August 3rd, 2014:

STROTHER MARTIN, A PREMIUM CHARACTER ACTOR

In memory of character actor Strother Martin, who died on August 1, 1980 and was an acquaintance of mine, I’m resurrecting one of my previous blogs. Besides, I’m editing a biography written by Madelyn Roberts, which consists of many interviews with those who knew him (relatives and people in the film industry) : Strother Martin, A Hero’s Journey Fulfilled.

Strother and his wife Helen had lived in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years. I got to know them because they were active in the community, and  I was the editor of the local newspaper and attended the weekly chamber of commerce meetings.

Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE

Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE

Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with preserving and conserving the cherished Santa Monica Mountains—the western boundary of the Conejo Valley. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s first political job was his election to the Board of the TLVRCD: he was recruited to run because he had a ranch in the area in the 1950s . If you know American history, you’ll remember what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. I will never forget his famous words as the prison camp superintendent of “prisoner” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He and Newman did several movies together—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slapshot among them.
Considering himself a participating member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. He read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was always looking for news and interviews and in early 1980 decided to do an interview with the fascinating Strother, especially since he had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film, which I still have, and then mentioned he was due to host Saturday Night Live on NBC. It was April 1980 and it was one of his last jobs.

Not long after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed the members of the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans, and we were all invited to attend. The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills, not the one where Michael Jackson was laid to rest. I distinctly remember following Ernest Borgnine’s expensive car into the cemetery. I knew it was him by the personalized license plate.

Sitting in the small chapel, we chamber members were surrounded by some of Hollywood’s elite. Trying not to stare, I noticed Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart, both favorites of mine. Paul Newman, I was told, couldn’t attend but had sent his daughter. It was strange to see the once vital and entertaining Strother in an open casket as we filed by for the obligatory viewing.

After the funeral, a few of us (no one famous) were invited back to the Martin’s house. Helen let us know she was surprised and honored when President Jimmy Carter called personally to give her his condolences.

For a few years afterward I would see Helen Martin, who kept herself busy with the community and the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. One night I was invited to accompany her to a play at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center in downtown L.A. She drove us in her huge yellow Cadillac. At intermission, she introduced me to Strother’s longtime agent, Meyer Mishkin. Mishkin enjoyed telling us that he had recently hosted the wedding of actor Richard Dreyfuss, in the agent’s Beverly Hills home.

In Southern California it can be both odd and exciting to meet and perhaps be a small part of the lives of those you’ve admired on the silver screen.

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