“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

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Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

He sees…

Yeah, oh God, he sees.

like no one else.

He’s fantastic. I didn’t go to see The Devils. I think I was scared to go see it. Russell can scare the hell out of you—there’s a lot of blood coming up and you see somebody die instantly, it’s terrifying….

***

I like character actors. I always have. Do you know Raimu? Have you seen The Baker’s Wife? That’s one of my favorite things. I liked Wallace Beery a lot. Slim Summerville. ZaSu Pitts. Got to meet Marjorie Main and had drinks with her, my wife and I. I would love to have met Marie Dressler even more. She always looked like she was right on the edge of a nervous breakdown but somehow gonna sail through. God! she had human courage; so heroic.

Where did you get started acting?

Where did I start? I couldn’t recite in high school. I didn’t know why I was so pathologically shy. I didn’t know whether it was— I’d just learned to jerk off and was all torn up about it. Or whether it was because we were poor; we were despicably poor when I was in high school and I think it was more that than anything. A lot of actors were enormously shy. I wasn’t in the high school plays. I didn’t know I was going to do that till—

It was the first thing I ever got a B in at the University of Michigan. It was astounding that I ever made it there because some of the people [in my circle] made the electric chair. There was a lot of dropping-out, a lot of bitterness and hate in the land because of the Depression. There was a lot in me: you’ve seen it on film, I think. And I hope you see something else: that I’m struggling with that violence that’s in me, and maybe that makes me a candidate for somebody that appreciates the kind of films that Sam has done.

***

After I did The Wild Bunch, when the offer came to do Cable Hogue—it was almost right away, two, three months or so—I told my agent that if he could get something else I’d just as soon not do Cable Hogue because I’d had 16 weeks with Sam and I’d just barely got through that. When my agent went to see Cable Hogue he said, “And you didn’t want to do this picture!” Because he liked me in it very much.

Actually I was in terror of Sam because, I mean, during those 16 weeks on Wild Bunch he’d chewed my ass out every line and every shot. I always thought I could see a little smile around the edge, I sensed that he liked me, but I wasn’t sure. He never said a compliment to me until once, when we were going in to loop the picture, he just turned to me and said, “I thought you were very good in this picture.”

When I saw The Wild Bunch I had no perspective on it. The first time I saw it, there was so much violence, I thought they were going to laugh at it, it seemed grotesque and funny to me. I liked all the people, but not—it didn’t work. Then, over the years, maybe the third time I had begun to like it a little, and I’ve had the experience of going to a theatre where it’s playing, the theatre’s filled with people like Hell’s Angels and doctors and every kind, and the lights come up and people are reaching out to touch you. Oh that’s a nice feeling! People are saying, “Thank you, man … Best film ever made … I’ve seen this 40 times….” And now you can look at this Wild Bunch that you’ve made, and you’re in it. It’s my favorite film that I’m in. I like Cool Hand Luke, but …

Sam said he was going to make the actors’ lives hell. He especially made my life hell. I want to tell you a line Sam said. You know he wears those glasses that you can’t see through, those mirrored glasses. [Looking around the table] I wish I had spoons, I’ve done it with spoons. We were doing the hard gallop at the camera, you know, the big shot, the whole bounty-hunters-coming-into-the-camera. My horse would go into a terrific gallop; as a matter of fact, I’d have to hold it back to keep it from passing [Robert] Ryan’s, because it looks like I’m taking off. I’m ridin’ up there and I’m holding that son of a bitch, and we did it about ten or twelve times because we’d ride up to spot and I’d say “Hold up!” And I’d say, “Mr. Thornton, it might be an ambush there at the river,” and then I’d want the horse to go at a nice canter, dum-diddy-dum-diddy-dum, so I’d look like I knew a horse; and all he’d do is go at a bony trot. So they gave me spurs, and I kicked that son of a bitch with all I had because, first of all, Sam is chewing my ass out every time about the fuckin’ ride and “how disgraceful you look.” He went about ten takes with me, and he’d had enough of it, and he said, “Mr. Martin, would you get down off your horse? Would you come under the shade with me so we don’t have a sunstroke? Now, Mr. Martin, would you tell me [imaginary spoons lifted to his eyes] why you want so much to fuck up this picture?” There was an audience that day, just a few people; I felt pretty awful. There’s no answer; I couldn’t say, “I want to fuck it up because I hate your guts.” No, I didn’t hate his guts and I sensed something about him. I just wish he’d— I sirred him a lot: yessir, no sir. And Sam’s younger than me, you know, but I’ve been told that I sir bellboys, waiters, whatever….

