My family got a VCR when I was 14 years old in 1985. I quickly filled up a half dozen blank Polaroid cassettes with classic films I taped off TV. One of them was Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. A few years later, I became a prolific movie renter at the local Jumbo Video. One of the many films I rented was 1986’s The Big Easy starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. The movie became one of my “Top 25”, a list of my favourite films that my regular readers have heard me mention many times. The Big Easy featured an old guy playing a mobster with a great name – Vinnie “The Cannon” DiMotti. Funny thing was, I thought I had seen the actor before. It took me awhile but I finally clued in; the same actor that played The Cannon also played Ziggy in Key Largo, forty years apart.
This was my introduction to Marc Lawrence. As I began to watch more and more classic movies, I realized that Mr. Lawrence is in a lot of movies; 172 to be exact. He played a gangster or a henchman in just about every one of them. He didn’t have the puss to be a leading man but he had the menace to play a heavy. In spades.
Marc was born Max Goldsmith in New York City in 1910, the son of Jewish parents. Early on, he decided to be an actor and, in 1930, he befriended another young aspiring actor, John Garfield. The two worked together often until one of them got a film contract and moved to Hollywood. It was actually Lawrence who started in films some two years before Garfield made the move. His pock-marked, sinister face and his New York hood accent made him a natural for tough guy, gangster and henchman roles. Indeed, throughout his first forty or so films, he was billed as “henchman”, “hood” or gangster” a dozen times. Sometimes it varied, though: “mug at reception”, “henchman who pistol-whipped Clay”, “henchman in trench coat” and “communist meeting chairman”. This last role would prove prescient.
In the ’30’s, Marc could be seen with James Cagney in G Men, Charlie Chan at the Opera, with Warner Oland and Boris Karloff and The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt starring Warren William. By the dawn of the 1940’s, he had appeared in 66 films; 12 in 1939 alone. During the 1940’s and into the ’50’s, he made notable turns in The Shepherd of the Hills – in which he put in a rare “touching” performance as John Wayne’s mute brother – in addition to This Gun for Hire, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Asphalt Jungle.
It was while he was making 1951’s My Favorite Spy with Bob Hope that he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee pressed him about his previous involvement with the Communist Party, compelling Lawrence to admit that he had made the “unholy mistake” of twice joining the Party in the past. Years later, Lawrence explained his brief alliance with the Party by saying that, at the time, Communist organizations said they were “for hope and humanity” – which sounded good to Lawrence, who subsequently signed a couple of forms and went to a half-dozen meetings.
At the hearings, Lawrence “named names”, claiming that it had been fellow actor Lionel Stander who had first given him the “party line”, telling Lawrence that it would also be a good way to meet girls. When he learned of Lawrence’s testimony, Stander fired off a telegram vehemently denying Lawrence’s assertions and claiming that Lawrence was a “psychopath”. Stander eventually sued Lawrence for $500,000. (Stander had been a vocal member of the Screen Actors Guild and had been called a “Red” by Columbia Pictures boss, Harry Cohn. Stander remained vehement in his disdain of HUAC which caused him to be blacklisted longer than most of the others accused. He eventually landed the role he is most remembered for as Max, chauffeur to Jonathan and Jennifer Hart on the TV series Hart to Hart)
Lawrence also named Sterling Hayden. Hayden had been a member of the Communist Party for a short time in 1946. Hayden later related that, at the time he was called before HUAC, he was told by the FBI that if he proved an “unfriendly witness” and did not cooperate he could “damn well forget the custody of my children. I didn’t want to go to jail”. Hayden had to testify publicly and stated that joining the party was the “stupidest and most ignorant thing I have ever done in my life”. Hayden also named names – names that apparently the Committee already had in their possession. Later Hayden said that cooperating caused him to have “contempt” for himself “since the day I did that thing”.
The career of Larry Parks was derailed when he was named by Lawrence. Parks and his long-time wife (1944 until his death in ’75), Betty Garrett, transitioned to the construction business which proved lucrative for them. Jeff Corey was also a victim of being named by Lawrence. Corey’s explanation of his life as a Communist seems to make the most sense and shines a telling light on the whole Red Scare in Hollywood. Corey refused to name names before the Committee and scoffed at the whole scenario. Later he explained that many of his colleagues in Hollywood – himself included – had been allied with Communist entities in the past. But that particular political point of view meant little to most by the early 1950’s. What rankled was that those brought before the committee were expected to feed the beast; name names so that Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his cronies at HUAC could continue issuing subpoenas and justifying their existence. For Corey to defend a viewpoint he no longer felt anything for seemed silly; “did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career or not?”. Corey chose not to give them their names and was blacklisted for 12 years. I have read that, as late as 2001, Corey expressed contempt for Lawrence, whom he never forgave. Corey became an acting teacher and coach of some note claiming among his pupils the likes of James Dean, Anthony Perkins, James Coburn, Jane Fonda, Bruce Lee, Jack Nicholson, Sharon Tate, Rita Moreno, Leonard Nimoy, Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams. He was also in Bird on a Wire (1990), one of my more hidden favourites.
