Monday, March 16, 2020

Strother Martin - character actor - by Kaye Spencer #westernfictioneers #hollywood #westernmovies

This month I’m remembering Strother Martin (March 26, 1919 - August 1, 1980).

He was an actor who, no matter how small his role, always made me shiver and cringe when he played the villain’s minion or made me laugh out loud at his antics when he portrayed a character in a more lighthearted, comedic role. He had such animation in his facial expressions and his manner. His sniveling laughter and whiny voice were so distinctive.

He was one of those actors that you may not have known his name, but you remembered seeing him in other movies and television shows, and you came to expect certain qualities in his characters.

He is probably best remembered for his role as the prison captain in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman for saying these words, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This line is No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Movie Quotes.

It was this role in Cool Hand Luke that opened Hollywood doors for him, and he became one of the busiest and sought after character actors of the time. At the peak of his career, he died of a heart attack.

Martin was born in Indiana, moved to San Antonio for a bit, and served in the U.S. Navy during WWI as a swimming instructor. He aspired to compete in the diving competition in the 1948 Olympics, but finished third in local competition. He was nicknamed T-Bone for his particular diving style.

After his tour of duty, he moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a swimming instructor and swimming extra in films. These small parts gained him bigger parts in character roles throughout the 1950s, particularly in westerns. He had roles in Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, The Rebel, Stoney Burke, and Have Gun – Will Travel to name a few.

His voice has been described as ‘a distinctive, reedy voice’, and his acting persona as a menacing demeanor, which served him well for gaining roles in western movies such as The Wild Bunch, The Horse Soldiers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He had a comedic role in McLintock! and he was also in the original True Grit.

Strother Martin (left) - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Strother Martin - McLintock!
It was said that his trademark was playing grimy and unlikeable, low-life crazy villains, which was in total contrast to his real life, which was a gardener and classical music aficionado.

Martin also performed in Arthur Kennedy’s Stage Society with Gary Cooper, Tony Curtis, Anthony Quinn, Patricia Neal, Henry Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss. He was known for his Tennessee Williams impersonation. He has an impressive filmography, but so many of his roles were uncredited.

Three days before his death, he said, “No man can achieve immortality. We don’t live for what comes after we are dead, but for what we can achieve in this life – the only chance we have.”

Here is a short 1985 skit with Steve Martin and Strother Martin. The video quality isn’t great, but it’s classic goofy Steve Martin and Strother Martin adds to the silliness. It’s called “The Turtle Bronc Rider”.

 Until next time,
Kaye Spencer

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Image from McLintock!:
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*Western Clippings website:


  1. A lesson for us authors - a dastardly villain, or a doofuss character adds counterpoint to our stories, and these characters are memorable.
    Thanks for reminding us of great character actors.

    1. Absolutely! Stories must have a variety of personalities and characters to make it interesting.

  2. He was a wonderful and unique character actor. I always remember him in Butch and Sundance. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Doris

    1. Doris,

      He was an actor you remembered by sight and not necessarily by name. For the longest time, I confused him with the actor who played Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. lol

  3. I always enjoyed watching his performances, Kaye. Thanks

    1. He was a goofy character, all right. Always gave a memorable performance.