Morons I’ve Got Morons On My Team (Strother Martin)

Strother Martin was a noted character actor in, mainly, the Western movies. A former National Junior Springboard Diving champion he moved to La-La Land to work as a swimming extra in films’ water scenes…apparently that’s a real job ! It was not all rooting & tooting but most of the work Strother obtained in films & television did involve wearing a gunbelt & a hat. A distinctive sneer, an air of general malevolence, meant that the hat was usually a black one. He became one of a small group of actors who added value with any performance, recognisable to both audiences & casting directors. In 1967 he delivered, according to the American Film Institute, the 11th most memorable line of the cinematic century & it was not “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”.

In “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) Strother plays Captain, the sadistic warden of a Florida prison where war veteran Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to 2 years on a chain gang for the imaginative crime of cutting the heads off parking meters. Luke’s travails have parallels to McMurphy in “…Cuckoo’s Nest” It is an anti-authoritarian, modern, masculine movie which, together with “Hombre”, marked Newman’s move from fine actor to film star. There is an amount of religious imagery in the film… whatever…it’s a cracking film with memorable set pieces (egg eating, car washing, communication breakdowns ), Strother Martin keeping a cold, cruel eye on a bunch of cons which includes the talents of Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton. Pa Walton & Oscar winner George “Dragline” Kennedy.

After a “failure to communicate” Strother Martin’s star was rising. In 1969 he appeared in all 3 of the year’s major Westerns. The top-grossing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” was another Paul Newman joint, they made 5 films together. He was becoming a regular in John Wayne’s movies too. “True Grit” was the 4th time Martin had worked with Duke. He was also a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (above ) & was retained for the director’s next western romp “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”.

Strother was perfectly cast as part of the  “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash” pictured. It was as a member of a gang that he had first shown out in the big films. In John Ford’s marvellous “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) our man Martin, along with Lee van Cleef, were the sycophantic sidekicks of my man Lee Marvin (Liberty), hired gun, all-round rotter & the scourge of Shinbone. In “Hannie Caulder” (1971), a Western vehicle for the pneumatic but limited Raquel Welch, the Clemens Brothers, a trio of inept, despicable, probably malodorous outlaws, are played with such relish by Strother, Ernest Borgnine & Jack Elam that they steal the movie more effectively than they rob banks.

It wasn’t all lollygaggin’ around various saloons though.

“Slap Shot” (1977) is some kind of movie. Paul Newman & director George Roy Hill had collaborated on 2 super successful box-office smashes. Their story of the Charlestown Chiefs a losing ice hockey team in a threatened industrial town crams a lot into its 2 hours. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is similarly facing an uncertain future in approaching retirement. The introduction of new tactics, “old time hockey”,  a bit of the old ultra-violence, revives the teams fortunes. “Slap Shot” adroitly combines broad, coarse comedy with a dark realism (better than “Dodgeball” then). Strother plays the tightwad, conniving General Manager, Joe McGuire, with his customary perfectly pitched exuberance. Most of the cast help the film along.

“Slap Shot” was not a big success on it’s release. The biggest movie star around was effin’ & jeffin’ a little too much for the mass market. There is a list of good 1970s sports comedies & this, with “North Dallas Forty” is at the head of it (“Bad News Bears”…anyone ?). They are all better than anything starring Adam Sandler. Strother more than does his bit to make the film a success…Oh yeah…then there’s the Hanson Brothers !

Hey…if marijuana doesn’t damage your brain then how come so many people find Cheech & Chong funny ? These fabulous furry freaky guys were a very big deal in the 1970s. Their records were in the Top 10 & “Up In Smoke” (1978), the original, possibly the best stoner movie was a great success too. It is the cinematic link between Abbott & Costello &  “Wayne’s  World” (don’t mention Harold or Kumar). Like the other contender for the title, “The Big Lebowski” the movie is a bunch of quotable scenes, all equally hilarious when randomly shared with your relaxed friends. Strother Martin is Tommy Chong’s irascible father, an absolute humdinger. A shout out to a great friend, Bernie, who chose to celebrate the night before his marriage in the company of his buddies, his collection of Cheech & Chong videos & his bong. What a guy !

It’s no surprise that “Up In Smoke” makes it as the 3rd clip. C’mon it’s a classic ! There are other candidates for inclusion because Strother Martin was busy throughout the 1970s. His spark & ebullience brought something memorable to all of his scenes. In “Pocket Money” (1972) a dream team of Newman & Lee Marvin work for Strother’s sleazy rodeo agent. “Hard Times” (1975) is a macho treat in which he plays an opium addicted doctor, third wheel to Charles Bronson & James Coburn. The co-stars were not always such big names, the scripts not that great but Strother Martin was always noteworthy. You know him…the “failure to communicate” guy…mmm…the “goddamn Finkelstein shit kid” cat…oh yeah…he’s great.

By 1980 Strother had cardiac problems & unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack in the August of that year. One of his final jobs was to host US TV’s biggest comedy show “Saturday Night Live”. You don’t get that gig unless people know who you are. In a sketch he played  the strict owner of a French Language camp for children. The problem was…a failure to communicate…bi-lingually ! Strother Martin…a dude.