Once, when we were up in the battle, the one at the very beginning, he was setting me up for my closeup with the band coming down the street, on which I open fire, and he says, “Well, we’re going to get some—I want some, I want some, uh, I don’t know, some emotion, uh, out of you. Some kinda— Show me somethin’, for Christ’s sakes!” Somebody like Robert Ryan says, “When I move over here, when I shove Strother down—” and Sam says, “Smack the son of a bitch down!” And boy, I went down when Robert Ryan hit me, and hard. And when I was in this closeup and I’m revved up, he’s treating me with contempt: “You listen, I’m going to talk you through this, you’re listening to the music, I’ll just tell you what to do in this closeup, I’ll just talk you through it.” And I don’t know, maybe half-a-dozen insults are in there someplace, too. I ask him, “Would it be all right if I winked at L.Q.?” He says [low growl] “Why don’t you kiss him?” I say, “He’s too far away!” So I did the take, and I remember I was doing it and he says to me, “Kiss your rifle.” And I don’t want to do that, that’s a goddam cliché. “Kiss the goddam rifle!” I felt like— I’ve seen that shot, and I like myself in it, I like myself very much in that shot. It seems to me I’ve almost gone down on my rifle in that shot. Sam—that’s all Sam, and I can see my heart going doong! doong! doong! It was fun to do—afterwards.

He can get after you that way, He’s a, he’s a marvelous magician. He sees. He’s a great wardrobe man, a great makeup man. He doesn’t say a lot to actors when he’s directing. He may start out by saying, “Will you come over here, we’ll do a number.” And then that happens, and then you go over there and you finish another number. That gets you started, and he looks at it. And there’s moments when he’s setting up a new sequence that a propman gets fired. He might ask for a newspaper: “Have you got the period newspaper?” “You said to me, Mr. Peckinpah, that it won’t be needed until next Tuesday.” “You do not have the period newspaper? Get your fuckin’ ass out of here, you’re fuckin’ fired.” He’s absolutely ruthless at that point. He would fire the actors, I think, but we’re established [on film]. And when you’re watching somebody go, you feel a lot of tension, so he gets a lot of tension. It seems to me he never quits.

I respect enormously the labor he put in. For example, he needed a rectal operation while we were doing The Wild Bunch. They wanted to put him in the hospital. But no, they’d give him pain pills and he’d get through. His ass was bleeding; I mean, it was a very serious problem, causing him pain. With that and the pressure and the flu, it put a crimp in his lovelife. And a lot of us were hoping he’d be satisfied in the boudoir because then he’d ease up on us!

When Sam is cooking he’s miles above his material. The things about Wild Bunch that are for me so astounding are in the background all the time. You see a country being born. You see people, babies, little children playing; and it looks real. The word for The Wild Bunch is ‘epic’. It was a flimsy script; I didn’t think the script was worth a crap. There were parts of it when we read it that we were kind of grinning—”This is a piece of shit. The part I’m referring to in particular is the part where the Germans—”Prosit!”—the time when the son of a bitch’s got the goddam woman being carried through in the coffin, and the wailin’ and keenin’ and the looks all over the place. He’s a magician in those sequences.

He told me a funny story on himself, from the days before he was big stuff. One night after shooting he was having a drink with Lee [Marvin]. And Sam says, “I hate actors.” And Lee says, “All actors do, baby!”

***

Does Paul Newman like to have you around? I notice you turn up in a lot of his pictures.

Yes. he never says so, but he cast me in Butch Cassidy. I wasn’t told until during Slap Shot the director said … Back when they were getting ready to do Butch, George Roy Hill said, “I’ve got these three people for Percy Garris: Strother Martin—” and Paul said, “Don’t go any farther.” But he never mentioned that to me, he never said “I got you this job.” Now if it was John Wayne [chuckles] he would have said in front of 2,000 people [drawling emphatically] “I gotcha this job!”…

I liked [Butch Cassidy] because I liked … Katharine [Ross] says, “Have you ever thought, Butch, that if we’d met first, that it might have been you and I?” And Paul says, “You’re riding on my bicycle, and in some places that’s the same as…” And they were married, the three people were married; it was a marvelous ménage à trois. Paul said it was a fairy tale, too good to be true. And at the time it came out, a lot of people would like to knock Butch Cassidy because it wasn’t The Wild Bunch. It was something else. Paul thought it was a Western fairy tale, and there were several things I liked a great deal about it. George Roy Hill has the capacity to make you glad you’re alive.

