Much like Humphrey Bogart before him, Lee Marvin rose through the ranks of movie stardom as a character actor, delivering expertly nasty and villainous turns in a series of B-movies before finally graduating to more heroic performances. Regardless of which side of the law he traveled, however, he projected a tough-as-nails intensity and a two-fisted integrity which elevated even the slightest material. Born February 19, 1924, in New York City, Marvin quit high school to enter the Marine Corps and while serving in the South Pacific was wounded in battle. He spent a year in recovery before returning to the U.S. to begin working as a plumber's apprentice. After filling in for an ailing summer-stock actor, his growing interest in performing inspired him to study at the New York-based American Theater Wing. Upon making his debut in summer stock, Marvin began working steadily in television and off-Broadway. He made his Broadway bow in a 1951 production of Billy Budd and also made his first film appearance in Henry Hathaway's You're in the Navy Now. The following year, Hathaway again hired him for The Diplomatic Courier, and was so impressed that he convinced a top agent to recruit him. Soon Marvin began appearing regularly onscreen, with credits including a lead role in Stanley Kramer's 1952 war drama Eight Iron Men.
A riveting turn as a vicious criminal in Fritz Lang's 1953 film noir classic The Big Heat brought Marvin considerable notice and subsequent performances opposite Marlon Brando in the 1954 perennial The Wild One and in John Sturges' Bad Day at Black Rock cemented his reputation as a leading screen villain. He remained a heavy in B-movies like 1955's I Died a Thousand Times and Violent Saturday, but despite starring roles in the 1956 Western Seven Men from Now and the smash Raintree County, he grew unhappy with studio typecasting and moved to television in 1957 to star as a heroic police lieutenant in the series M Squad. As a result, Marvin was rarely seen in films during the late '50s, with only a performance in 1958's The Missouri Traveler squeezed into his busy TV schedule. He returned to cinema in 1961 opposite John Wayne in The Comancheros, and starred again with the Duke in the John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance a year later. Marvin, Wayne, and Ford reunited in 1963 for Donovan's Reef. A role in Don Siegel's 1964 crime drama The Killers followed and proved to be Marvin's final performance on the wrong side of the law.
Under Stanley Kramer, Marvin delivered a warm, comic turn in 1965's Ship of Fools then appeared in a dual role as fraternal gunfighters in the charming Western spoof Cat Ballou, a performance which won him an Academy Award. His next performance, as the leader of The Dirty Dozen, made him a superstar as the film went on to become one of the year's biggest hits. Marvin's box-office stature had grown so significantly that his next picture, 1968's Sergeant Ryker, was originally a TV-movie re-released for theaters. His next regular feature, the John Boorman thriller Point Blank, was another major hit. In 1969, Marvin starred with Clint Eastwood in the musical comedy Paint Your Wagon, one of the most expensive films made to date. It too was a success, as was 1970's Monte Walsh. Considering retirement, he did not reappear onscreen for two years, but finally returned in 1972 with Paul Newman in the caper film Pocket Money. After turning down the lead in Deliverance, Marvin then starred in Prime Cut, followed in 1973 by Emperor of the North Pole and The Iceman Cometh.
Poor reviews killed the majority of Marvin's films during the mid-'70s. When The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday -- the last of three pictures he released during 1976 -- failed to connect with critics or audiences, he went into semi-retirement, and did not resurface prior to 1979's Avalanche Express. However, his return to films was overshadowed by a high-profile court case filed against him by Michelle Triola, his girlfriend for the last six years; when they separated, she sued him for "palimony" -- 1,800,000 dollars, one half of his earnings during the span of their relationship. The landmark trial, much watched and discussed by Marvin's fellow celebrities, ended with Triola awarded only 104,000 dollars. In its wake he starred in Samuel Fuller's 1980 war drama The Big Red One, which was drastically edited prior to its U.S. release. After 1981's Death Hunt, Marvin did not make another film before 1983's Gorky Park. The French thriller Canicule followed, and in 1985 he returned to television to reprise his role as Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission. The 1986 action tale The Delta Force was Marvin's final film; he died of a heart attack on August 29, 1987, in Tucson, AZ, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to the remains of fellow veteran (and boxing legend) Joe Louis.