(Pictured: Lee Marvin in a moment of reflection, 1967.)
Although I am not sure he is especially well-remembered today, Lee Marvin was one of Hollywood’s great bad-asses. You can spot him in famous 50s films including The Wild One and Bad Day at Black Rock, but at the same time he was doing lots of television, including a regular role on M Squad from 1957 to 1960. In 1965, he won a Best Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou. He played cowboys, cops, soldiers, good guys, and bad guys with a stern, thick-lipped face and a voice that originated somewhere deep below ground. And it is the sound of that voice that has brought Lee Marvin to your notice and mine today.
In 1968, Marvin turned down a role in The Wild Bunch in favor of the lead in a version of the 1951 Lerner and Loewe western/musical Paint Your Wagon, which also starred Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg. It occasionally appears on lists of Hollywood’s most infamous bombs. Although it was one of the top-grossing movies of 1969, Paramount Pictures never made a dime on it. Its script was adapted by Paddy Chayefsky and its songs arranged by Nelson Riddle, but critics disliked it. Young moviegoers disdained it, at the moment in history when both westerns and old-fashioned musicals were falling out of style.
Marvin plays Ben Rumson, a prospector for gold in California who has loved and lost, and by the latter stages of the film he is musing about all that has happened to him, and what made him do it. As he walks through the rain, he sings a song called “Wand’rin’ Star.” In the UK, where Paint Your Wagon played in one London theater for a solid year-and-a-half, “Wand’rin’ Star” became an unlikely hit, eventually spending three weeks at #1 on the official singles chart in March 1970, keeping the Beatles’ “Let It Be” from the top spot.
(Digression: “Wand’rin’ Star,” which was backed by Clint Eastwood singing another Paint Your Wagon song, “I Talk to the Trees,” made #6 in the UK for the entire year 1970. As Tom Ewing wrote in his series Popular, about every UK #1 single, “The singles chart at this point was clearly still wide open, deserted by emergent ‘album acts’ and without much grip on a younger teen audience.” As a result, the British charts in this period are full of novelties, recorded by everyone from macho movie stars to singing soccer players.)
Although the Paint Your Wagon movie soundtrack managed to make #28 on the Billboard album chart in a 56-week run, “Wand’rin’ Star” was not a hit in America. The vast majority of its chart action at ARSA is from the UK and Australia. Only five American stations in that database charted it; KNUZ in Houston was the most influential station to do so, ranking it as high as #30 in November 1970.
Marvin sang “Wand’rin’ Star” himself, refusing to be dubbed. He strains to get most of the notes, and the impossible depth of his untrained voice is incongruous opposite the old-fashioned Hollywood mixed chorus backing him. Marvin’s Paint Your Wagon co-star, Jean Seberg, famously described it as the sound of rain gurgling down a pipe; “Wand’rin’ Star” was also described as the first 45 ever recorded at 33 1/3. I find a certain weird charm in it, but your mileage may vary.
After Paint Your Wagon, Lee Marvin remained a familiar presence in movies throughout the 1970s. By the end of the decade, he was embroiled in the famous “palimony” case, in which his live-in companion, Michele Triola, sued for spousal support and community property after the breakup of their five-year relationship, even though they had never been legally married. The case, filed in 1976, wasn’t settled until 1979, when a court ruled that Marvin was required to make only a $104,000 payment and not give up one-half of his net worth—a sum of $1.8 million—which Triola was seeking. (The smaller payment was eventually overturned on appeal.)
By the dawn of the 80s, Marvin was only in his mid 50s, but his career momentum slowed. He appeared in a handful of films and TV roles after that, his last one in Delta Force alongside Chuck Norris in 1986. His health failed at the end of that year, and he died in August 1987 at age 63. Lee Marvin had been a Marine and was wounded while serving in the Pacific during World War II, so he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Do I know where hell is?
Hell is in hello
Heaven is goodbye forever
It’s time for me to go
I was born under a wand’rin’ star
A wand’rin’, wand’rin’ star