Did you like Slap Shot?

I liked Slap Shot very much, and that amazed me because I don’t much like George Roy Hill’s other films—

Oh really.

—but I was going to say, I was sorry it didn’t have the success with the general public—

It’s done 35 million, but in Hollywood they consider it like it was a flop. But that’s Hollywood, maybe: if it isn’t yours, if it didn’t do close to 100 million, it’s nothing. But I loved the movie, and I thought Paul was brilliant; I thought Paul should have been nominated and I thought Paul should have won.

It’s his best performance.

Oh I thought it was brilliant, just brilliant. I’ve seen it seven times and he’s just in there all the way. He’s such a nice human being and I like him very much. He’s a mysterious man….

***

Did you ever see L.Q. Jones’s film [A Boy and His Dog]?

I was in one—the Satan one, The Brotherhood of Satan for TV.

Did he direct that or just produce it?

No, Bernie McEveety directed that. I did the one film with L.Q. as producer and it got a little strained between us. We’re friends still but … Maybe I have a tough time adjusting to … No, it was specifically, after I did the film I felt the door was closed awful hard in saying goodbye to me as he started to edit. It’s not that I had any contribution, necessarily, to make, but—I don’t like those hard goodbyes.

Sometimes some directors and some producers’ll treat us very kindly when they’re doing their thing with the scissors. Costarring parts have a way of getting smashed around. Sometimes the design that you are giving the character or the story—and when you have the lead in something you’re giving it a lot of design—where maybe it’ll work only if they leave it your way, but if they turn it around, twist it around, screw it around … And it’s your fault! In a film like Ess-Ess-Ess-Ess-Ess—you know [Sssssss]—a film about changing a boy into a snake … That (you’ll excuse me) fuckin’ premise is a bit much. You can play so sincere your nose bleeds and you just can’t make it work. My idea in the thing, for example, they write him like he’s a real hellfire-and-brimstone crackpot, and I figure he oughta be a Unitarian, or a humanist of some kind. So I dig up everything I can to make him into a Unitarian, an atheist who’s very curious about God. But they monkeyed with it in the editing….

I think Hard Times would have been a better film if they’d been a little more generous to me. That’s one of the sad things you go through. I lost eight sequences. It was one of the best parts I ever had—I just loved that part, and damn it! James Coburn went on the floor, too. They got 25 minutes of story out of that. Charlie Bronson came right out in the paper and said, “It’s not the movie we shot!” He said this was seven or eight brutal fights strung together. What we were all doing really hard was, all of us supporting players, we were trying to get Charlie nominated because we all like him as an actor and we all liked this story. I couldn’t believe they would cut it that bad. The writer was the director [Walter Hill], so … Maybe he gets the word from the top, “Cut it to make it a good programmer, that’s all we want out of it.” We don’t have any control over it. Sometimes it’s pretty savage; it’s scary.

Hard Times is certainly tasty, whatever’s left of it.

Yes! Charlie is so brilliant in the fights, and I think the small bit that’s there is nice. That film opens so well. I understand they had a stuntman to jump off a boxcar and Charlie said to him, “I can jump off a boxcar better than that.” Which of course he could. [Laughs] Charlie could do almost anything better.

Have there been movies where you felt more secure from the beginning about how you were going to look at the end?

Failure to communicate: Cool Hand Luke
Failure to communicate: Cool Hand Luke

When I was doing Cool Hand Luke I didn’t go to see the dailies, but I heard that I was doing all right in it. But when I go, I don’t have any perspective. If I like the other people, they’ll say “You’re lookin’ great, come down and see yourself!” I’ll go there and if I like the other people I guess then I’ll say to myself, Well, I guess I’m doing all right. But I don’t like anything I do until usually I get some time to get over it. I did like myself in Slap Shot very quickly; I made peace with that one. Usually it takes five or six years. I thought I was very much like that character. I looked like me, I talked a lot like me, and it didn’t seem like I was surrounding him in characterization so much. It really looked a lot like me—even though he was an old bastard.

Did John Ford direct you much while you were on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Yes. His way of directing is to do it for you. And it’s very hard to understand what a 70-year-old man is meaning when he walks the part [impersonates a mumbling deep voice, mostly gibberish, pantomiming a handkerchief at the corner of the mouth]. The dirtiest white handkerchief you’ve ever seen; the tongue comes down to here—he’s got the longest tongue that you’ll ever see. Oh God, he was unique!

I’d like to have seen him say, “Ayih numminate Liberty Valance fer delegate!” with that tongue.

Oh, that’s interesting that you mention that, because his direction of me, something about him made me spunky, and when I said that particular line, “I nominate Liberty Valance,” I said it as loud and as ballsy as I could say it, which is through my nose. And the guy next to me went—it just grated on him. And Ford just went on fiddling around with Eddie O’Brien and whatnot. And then: “Strother … louder!“—and that was his direction. And I’m going, You’re out of your mind, I just did my loudest. And the next direction after another rehearsal was: “Strother … LOUDER!” It was the loudest I could do the first time I did it! And when my voice broke, he printed it. I didn’t like myself that day. I thought, Now there, my voice is shot. I didn’t say that to him.

Most, most fascinating. My experience with him is the deepest with anybody, I think. I was playing a sex psychopath and his boring-in on that area was, well, a marvelous experience that I consider like … He asked me questions, asked me a question or two in the shooting that made me answer with a certain truthfulness that I think I would only feel in a certain place like the Sistine Chapel. He was pretty scary. I looked at him with his one eye and told him what I thought the character was about when he asked me, and I think I answered him truthfully. He’d keep saying Lee Van Cleef was going to be mean, and he’d say that “You’re a sex psychopath.” I said “Yeah.”

***

How did you get involved with this made-for-TV project?

Well, it’s the front part of the year right now and … In spite of the fact that Sam may say to you that, oh hell; we cost too much money now … Sam wants us to do one day’s work in any damn thing he does, and sometimes if he wants you, he wants you to do it. And the character actor’s struggle for survival is a bitch today. There was a time when people like me would have been approached, at least, to be under contract to the studio and farmed out picture by picture. It’s true that a man like myself does not know after this movie, this may be the last movie I ever do in my life. I have no assurance.

They don’t really give a shit any more about who’s second. Oh, they care about it, the casting of it, but they really care—they’ll give four million dollars to a star, but they’ll try to get away with giving me four, uh, dollars. And the difference between— I’ll say it this way: many, many stars are millionaires and multimillionaires; you cannot tell me one character actor today that’s become a millionaire, unless he was a regular in a television series that had been going for eight or ten years and all those god—excuse me—bastards are millionaires, if you want to be rich. But there’s no one— Walter Brennan was a millionaire because they knew his value. I would imagine, well, he won three Academy Awards, and I know what his salary was before he died. They wanted him, they paid $15,000 a week. If they said ten, Walter said no. $15,000 a week and he went to work. It established his worth. If you don’t get some sort of respectable salary, boy, you’re just up the creek. I know an awful lot of character actors who I think should be making a decent living, and they forget about us sometimes. There’s no training factor, it’s not like a star; they give, they think in terms of the star, I think, now more than ever. I’ll bear this out. It seems to me, not that they don’t try to do some things like Jaws, that kind of crap, that makes millions and billions of dollars or something. But it seems to me today that they won’t do a film like The Dirty Dozen—it’s apt to be The Terrible Two, two stars. There are no Wild Bunches being made.

They chisel hell out of you. I mean, if I do one day for Sam, the public, in our culture, sees me in the film and say, “Strother, he says two words in the film, he must be on the skids.” And they especially do that in Hollywood. Whereas in England, when Richard Chamberlain went over there to do a Hamlet, John Gielgud walks on for a minute and they don’t say “Gielgud’s finished.” We got the dumbest thing about that, and it’s all the way across in our culture. For example, Gloria Grahame was in the play The Time of Your Life, she had won an Academy Award, and everybody asked me, “She’s finished, isn’t she?” I’ll make it clearer still, and tell you something that somebody told me: in France, in Europe, if you ever were a star, then you always are a star, for them, whether .you lost it all. They always respect you.

But I don’t want to … You here, here’s a nucleus of people who, I know, revere film more than I did. And you have some special feeling about this artform. For me, when it’s good, it’s church. For me, The Informer—I go into that cathedral with Victor McLaglen, and I know that I’m an informer, and that makes me think of the lines from The Messiah: “Open up ye gates, ye everlasting doors, and let the Prince of Glory come in.” Ya gotta be there. You’re right with me, too.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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