge, Marvin began working as a plumber's assistant at a local community theater in upstate New York, where he was asked to fill in for a sick actor during rehearsals. Enjoying his taste of acting, he went on to study the craft at the American Theatre Wing in New York City on the G.I. Bill, and soon began appearing off-Broadway and in summer stock. In 1950, Marvin moved to Hollywood and made his film debut with a bit part in director Fred Zinnemann's "Teresa" (1950). He followed with a more substantial role in the Gary Cooper comedy "You're in the Navy Now" (1951), directed by Henry Hathaway, before heading back to New York for a Broadway appearance in "Billy Budd" (1951). Following tours in productions of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Hasty Heart," Marvin signed a contract with Columbia, which led to roles in "The Wild One" (1953) and "The Big Heat" (1953), in which he played an out-of-control thug who famously throws hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face. He next portrayed a dimwitted and sadistic cowboy who menaces Spencer Tracy in "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955), before landing supporting roles in the crime drama "Violent Saturday" (1955) and the Western "Seven Men from Now" (1956).
Turning to television, Marvin starred on the series "M Squad" (NBC, 1957-1960), which cast him as a plainclothes detective who is a member of a special squad with the Chicago Police Department that takes on organized crime. Though only lasting three seasons, the show turned Marvin into a star and helped propel his feature career. He landed a couple of amiable parts in the John Wayne pictures "Comancheros" (1961) and "Donovan's Reef" (1963) before playing the titular killer in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" (1962). Settling comfortably into villainous roles, Marvin shined as a methodical assassin in Don Siegel's excellent film noir, "The Killers" (1964), which was based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. In the Western-comedy "Cat Ballou" (1965), Marvin played the dual roles of a ruthless assassin and a hopeless alcoholic hired by the titular schoolmarm-turned-posse leader (Jane Fonda) tracking down her father's killer (Marvin). The two performances earned Marvin widespread critical kudos, as well as an Academy Award for Best Actor.
By the late 1960s, Marvin had become a major star that headlined important box office vehicles like the Richard Brooks Western, "The Professionals" (1966), in which he joined an all-star team of Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance to track down a businessman's wife (Claudia Cardinale) kidnapped by a renegade band of Mexican thugs. He next led a crew of soldiers from a military prison on a suicide mission to storm a French chateau housing top Nazi officers in the World War II-set thriller "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), a great action yarn that became one of the highest-grossing movies of the decade. Marvin followed up with an incendiary performance as a professional thief out to get revenge against a fellow mobster who double-crossed him in the classic crime thriller, "Point Blank" (1967), directed by John Boorman. The role epitomized the actor's onscreen shift from unprincipled villainy to stoic self-defense regardless of what side of the law he found himself. Meanwhile, he had starring roles in "Hell in the Pacific" (1968) and "Sergeant Ryker" (1968) before displaying an embarrassing singing voice for the critically maligned musical Western, "Paint Your Wagon" (1969), which became notorious at the time for its runaway budget and delayed production.
Entering the next decade, Marvin embarked on a series of underwhelming movies with a few that managed to stand apart from the failures of that era. He delivered the goods as an over-the-hill cowboy unwilling to give up his ways in "Monte Walsh" (1972) and as an ill-tempered agent in the Don Siegel-like crime thriller "Prime Cut" (1972). Following a turn as the King of the Hoboes in "The Emperor of the North Pole" (1973), Marvin was a small town sheriff trying to keep the peace during an impending racial war in the rather silly melodrama "The Klansman" (1974). He next played a boozy Irishman in the clumsy World War I comedy "Shout at the Devil" (1976) before joining British icon Oliver Reed as a pair of con men in the forgotten broad comedy "The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday" (1976). Following the cold war thriller "Avalanche Express" (1978), Marvin saw his career take a back seat when he became involved in a landmark legal case that made headlines in 1979. Former live-in girlfriend, Michelle Triola, who legally changed her last name to Marvin, sued the actor, claiming he had promised to support her for the rest of her life, stemming from their cohabitation from 1965-1970. Although Triola wanted half of the $3.8 million Marvin had earned while they were together, a judge ruled there was no contract, establishing the California courts' "palimony doctrine." The judge did order Marvin to pay $104,000 - $1000 a week for two years - in assistance, only to have the order nullified on appeal in 1981.
Marvin had his last significant role in director Samuel Fuller's violent war epic, "The Big Red One" (1980), in which he played an army sergeant who leads a young infantry platoon through tours across North Africa and Europe, culminating in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. Exceedingly violent and deeply moving, "The Big Red One" was ranked as one of the best war movies ever made and gave Marvin a huge boost in a career that had been lagging for well over a decade. After co-starring with Charles Bronson and Angie Dickinson in the historically based action thriller "Death Hunt" (1981), Marvin played a devious fur dealer in Michael Apted's adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park" (1983). Going back to the well, he reprised his role from two decades prior for "The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission" (NBC, 1985), a made-for-TV movie that revolved around a plot to assassinate Hitler. Marvin's final role proved to be a teaming with Chuck Norris to take on bad guys comic-book style in the action flick "The Delta Force" (1986). Health issues began to crop up when Marvin complained of abdominal pains in December 1986, leading to intestinal surgery. A mere nine months later, in August 1987, he was hospitalized for two weeks with flu-like symptoms. Marvin suffered a fatal heart attack on Aug. 29, 1987 in Tucson, AZ and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery as a war veteran. He was 63 years old.