From Heavies to Heroes
Interviews with Classic Stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Ever since Humphrey Bogart went from being a gangster-type heavy in the 1930s to being a tough guy anti-hero in the 1940s, actors have been able to argue that glamour boy looks aren’t necessary to being a movie leading man and playing a bad guy doesn’t always have to get you stuck in a nasty career rut.
Consider the record of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, two famous actors who went from ultra-mean villains to Oscar-winning leading men, or Jack Elam and Victor Buono, who managed to turn their villainous screen images around and re-shape them with comic results.
In our book You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews with Stars from Hollywood’s Golden Era, all four actors explain how they re-shaped their screen images and felt much better about it afterward.
Ernest Borgnine, for instance, was a nasty character in almost all his early screen appearances, most especially when he threatened Montgomery Clift with a knife and brutally murdered Frank Sinatra while playing “Fatso” Judson, the arch villain of From Here To Eternity (1953). If that wasn’t bad enough, he came back the following year to torment Spencer Tracy, who was playing a one-armed man, in Bad Day at Black Rock,
Even if Bornine secretly longed for leading man roles, he didn’t mind the way movie fans reacted to him in those days.
“People used to come up to me and say, ‘Oooh, how I hated you in that last picture” Borgnine said. “I felt honored because that’s exactly what they were supposed to think. At night, I’ll go home and say to my wife, ‘Honey, am I really that bad?’”
Things changed dramatically for Borgnine in 1955 when he landed the title role of the shy butcher in Marty, which turned out to be the Oscar-winning Best Picture that year and earned him the Best Actor Academy Award. Though Marty was a homely, overweight fellow whose luck with women was nil, he was a decent, loving man and movie fans loved him.
“It broke a mold that was long in the making,” Borgnine said. “Many character actors thanked me for breaking out of type and showing that actors like me could portray a number of things—not just villains.”
That’s when Borgnine realized he felt much better about being likeable on screen. Once he took the role of Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale in the TV comedy series McHale’s Navy, Borgnine’s conversion to a good guy was complete.
In retrospect, Borgnine felt much better about his career once movie-goers realized he was a competent character actor and not just a mean-spirited person.
“It hurts me when people describe me as a big burly brute with tremendous huge hands. I may be big. I may be burly, but I’m not a brute. I’m probably more sensitive than the ordinary person. I know how to sew. I know how to cook. I love beautiful things like ceramic pottery, antiques, good music, and sunsets. Does that sound like a brute, that I should be called a meanie?”
Lee Marvin had a similar rise in movies as unsavory villains in westerns and crime stories like The Big Heat (1952) in which he threw hot coffee into the face of Gloria Grahame, scarring her permanently. Though he had played a hard-edged cop in the TV series M Squad, it only enhanced his image as a tough guy who liked to beat up on people.
Marvin made his movie debut in the war movie You’re in the Navy Now (1951) alongside another young actor who also lacked matinee idol looks — Charles Bronson, who like Marvin would work his way into leading roles after years of screen villainy.
“When Charlie and I made our first picture…, we looked at each other and knew: here are two guys who have to be heavies. I mean, we couldn’t wear an Arrow shirt in a magazine ad, right? They were still doing Tyrone Power and John Payne films then.”
Marvin believed World War II helped change Hollywood’s attitude about what heroes really looked like.
“Too many guys came home from the war and told their friends and families what it was really like, that all heroes weren’t good looking,” Marvin said. “Anyway, I didn’t have any idea about being a leading man. I was just going along with getting a job and keeping it. The bad guys were the more interesting parts anyway.”
Everything changed for Lee Marvin after he played the dual role of a much-feared gunfighter and his drunken adversary in Cat Ballou (1965). It proved he was a character actor with considerable range and it led to many roles as heroes, most notably as the leader of a bunch of heroic rogues in The Dirty Dozen (1967).
Marvin believed the change in his career was rooted in a major change in our society that governed the way we perceive heroism.
“In love stories, both the boy and girl would have to live happily ever after in the old days,” Marvin explained. “We did all that in the 1920s and 1930s. The real facts of life are much more evident to kids today.”
An entirely different kind of change came over the career of actor Jack Elam, whose original career was as an accountant for movie companies. A decline in his vision prompted him to follow his doctor’s orders and change his line of work. He chose acting, even though he was an unpleasant-looking guy with a shifty eye and unhandsome features. He made a deal with a film producer to do his taxes for him in return for a villain role in a western he was preparing.
“I’d been on the sets of movies like that for so long that the idea of going in front of the camera didn’t intimidate me,” said Elam. “Anyway, I think acting is nothing more than not being nervous while you’re working. I figured I could look mean and ugly on camera because I looked mean and ugly off camera.”
Elam was an immediate success and landed many small roles in westerns and crime pictures of the early 1950s where his sinister looks made him an ideal heavy. He especially remembered his villainy in the 1951 western Rawhide where he shot at a baby and tried to rape Susan Hayward.
His villainy went on for decades in both movies and television series, but Elam believes the natural aging process began to bring different kinds of roles to him — sometimes even more comic than they were villainous.
“It’s just the natural osmosis of getting old,” said Elam. “I don’t know that I have that much choice. And I’m not so sure I haven’t done some of those psychotic heavies in a way that turned out to be comedy when I got through with them.”
Elam’s career ultimately had him playing major roles in TV situation comedies like CBS’ Struck by Lightning and NBC’s Easy Street. He remembered three-time Oscar winning character actor Walter Brennan actually predicting that turn in Elam’s career when they worked together in Support Your Local Sheriff. By then, Brennan was mainly playing comic old guys.
“One day he took me aside and said, ‘I’m getting old. One of these days I’m gonna kick off and you’re going to start working steady.’”
For actor Victor Buono, the dye for his career was cast once he was cast in a supporting role in the thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? A large man of nearly 300 pounds, he was never offered hero roles in movies or TV shows.
“If you weigh more than 280 pounds, you better get out the black hat and forget about getting the girl at the end of the picture,” Buono explained. “I’ve been shot, stabbed, run over, and been pushed off of, out of, under, and over more things than you can imagine. I never get the girl. In fact, I’m not even allowed to have a friend.”
Buono didn’t worry too much about that, though he did try to diet every once in a while in hopes of losing his extra-heavy look. His efforts were genuinely fruitless.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to lose weight in order to change the direction of my career,” Buono said. “But I always give up and shoot back up to 350 pounds or so. My tailors don’t measure me, they survey me.“
But Buono managed to add a special distinction to his work by doing everything he could to bring his own native sense of humor to his screen characters. Even when playing an arch villain like Mr. Schubert on TV’s 1977 TV series The Man From Atlantis, Buono did it with tongue in cheek.
As a result, Buono kept busy playing such comic-tinged villain roles and was in great demand as a late night talk show guest because of his easy-going persona and self-deprecatory humor.
“What else can I do but joke about it all the time?” Buono said when asked to sum up the direction of his acting career.
–James Bawden and Ron Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Retired journalists James Bawden and Ron Miller are the authors of You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, and Conversations with Classic Film Stars, two astonishing collections of rare interviews with the greatest celebrities of Hollywood’s golden age. Conducted over the course of more than fifty years, they recount intimate conversations with some of the most famous leading men and women of the era, including Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant, Gloria Swanson, Joan Fontaine, Loretta Young, Kirk Douglas, and many more.
You can purchase the books on amazon by clicking here: