On April 19, 1980, the host of Saturday Night Live was a familiar face, but not a household name. “I’m a character actor,” he said in his opening monologue. “I’m the kind of person you know you’ve seen before but you can’t always remember where.” The punchline was that he had been hired to host the show only because producers mistook him for Tennessee Williams. But Strother Martin, that gracious host, was likely more recognizable by appearance than the southern playwright, if not by name. In the episode’s first sketch — a brutal summer camp for French language learners — Martin delivered a spin on his most famous line of dialogue: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate bilingually.”
Just four months after his appearance on Saturday Night Live, Martin died of a heart attack. Today would have been his 100th birthday.
In his acting career, Martin played roles big and small in many of the most acclaimed films of the 1960s and ’70s. His so-called prairie scum characters were developed from an earnest love of the craft of acting, and Martin’s flair for physicality and comic timing helped to complete the backdrop of the American West that dominated the country’s collective cinematic experience for decades.
Martin worked with the giants of Hollywood, from John Wayne, James Stewart, and Paul Newman to John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. Throughout his career, in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit, Cool Hand Luke, and even Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, Martin often played a despised villain with a hint of innocence. His jittery mannerisms and nasally voice lent a memorable trademark to his quirky roles. Although he made a lucrative career out of acting, Martin’s rise in Hollywood was a slow one.
Strother Martin grew up in Indiana and became a competitive diver, winning the National Junior Springboard Diving Championship at age 17. Nicknamed “Tee-Bone,” he continued competing at the University of Michigan in hopes of representing the U.S. in the Olympics. After he barely missed the cut, Martin served in the Navy during World War II and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting.
According to Verne Varona, one of Martin’s proudest movie moments, despite it being uncredited, was his role as a Western Union messenger in A Star Is Born. Varona, an actor and health educator, met Martin in the late ’60s while working at an art gallery on Beverly Drive, and he says he became close with Martin and his wife Helen.
Varona describes Martin as a lover of the books of Nikos Kazantzakis and the music of Frederick Delius. He would play Delius’s music throughout the house and walk around in boxer shorts and a long shirt, conducting, Varona says. Martin didn’t drink much, in spite of his social status in Hollywood. “He just wanted to work. He was always waiting for calls from his agent, Meyer Mishkin.”
And the calls came. Martin played in The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Perry Mason, and many more television shows in addition to his constant stream of film roles. While Martin’s star was rising, Varona was young and struggling, and so Martin, he says, supported him by hiring him to do odd jobs. He would paint Martin’s porch or do some of his gardening. One day, they took Helen’s purple Cadillac to pick up some roses near Beverly Hills. When they returned, the plants and soil had spilled all over the trunk. Martin looked inside, turned to Varona, and said, “Morons. I’ve got morons on my team,” a line he uttered in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “He was full of shtick,” Varona says.
The punchy delivery of specific lines of dialogue was a specialty of Martin’s, and, according to Varona, he ruminated over characters and lines intensely, no matter how little screen time he would get. In the case of Cool Hand Luke, his portrayal of a vicious prison warden earned him wide recognition as his most famous line became a household movie quote. Varona spoke with Martin about his motivation for the famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” and he says Martin pictured the prison warden as a stupid man who saw the line on a Bible tract one day, only to repeat it over and over. “The character thought it sounded smart,” Varona says, “so he used it over and over, to sound learned. He was a very methodical and thoughtful actor.” Other motivations were even more eccentric, like his antsy, anxious way of moving about that Martin apparently said was akin to a little girl who has to pee.
Above all, Varona remembers a warm kindness in Martin that was rare in Hollywood: “He was always gracious, he had a sense of formality that was astutely polite … and Midwestern. He never said anything nasty about anyone. On a certain level, he was above all of the Hollywood stuff. On another level, he just wanted to get his share.”
When Martin had a heart attack in 1980, it seemed his career was still in ascent. He had just given an interview to the Thousand Oaks News Chronicle, saying, “I love playing dirty old men, especially a sure-fire role of the inept guy who gets one chance in life, makes a heroic effort, and then blows it. … We don’t live for what comes after we are dead, but for what we can achieve in this life — the only chance we have.” Martin and his wife, Helen, didn’t have any children, but Varona says they played parental roles in several young people’s lives.
One can imagine that Martin would have seen even more success in the ’80s and ’90s had he lived, but he was, instead, forever remembered vaguely by the casual moviegoer as a fine-tuned detail in westerns and noir, or a personality that popped fleetingly onscreen.
Varona says he decided on a whim to hitchhike almost 500 miles in 1970 to Chico, California, for a special event. At Chico State College, film critic David Overby was putting on what he called The First Annual Strother Martin Film Festival. Martin was overjoyed to be given such an honor, and Varona couldn’t miss it. He pulled up to the student center with a biker gang that had taken him much of the distance and walked in to see the actor nervously addressing a rapt audience.
Varona laughs. “It was the first and last Strother Martin film festival.”
Featured image: Strother Martin in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) (Warner Bros.)
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