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Lee Marvin, Menacing Gunman of Films, Dies

August 30, 1987|BOB BAKER and PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writers

Lee Marvin, who won an Oscar in "Cat Ballou" by parodying his long-time image as the consummately brutal gunfighter, and was later the defendant in a lawsuit that established California's historic "palimony" doctrine, died of a heart attack in Tucson on Saturday. He was 63.

A spokesman at Tucson Medical Center said Marvin had been in the hospital since Aug. 13 because of a weakened condition related to the flu. His wife, Pam, was at his side when he died.

Marvin, a World War II Marine who fell into acting by chance while working as a plumber's assistant in the late 1940s, established himself in the 1950s and '60s as a penetratingly menacing figure, ever brandishing a gun and a mean expression.

He was the benzedrine-sniffing thug in "Violent Saturday," the dim-witted, sadistic cowboy in "Bad Day at Black Rock," the unmitigated Western badman in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and the beachcombing, brawling sidekick in "Donovan's Reef."

And then, in 1965, he stood that stereotype on its head in "Cat Ballou," a spoof of traditional Westerns in which he played two roles, both caricatures of his hairy-chested career: Kid Shelleen, a whisky-soaked but good-hearted gunfighter, and Shelleen's antagonist and twin brother, Tim Straun, a black-clothed villain who wore a silver nose--his real one having been bitten off in a fight.

On a Happy Horse

One of the highlights of the movie was a scene with Kid Shelleen atop a horse apparently as drunk as he was. When Marvin accepted his Oscar he eschewed the usual sentimentality and said simply, "Half of this belongs to a horse someplace out in the Valley."

Marvin was born in New York City, the son of a wealthy Madison Avenue executive and his socialite-fashion editor wife. He kept getting kicked out of private schools until he joined the Marines. He was wounded on Saipan in the South Pacific in 1944 and awarded the Purple Heart. He spent 13 months in hospitals recovering from a spinal wound.

"Up to that time I was playing it tough, but then I knew you have to be tough to survive," he would remember. "The most useless word in the world is help ."

He met a producer who offered him a part in an off-Broadway production and from there he made his way to Broadway, his first major debut coming in "Billy Budd." He also appeared in small parts in many television shows in New York before beginning his film career, which stretched through nearly four dozen productions.

Lesson for Fonda

Actress Jane Fonda, who starred with Marvin in "Cat Ballou," said Saturday that Marvin "taught me a very important thing, which is that when you're a movie star, you have the responsibility to think of the crew. . . . For all his seeming hard-living and gruffness, he had a big heart."

By many accounts, however, much of Marvin off-screen was Marvin on-screen. He rode motorcycles, challenged all comers to monstrous drinking bouts, freely confessed to a brawl here and there ("Most people only wise up when they are down on the floor with the blood everywhere") and relished life as combat.

"The only thing in life that's really interesting is the contest," he said a year after he'd won his Oscar. "If I read 20 pages of a book and they're no good, I put it down. Maybe it gets good after 100 pages, but I can't wait. The author lost."

The man who loved battles was then on the verge of his most improbable.

In 1964, on the set of "Ship of Fools," Marvin had become involved with a 31-year-old stand-in and extra dancer named Michelle Triola. They became lovers, and Triola eventually changed her last name to his. But by 1970 Marvin, as he would later say, felt "trapped," and the two parted.

Agreement Claimed

Marvin made regular monthly payments to Ms. Marvin for a year and a half. When he stopped, she sued, claiming they had agreed to share the money he made during their nearly six unmarried years together.

It was a questionable claim. Previous suits involving written, oral or even implied contracts between unmarried couples were considered illegal because they implied a "meretricious," or sex-for-pay, relationship. But in 1976, the state Supreme Court issued the landmark Marvin Decision, holding that unmarried people are not barred from pursuing their property rights simply because they shared a bed.

The high court ordered Ms. Marvin's case back to Los Angeles Superior Court to see if she could prove there was a contract between her and Marvin to share the $3.8 million he made while they were together. After an 11-week trial, which told the courtroom audience of drinking bouts, terminated pregnancies and wild breakup scenes in Malibu, Lee Marvin won.

A judge found there was no contract and awarded Ms. Marvin only $104,000 to assist her in becoming an "independent" woman.

Change in Roles

Marvin became more selective about his work. He went to Finland to play a devious fur dealer in "Gorky Park." He went to France to play an American gangster in his last holdup in "Dog Day." He starred in a television movie sequel to "The Dirty Dozen," the 1967 film in which he led a ruthless crew of convicts on a mission to destroy a Nazi-infested French chalet. He headed to Australia each year to fish.

He married Pamela Feeley, a woman he had known for decades, and moved to Tucson, where they lived in a large house with impressive views of the desert and mountains. He drank only rarely. "The pleasure just isn't worth the pain," he said a few years ago.

Marvin's agent, Paul Wasserman, said details of funeral arrangements will be released Monday in Los Angeles.

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