As his 30 years of Hollywood combat prove, you don’t mess with Lee Marvin. In his 52nd and latest movie, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, old Sarge Marvin shoots at raw recruit Mark Hamill simply for showing battle fright. Lee is no less fearsome on the domestic front. Many considered his escape with a $ 104,000 “rehabilitation” settlement a victory over former lover Michelle Triola Marvin, who sued him for $1.8 million. Marvin didn’t; he’s not paying, he’s appealing in the landmark “palimony” case. In a bizarre footnote, Michelle last week pleaded not guilty to charges of shoplifting two bras and three sweaters (value: $208) from a Beverly Hills department store. Expect no tears from Lee. At home in Tucson, with second wife (of 10 years) Pamela Feeley, Mr. Granite Face is tracking a new enemy: the black widow spider. Wielding a flyswatter, he brags: “I killed 32 the other night—wham, wham!”
At 56, Marvin may be suffering some battle fatigue of his own. While some critics have hailed his role in The Big Red One as a career summation, he calls it a pain. “I’ve been in the service so long I’m going for my pension,” he cracks. “I’m tired of the rocks and the brambles and barbed wire,” growls Marvin. “I’d love to play the leading man, romantic, you know, lots of sheets, low light and soft places to fall.” Bed or barbed wire, he adds, “I’ve slowed down a bit. I only work when I want to.”
Heretofore his career was one long flight from the “sheltered life” of his Manhattan birth. His father was an ad executive, his mother a fashion editor, and young Lee was a hell raiser “booted out of a dozen prep schools by the time I was 16.” When the war came he eagerly joined the Marines and fought at Kwajalein and Eniwetok before stopping a Japanese bullet on Saipan in 1944. His sciatic nerve was injured, requiring 13 months of hospitalization, but Lee says he learned something: “Security is two inches behind your belt—where you either keep your guts or you don’t. The rest is eyewash.”
After discharge, Marvin worked as a plumber’s apprentice and enrolled at the American Theatre Wing. He played bits on Broadway and TV, made his movie debut with Gary Cooper in You’re in the Navy Now in 1951, and then hit it big with the 1957-60 TV series M Squad. The capper came when he won an Oscar as the drunken gunfighter of 1965’s Cat Ballou with Jane Fonda. It’s been star class ever since.
His wife, Pam, 50, was a childhood sweetheart who reports that she and Lee “kept in touch and about every 10 years he’d drop by for a cup of coffee. I always knew I had him on hold, but I don’t think Lee had a clue.” Of his four grown children from his 14-year first marriage to Betty Ebeling, Lee says, “I got divorced very early in their lives, so I’m sure it was difficult for them. We had to work at it, but we have a good relationship now.” He also has five step-grandchildren.
Though Lee careens around Tucson unstylishly in a 1971 Chrysler Imperial or a four-wheel drive pickup, the Marvin home, complete with an Italian-tile pool overlooking a tennis court, can stand with Bel Air’s poshest. Australian and Indian artifacts decorate the rooms, and the Marvins have restored the four surrounding acres to their natural high chaparral.
Lee is determined “to spend all my money while I’m living so there’ll be nothing to fight over when I go.” He knows how to spend, indulging his love of deep-sea fishing with an annual trek to Australian waters. He just acquired a $70,000 bulldozer to cut into a gold mine he owns in Northern California. As for acting, Lee says it’s “just a job. They put your name on a star on Hollywood Boulevard and you find a pile of dog manure on it. That’s the whole story, baby.”