Last Month’s Birthday: Strother Martin

Strother Martin had small roles, but they were memorable...

Strother Martin. You may not know the name, but you certainly know the line:

What we have here is… failure to communicate.

Now think about the fact that Strother–cool name, that–made a very memorable name for himself in the tiniest of roles. He hardly gets any screen time, but let me tell you I love watching Strother Martin. That weary face, screwed up, blinking, the face of a good guy or bad, taking a deep breath and speaking in that memorable Indiana accent. That’s why when I realized I missed his birthday at the end of March, I couldn’t wait until next year. So we celebrate now.

You can take Mr. Paul Newman, with whom he never shared star billing (but they probably ate from the same buffet). Strother Martin? He’s priceless.

The man’s career saw him in small, often uncredited roles in some of the greatest films of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Asphalt Jungle, The Big Knife, lots and lots of TV (including The Twilight Zone), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (and here we start to see that intriguing name in the credits), creepy as a new age priest with something to hide in Harper, the Captain in Cool Hand Luke (the one that made his career… well, as much of a career as he end up with, anyway), great as the beleaguered horse trader in the original True Grit, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy (though I can’t stand that movie, the scenes of Strother riding that fat mule–hilarious!), with Peckinpah again in the underheralded Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Slap Shot.

He’s no Elisha Cook, Jr., no John Cazale, but Martin’s was a small, subtle career that people remember thanks to a few key roles in films that, if not major works, are iconic, like Cool Hand Luke. David Thomson gives him nothing in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (where both Cook and Thelma Ritter and Cazale get generous entries), Quinlan’s Character Actors merely mentions his great name and his credits, and that’s about it. Wikipedia, woeful Wikipedia, is what we’ve got.

Let’s see: born in Kokomo, Indiana, a terrific swimmer and diver, went off to fight and then sought his fortune, as many young men did, in Hollywood. And he found it: teaching swimming and acting as an underwater extra in the movies. No doubt that’s Strother in war movies and b-grade horror, diving underwater in battle scenes, fighting undersea monsters in a diving rig. You know the stuff.

TV kept him fed for the longest time, and if you’re into those old westerns the networks pumped out like fig Newtons, well, I guess you’ll see plenty of Strother. Those roles grew into decent parts, though I’ll break with Wikipedia when they suggest he often got top billing. You can look it up: he was never a star.

I get the feeling he was OK with that. The roles grew weirder as the 70s grew weirder. There he is, raging as the owner of lousy hockey club in Slap Shot. And there, there’s Strother, uh, playing Tommy Chong’s father in Up in Smoke. Yeah, that one’s truly bizarre.

Then again, the dude was popular enough to warrant hosting a Saturday Night Live show in 1980. Apparently, there’s a skit where he played a dying man who records a last will and testament on videotape. The skit was pulled in a late summer rerun since Strother really died that August. NBC’s lawyers have kept that precious and highly sought-after video away from the stealing masses, so I don’t have it here.

Strother Martin was married in 1967 and remained true to his gal until his death. From Indiana’s swimming pools to the hot sun of Death Valley with Sam Peckinpah needling you, from a TV show a day to standing over a beaten Paul Newman muttering breathlessly that immortal line. The man worked with Newman and Wayne six times, each, often at the request of the star. I’m no star, but I make that same request often enough myself when I pop in Cool Hand Luke and skip ahead to Strother Martin looking on in disbelief at the handsome rebel who just won’t communicate. And raise my glass of beer in honor of the man from Kokomo.

Strother Martin was born on March 26, 1919 and died August 1, 1980 of a heart attack.

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