So, what do we make of all this “naming names”? I remember years ago when the Academy Awards honoured the great filmmaker Elia Kazan, who had named names in 1952. I recall watching as half the audience stood and applauded him while half did not. Some of the actors who clapped for Kazan later said they were doing it in appreciation of his craft and setting aside what they may have felt about him personally and forgetting, for the length of an ovation, their opinions of his actions before the committee. This is a discussion for another post – a post I am one of the least equipped people to write – but I heard someone on the news recently wonder aloud if we should discount the accomplishments of someone because of the worst thing they’ve ever done. The strain of testifying caused great mental distress to Lawrence, resulting in a brief stay in a sanitarium. Late in his life, he said that his testifying before the Committee “was death” and it still bothered him. “I’m not free from it. I spoke against my own conscience”.
One of the many sad things about the Red Scare was that those who played ball, cooperated and “named names” were ostracized by their peers and driven out of Hollywood. Lawrence left (“fled”, Stander said) the U.S. and settled in Italy. Lawrence took with him his screenwriter wife, the Odessa-born Fanya Foss, and their two children. Lawrence found work in Italian cinema making many films into the 1970’s. While working in Europe, he appeared on the stage in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge earning a perhaps surprising rave review: “The most intensely electrifying performance the English stage had seen for some time”.
Marc Lawrence did find some work in the States during this period, albeit behind the camera. Lee Marvin suggested to Marc that he try his hand at directing an episode of the show Marvin was starring in at the time, M Squad. Two episodes of that show lead to Lawrence getting directing work on other shows like 77 Sunset Strip and Maverick. Lawrence eventually got his chance to direct a feature film in 1965 with Nightmare in the Sun, made for the minuscule “studio” Afilmco Productions. Lawrence came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Fanya. The film was financed in part by the wealthy DuPont family and many of the cast members agreed to appear for less than their usual fees as a favour to Lawrence. Starring in the film were Ursula Andress, Aldo Ray, John Derek, Arthur O’Connell, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Duvall, Richard Jaeckel and Keenan Wynn – an impressive cast for a first time director. Financing for the film hit some snags, there was a haggle over a rape scene that contained nudity and DuPont wanted filming to be controlled by astrology. All this condemned the project to doom. Oh, but that’s not the only film Lawrence directed. Oh, no.
His second and last feature was called Daddy’s Deadly Darling. Or Pigs. Actually – and this is a sure sign that a movie has had distribution issues – the film bore many names. They are too good not to share: The 13th Pig, Horror Farm, Daddy’s Girl, The Strange Exorcism of Lynn Hart, The Strange Love Exorcist and Roadside Torture Chamber. OK, follow this synopsis now: Marc’s daughter, Toni Lawrence, plays Lynn Hart. Lynn has suffered the trauma of an abusive father and ends up in a mental hospital. She escapes and is taken in by Zambrini, played by Marc. Zambrini runs a diner, next door to which is his pen loaded with pigs that eat human flesh. Poor Lynn starts killing men who remind her of her father and Zambrini disposes of the bodies by feeding them to the pigs. Yes, this is considered a “motion picture”, just like Citizen Kane is. This film was made by Troma Entertainment, a Corman-like B-movie company that continues to this day to make “shock exploitation films”. Interestingly, many legitimate artists appeared in or worked on Troma films early in their careers, including Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Costner, J.J. Abrams, Samuel L. Jackson, Oliver Stone and Vanna White! It thrills me to report that, when Daddy’s’ Deadly Darling premiered in Detroit in 1973, the distributor offered free bacon as part of the promotion.
Marc Lawrence returned to Hollywood as an actor with something of a splash. In 1965, he managed to land a role in the neo-noir crime film Johnny Cool. Directed by William Asher (many Beach Party movies, TV’s I Love Lucy, Gidget and Bewitched) and co-produced by Peter Lawford, the film boasted an impressive cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery (Mrs. Willam Asher at the time), Jim Backus, Joey Bishop, Brad Dexter, Telly Savalas and Sammy Davis, Jr. He notably appeared as a gangster in two James Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With the Golden Gun. He later appeared in Marathon Man, The Big Easy, Ruby, Four Rooms, From Dusk Till Dawn and his last role was as an Acme Corporation vice president in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
As stated earlier, Lawrence was married to screenwriter Fanya Foss for 53 years until she passed away in 1995. The couple had two children, one of which is the aforementioned Toni who was briefly married to Billy Bob Thornton. Lawrence remarried at age 93. The union lasted until his death in Palm Springs in 2005. He was 95.
Marc Lawrence started in films at age 22 in 1932. He made movies with just about every notable actor of the golden era. In a career spanning 71 years, ending in 2003, he appeared in 172 films. Yet, at the Academy Awards ceremony that followed his death, he was notably absent from the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscars telecast. Now, this in itself does not negate his film career but it does speak to how Hollywood continues to look at those who were unwittingly caught up in the witch hunt that was McCarthyism. Which is a shame. Nevertheless, Marc Lawrence made a unique contribution to the movie industry and for that he deserves to be remembered.