Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke

Movie stars are people too—they live, enjoy some fame and notoriety and eventually die, like we all do!

Character actors, like Strother Martin, are oftentimes the more approachable kind of person in the movie trade. He and his wife Helen had lived near where I lived and worked in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years.

Strother and Helen were active in the community. Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with the 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: having a ranch in the area in the 1950s was the reason he got involved. We all know what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. Who can 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 member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. I believe he read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was the editor of the Acorn, a local weekly newspaper, in the early 1980s and had decided to do an interview with Strother. He was an interesting subject, especially since had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film 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.

Shortly after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed their friends in the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans and we were all invited to attend. As the local newspaper editor, I was an active member.

The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills. 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 among some of Hollywood’s elite. 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 former agent, whose name I don’t remember. What I do recall was that the man also represented Richard Dreyfuss, who had gotten married at 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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  3. Shizue Leigh Hicks says:

    I found Strother Martin’s agent on YouTube reminiscing about the actor. This may be the person you met at Mr. Martin’s funeral. From the YT clip’s description:

    “This interview took place on July 29, 2009 with Hollywood agent, child star and author, Steve Stevens. This excerpt relates a humorous anecdote involving one of his clients, veteran character actor, STROTHER MARTIN.

    The YT clip title is POSSUM HOUR – STROTHER MARTIN

    I’m 61 years old and Strother Martin has always been one of my favorite actors — always a welcome sight!

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  6. I am writing a bio on Strother and have been in contact with his family, etc., but having a difficult time developing background info on Helen – there is little or no published info on her background except for receiving a plaque in her honor on Mulholland for her environment preservation activities. Would it be possible to communicate with you about the Martins? It was long time ago and not that many people are left around Agoura and Malibu Lake. Thank you so much for writing this very helpful remembrance of a man whom all have described as being one of the most special individuals they ever met.

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