Lee Marvin was born on 19 February 1924 in New York City, USA to parents Lamont Waltman Marvin who was an advertising executive and Courtenay Washington who was a beauty consultant and fashion writer. One of his earliest ancestors was Matthew Marvin Sr who had emigrated to America from Essex in England to help found Hartford, Connecticut in 1635. He was also the first cousin of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee whom he and his brother Robert are named after.
After being expelled from several schools for bad behaviour, Lee attended the St. Leo College Prep School in Florida. His early interests included music and he studied violin, but he could also often be found hunting deer, puma and wild turkey in the as yet uncharted Florida everglades.
In August 1942, when he was 18, Marvin left school and enlisted in the United States Marines and saw action in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. During the assault on Mount Tapochau in the Battle of Saipan on 18 June 1944, he was wounded, along with most of his company, after coming under machine gun, and sniper fire. After receiving treatment at various navy medical hospitals, he was discharged on medical grounds and as a combat soldier wounded in action he was awarded a Purple Heart medal.
Lee Marvin’s acting career began by accident after he was asked to replace an actor who had fallen ill during rehearsals at a theatre in New York where he had been working as a plumber’s assistant. Acting seemed to be something he could do and so in 1950, he moved to Hollywood to pursue a career.
As with many actors at the start of their career, Marvin found work in supporting roles, many of which were in war movies where he could also be helpful, as a decorated combat veteran, assisting directors and other actors in accurate portrayals of wartime situations.
In February 1951 he married Betty Ebeling with whom he had a son called Christopher and three daughters, Courtenay, Cynthia and Claudia. Betty and Lee divorced in January 1967.
During the 1950’s and into the 1960’s Lee Marvin’s roles started to increase in size and stature but it took a TV series called M Squad, in which he played a Chicago cop called Frank Ballinger for over 100 episodes to get his name recognised. His first title role was that of Liberty Vallance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance opposite John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. In 1964, he received his first top billing in a move for his part in The Killers, for which he received a BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 1965 Lee Marvin won an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in the comedy Western movie Cat Ballou opposite Jane Fonda. More top billing would come along in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen and again for the musical Paint Your Wagon in 1969 which also starred Clint Eastwood. Marvin wasn’t a great singer, but that didn’t stop him having a hit with his song from Paint Your Wagon, “Wand’rin Star”. He was now at the top of his career and being paid $1m per movie.
In October 1970, Lee Marvin married again, this time to Pamela Feeley. During this time he resided on and off in Woodstock so that he could care for his father but after his father’s death, he and Pamela moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1975 and the couple would remain together until his death.
During the 70’s and 80’s he took on a greater variety of roles with fewer of them being ‘bad guys’ but he continued to work with lots of household Hollywood names including Paul Newman, Oliver Reed, Roger Moore and Richard Burton. His last big role was in another war movie, though, 1980’s Big Red One, which was based on the wartime experiences of its director Samuel Fuller. Smaller roles followed for next few years in Death Hunt, Gorky Park, and Dog Day, and there was even a sequel of The Dirty Dozen in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission. His final appearance was with Chuck Norris in The Delta Force in 1986.
In the same year that The Delta Force was released, Lee Marvin was admitted to hospital suffering from coccidioidomycosis, a fungal infection which is also known as Valley Fever or California Fever. He was administered steroids to help with his breathing but as a result suffered from a ruptured intestine causing him to have a colostomy. On August 29, 1987, he suffered a heart attack and died. As a marine combat veteran, he was entitled to a military funeral and he is therefore interred at Arlington National Cemetary. His headstone simply reads Lee Marvin, PFC, US Marine Corps, World War II.