Marc Lawrence

Actor whose thriving career as a screen heavy was brought to a halt by the Hollywood blacklist


Max Goldsmith (Marc Lawrence), actor: born New York 17 February 1910; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Palm Springs, California 27 November 2005.

Marc Lawrence was one of Hollywood's most distinctive character actors, whose features, which he himself described as "pock-marked and oily-skinned", lent themselves particularly well to roles of menace such as mafia hoods and ruthless gangsters. His thriving Hollywood career as a screen heavy (over 100 movies between 1932 and 1951) ended abruptly when he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to explain his involvement with the Communist Party.

Although he named other party members, he found himself blacklisted and he moved to Europe, acting and directing in Italy and giving a much lauded performance in 1959 on the English stage in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Later he was to direct and act in many television shows, including several that demonstrated a flair for comedy that had seldom been allowed to surface during his earlier days.

Born Max Goldsmith in the Bronx, New York in 1910, he had a Russian father and Polish mother. He attended James Monroe High School with plans to be a doctor, but his uncle, Jechial Goldsmith, a star of the Yiddish theatre, encouraged him to abandon medicine for the theatre. While studying literature at the City College of New York he appeared in off-Broadway plays. He left college when he was accepted (along with another newcomer, John Garfield) as an apprentice with Eva Le Gallienne's famed repertory company.

When Le Gallienne's troupe was disbanded in 1932, he went to Los Angeles, where he was given small parts in movies. With the name Marc Lawrence, he made his screen début (uncredited) as Gene Raymond's cell mate in If I Had a Million (1932), followed by White Woman and Gambling Ship (both 1933), soon establishing a reputation for portraying villains, and in 1936 he was given a contract by the Columbia boss Harry Cohn. "I think Harry liked me because he loved gangsters," Lawrence said.

His Columbia movies included Final Hour (1936) and three films featuring early performances by Rita Hayworth, Criminals of the Air, The Shadow (both 1937) and Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938). Lawrence later claimed that he had had a brief affair with Hayworth. "She was a sweet girl," he recalled, "very simple-minded." On loan to Warners, he worked with Humphrey Bogart in San Quentin (1938): "I loved Bogey. He was a sweet guy, a very real person."

Lawrence also, like his friend Garfield, appeared in Group Theatre productions, including Waiting for Lefty (1935), and in 1939 he won acclaim from Los Angeles critics for his performance on stage in Golden Boy, as Fuselli, the homosexual gangster. He was memorable on screen as a menace to Tyrone Power in Johnny Apollo (1940), then gave one of his finest performances as John Wayne's mute brother in the rustic drama Shepherd of the Hills (1941), despite the director Henry Hathaway's initial misgivings. "How can a Jew play a hill-billy?" Hathaway complained. Lawrence said, "It was the first picture I made where people said, 'Isn't his performance touching?' "

Other notable films included This Gun For Hire (1942), as Laird Cregar's chauffeur, advising his employer how to dispose of an unwanted girlfriend, Veronica Lake, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Dillinger (1945), and the Bob Hope comedy The Princess and the Pirate (1944), as a convincing cut-throat.

Exempted from military service because of a bad heart, Lawrence toured with the USO during the Second World War. Later he made a strong impression in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (1947), in which he had a particularly brutal fight with hero Gary Cooper.

Other roles were in two films directed by John Huston, Key Largo (1949), as Edward G. Robinson's fellow mobster, Ziggy, and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), as the nervous thief, "Cobby" - when Sterling Hayden notices him perspiring as he counts out bills, he explains, "I always sweat when I handle money."

Lawrence was filming My Favourite Spy (1951) with Bob Hope when he was summoned by HUAC, the strain causing a mental collapse and a spell in a sanatorium before he testified that he had made an "unholy mistake" by twice being a member of the Communist Party. He also named the actors Lionel Stander, Sterling Hayden, Anne Revere, Larry Parks and Karen Morley. Later, explaining that when he joined the party they were doing "great things like fighting the Nazis", he stated,

I was a victim. It was the beginning of the end of my career. Being a guy who played nasty guys, I became a symbol of a nasty guy. Making that appearance before the committee was death.

He moved to Italy, where he made 20 films, including Helen of Troy (1956, as Diomedes), and Due Mafiosi contro Al Capone ("Two Against Al Capone", 1966). In 1959 he made his début on the English stage, where his performance in Liverpool as the longshoreman Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge earned extravagant praise.

In 1960 he returned to the United States, where at the suggestion of Lee Marvin he directed an episode of the television series M Squad. In 1963 he produced, co-wrote and directed his first feature film, Nightmare in the Sun, starring Ursula Andress and John Derek.

He made several more films in Italy before settling back in Los Angeles in the Seventies, appearing in such films as Diamonds are Forever (1971), as one of the three black-suited henchmen who throw Plenty O'Toole from a high hotel window into a pool, his character drily commenting, "I didn't know there was a pool down there." Other films included Marathon Man (1976), Hot Stuff (1980), and The Big Easy (1987). His last screen role was as Cousin Nolan in The Shipping News (2001).

He recently said of his 1951 testimony and naming of party members, "It bothers me, of course, it bothers me. I'm not free from it . . . I spoke against my own conscience."

Tom Vallance

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