How We Met: John Boorman And Pamela Marvin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
British film director John Boorman, 65, gained worldwide recognition in 1967 for 'Point Blank', a stylish thriller starring American icon Lee Marvin. Many acclaimed movies followed, among them 'Hell in the Pacific', 'Deliverance', 'Hope and Glory' and 'The General' - which won him Best Director at this year's Cannes film festival. He has just completed a documentary on the life and work of Lee Marvin. Pamela Marvin, 68, worked as a radio producer in the 1960s, and was divorced three times before she married Lee Marvin, her childhood sweetheart, in 1970. They remained together until his death in 1987, after which she wrote the affectionate memoir 'Lee: A Romance'. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona and Woodstock, New York

JOHN BOORMAN: I was flying to Los Angeles from London, leafing through a copy of Time magazine, and came across a little piece that said Lee Marvin had married his childhood sweetheart. And so I turned up at their beach house in Malibu. I walked in and Lee said: "Do you realise I'm on my honeymoon? What the hell are you doing here?" I said: "I've come to find what all this is about." Then I learnt that Lee and Pam had first met in their home town of Woodstock, New York, when she was 15 and he'd just come back from the war.

I thought right away that she was a very warm and giving person. She had this prettiness, a girlish quality which was remarkable considering she was already a grandmother at this point. Then I got to know her family - she already had four children, and Lee had four kids as well. I know that at one point they were buying cars for all these kids and got fleet insurance because there were so many.

I think that marrying Pam was a kind of homecoming for Lee. There was a wonderful ease between them. He'd changed so much since the time I was making pictures with him, when he was living with a woman named Michelle Triola. She was like a gangster's moll - an awful person - and Lee took a long time to escape from her coils. So Pam's arrival was a great relief. Pam was so warm and motherly, and adored Lee. She gave Lee a sense of home, a place where he could be himself. He became much more relaxed, much funnier. In a sense, one of the reasons why he ran off and married Pam was to escape Michelle, who was treacherous and wanted to exert control over him. She tried to poison a lot of his relationships. She told him lies about me, and told my wife that I'd been asking Lee for drugs. She caused a lot of damage, and dragged Lee through the courts to get money out of him.

I was quite an important witness at this "palimony" trial (the first of its kind), which was a very difficult time for Lee and Pam. Michelle Triola's case was that Lee was such a drunk that he couldn't do his work without her ministrations, and that therefore she'd performed the functions of a wife for him. Of course, I was able to testify that she was never around. When Pam was writing her book, she sent me the transcript of the trial, which was just fascinating. I think by including the material in her book Pam has got her revenge on Michelle Triola.

Pam is a wonderful letter-writer, and she always wrote wonderfully vivid letters to me while she was travelling with Lee. That was what cemented our relationship. Pam would always talk to me about problems she was having. Lee had a terrible agent, and Pam and I plotted quite a bit about Lee's career, trying to take care of it. He was very exposed in some ways. His drinking crippled him, but Pam knew how to handle it. She's a very diplomatic person, and she needed to be, being with Lee. He could be quite cruel.

When Lee died Pam was terribly heartbroken. I encouraged her to write a memoir about his life. And I said to her at the time that if she did this, then I'd make a documentary to support it. Ten years writing the book was a way of keeping him alive. When she finished it, I think it was quite traumatic for her.

But Pam's a person of great insight. She's encountered enormous problems in her life, and she's got great resilience. And her rather shy manner is quite misleading - she's very strong, very intelligent. And yet she's self-effacing, especially with men. She's been married several times, and I know nothing about those early marriages. She never really speaks about them. You feel that she's almost demeaned herself in front of men; concealed her intelligence and not expressed it. Perhaps she felt that men didn't like that. But there is a genuine shyness there, too.

I think I've been a loyal friend to her. She knows that she can rely on me if she's really in need of anything. I think Pam sees me as a link to Lee's work. She knows how fond I was of him. For her, I think I've become one of the keepers of the flame.

PAMELA MARVIN: It was in Lee's beach house in Malibu that I first met John. Lee and I were married on 18 October 1970, so by then it must have been November. Lee wouldn't let anyone come and visit, but the first person he allowed in the house after we were married was John Boorman. John had called Lee, and said he was coming over with the script of Deliverance, which he wanted Lee to do. Lee said: "You'll love this man, he's really a great friend." He came in and I felt this great warmth and super-intelligence. I remember his wonderful countenance, with those piercing blue eyes.

John gave Lee the script, and over the next few months he would visit us to discuss it. He brought Marlon Brando over, who was also very interested in being in the movie. Eventually they didn't do it, mainly because Lee's agent was anxious for him to do another movie, Prime Cut, but also because he and Marlon thought they might be too old for the parts. But, of course, John asked Lee and I to come to the premiere in Los Angeles, and we both thought the movie was wonderful. And John and the guys whom he eventually cast in the film - Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds - all lined up in front of Lee to hear what he thought of it.

We visited John and his family in Ireland every time we went anywhere near Europe, usually when we were just starting or finishing a movie. We'd spend lots of time together as a pair of families, and our kids all got on so well together. And of course they would visit us in Tucson, too. John and I are both very fond of children - apart from our love for Lee, I think that's the main thing we've got in common. He's one of the finest fathers I've ever witnessed.

It was John who suggested that I bury Lee in Arlington National Cemetery, which hadn't really occurred to me. Well, nothing really occurred to me when Lee died, I was so shocked. Some people just get on with it, but I guess I was pretty floored. John made his suggestion, and I thought, "Of course!" Lee was a Marine, he was wounded during the war, he had every right to be there.

After the funeral, John would come and visit, to see how I was making out. He took me and the children for our first dinner out after Lee died. It doesn't sound like much, but it was enormously important. Then some time later he suggested that I write my book. It took me about 10 years to write it, and John acted as my editor on it, really. So he's not only been a tremendously loyal, dear, close friend, but he's been a mentor to me.

When I was writing, I sent the entire transcript of the "palimony" trial overnight by FedEx to Los Angeles, where John was spending a couple of days working on a movie. It was thousands of pages. He read everything and made comments. Of course, John had been an important witness in the trial. Michelle Triola claimed that she had been a great help to Lee's career during the time in which he had been working with John on Hell In the Pacific. But John very efficiently proved that not only was she not a help, but that she was a terrible detriment to Lee's career. It wasn't a pleasant experience. Every day we had to hear these outrageous accusations, and then see them blasted all over the newspapers and television.

Whenever things have been difficult, John has been there. You can count on him in a crisis. When Lee was playing Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, he more or less turned into the character. I was very upset, I didn't realise what was happening - Lee was so dark and terrible and cold. He and I were visiting John and his family in Ireland and I just broke down in front of John and told him all about it. Talking to him really put things in perspective. He's extremely down to earth, with none of this Hollywood bullshit or the Beverly Hills business talk. He's just won the director's award at Cannes, he's tremendously busy and he seems to know everyone in the world, but he never appears overstressed - he can be in the middle of making a film and he still finds time to cook you a lovely dinner.

I think that John and I have become Lee's custodians. We both loved him very much, and that's a huge bond. And then John and his wife Isabella named their baby boy Lee. John called me from the hospital and said: "The baby's just been born, and his name is Lee." It was wonderful. Oh my goodness, it was wonderful.

'Point Blank' (15) has been re-released and is showing nationwide. Pamela Marvin's 'Lee: A Romance' (Faber, pounds 8.99) is out now.