One of my favorite motion picture actors is Strother Martin.
Most people would say, "Who?" to which I would reply, "What we have here is... failure to communicate." He's most famous for that phrase from Cool Hand Luke but I loved him for his brief appearances in many of the great John Wayne westerns of the 1960s & 1970s and for his shining moment as the co-star of a one of the best film comedies of all time, Slap Shot.
Strother Martin wasn't entirely satisfied with his second banana status but he was unequalled in his portrayal of broken down drunks and loudmouthed louts. John Wayne was especially fond of this grizzled character actor, casting him as cantankerous old coots in his later shoot 'em ups from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Rooster Cogburn. He turned up in small roles in all kinds of films like Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke, The Shaggy Dog, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Harper (Paul Newman liked the guy as much as The Duke, they both cast him in 6 films).
Can you imagine having all of those classic films - not to mention the experience of working with those great talents - under your belt?
And then there was television. The first time I saw the irascible actor was on the spectacular second season opener of Lost in Space where he played an old miner who tricked Dr. Smith out of the fuel needed to escape an exploding planet. Watching Martin and Jonathan Harris chew the scenery and spit it out at each other was a delight to behold, it's one of my favorite TV memories of youth.
There was the western themed Twilight Zone episode, 'The Grave', with Lee Van Cleef and Lee Marvin; Martin was also seen on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, The Rockford Files - this guy stayed busy with dozens of TV roles in the '60s and '70s.
Where Strother Martin really displayed his acting chops was as the sleazy manager of the Charlestown Chiefs hockey team in Slap Shot. In fact, the film was almost over before I realized I was watching Strother Martin. His performance was a great deal more nuanced than usual but he still milks every laugh from the delicious lines his character was given.
His last role was as the host of Saturday Night Live in 1980, the year he died. He was 62.
Strother Martin was one of the greatest character actors of all time, a star every bit as big as John Wayne or Paul Newman in that there have been few who have equaled his body of work.