Actor Marc Lawrence: Prolific Hollywood gangster would become enmeshed in controversy during the HUAC era
Prolific actor Marc Lawrence, among whose credits include Key Largo, Helen of Troy, and Marathon Man, died on Nov. 27 in the desert town of Palm Springs, California, about 160 km east of Los Angeles. Lawrence was 95.
The Brooklyn-born (on Feb. 17, 1910, as Max Goldsmith), rough-looking performer, who once described himself as “pock-marked and oily-skinned,” appeared in more than 170 films from the early 1930s to the beginning of the 21st century, generally cast as vicious outlaws.
Having begun his acting career with Eva Le Gallienne’s repertory company, in 1932 Lawrence moved to Los Angeles, where he landed numerous bit parts in Hollywood movies. Four years later, he became a contract player for $150 a week at Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures.
Marc Lawrence movies & well-reviewed stage gay gangster
Among Marc Lawrence’s dozens of – mostly brief – movie appearances during that period are:
- D. Ross Lederman’s B crime drama The Final Hour (1936), with Lawrence blackmailing reformed gangster John Gallaudet, much to the annoyance of recovering alcoholic attorney Ralph Bellamy.
- Charles C. Coleman’s Criminals of the Air (1937), with Lawrence as one of smuggler Russell Hicks’ henchmen. The Criminals of the Air cast also featured a young Rita Hayworth, with whom Lawrence would later claim he had a brief affair.
- And at Warners, Lloyd Bacon’s prison drama San Quentin (1938), toplining Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart.
Away from the big screen, in 1939 Lawrence earned good notices for his stage portrayal of a gay gangster in Clifford Odets’ boxing melodrama Golden Boy. Joseph Calleia was cast in the role in Columbia’s film version.
World War II & post-war years
Marc Lawrence’s notable films of the 1940s include two directed by Henry Hathaway: the crime drama Johnny Apollo (1940), starring Tyrone Power and Dorothy Lamour; and, with Lawrence cast as a mountaineer, the romantic drama The Shepherd of the Hills (1941), starring John Wayne and Betty Field.
There were also:
- Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), the film that turned Alan Ladd into a star and which had Lawrence portraying another evil henchman – slimy villain Laird Cregar’s chauffeur, getting to knock down sultry heroine Veronica Lake.
- William A. Wellman’s anti-mob-rule Western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), toplining Henry Fonda.
- John Huston’s film noirs Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), both released at a troubled time in Hollywood and elsewhere in the United States.
House Un-American Activities Committee testimony
Marc Lawrence’s Hollywood career came to an abrupt halt in 1951, when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – possibly after being named by frequent John Ford performer Ward Bond – while filming the Bob Hope-Hedy Lamarr comedy My Favorite Spy.
Following a nervous breakdown, Lawrence, a former member of the Communist Party, named names – including those of actors Sterling Hayden (who had starred in The Asphalt Jungle), Best Supporting Actress Academy Award winner Anne Revere (National Velvet, 1945), and Best Actor nominee Larry Parks (The Jolson Story, 1946).
Hayden managed to stay afloat after naming names himself, but both Revere and Parks had their movie careers ruined. Yet despite his cooperation, Lawrence was blacklisted in Hollywood all the same.
“Being a guy who played nasty guys, I became a symbol of a nasty guy,” Lawrence would later say. “Making that appearance before the committee was death.” Referring to those years, Lawrence recently admitted to the Chicago Tribune, “It bothers me, of course … I spoke against my own conscience.”
As a political refugee in Italy, Marc Lawrence acted in numerous films, mostly B pictures, but sometimes in more prestigious productions such as:
- Luigi Comencini’s white slave trade tale, Ship of Condemned Women/ La Tratta delle bianche (1953), starring Eleonora Rossi Drago, Silvana Pampanini, Vittorio Gassman, and Sophia Loren. Sticking to his bad guy movie persona, Lawrence was cast as a crook/pimp.
- Robert Wise’s U.S./Italian epic Helen of Troy (1956), a Warner Bros. release starring Rossana Podesta in the title role and Jacques Sernas as Paris. Lawrence played Diomedes.
Return to the U.S.
Following his return to the United States in the late 1950s, Marc Lawrence began working more often on television, guesting in series such as Playhouse 90, The Untouchables, and Peter Gunn. From then on, he was to be kept busy on TV, being seen as recently as the late 1990s in the sci-fi/adventure series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the TV movie Gotti (1996).
His film career, however, failed to pick up steam. He returned to Europe for more B thrillers and Westerns, and in 1965 co-directed with another actor-turned-director, John Derek, Nightmare in the Sun (1965), a crime melodrama starring Derek and wife Ursula Andress.
Sporadic big-screen appearances
Among Marc Lawrence’s later feature films are:
- Guy Hamilton’s James Bond actioner Diamonds Are Forever (1971), in which Lawrence remarks after helping push Lana Wood (Natalie Wood’s sister) from a hotel window, “I didn’t know there was a pool down there.”
- John Schlesinger’s spy thriller Marathon Man (1976), featuring Jewish New Yorker Dustin Hoffman, Nazi fugitive Laurence Olivier, and can-she-be-trusted romantic interest Marthe Keller.
- Colin Higgins’ San Francisco-set crime comedy Foul Play (1978), with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.
- Jim McBride’s New Orleans-set crime comedy-drama The Big Easy (1987), with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin.
- Lasse Hallström’s Newfoundland-set psychological drama The Shipping News (2001), with Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, and Judi Dench.
Marc Lawrence was last seen on the big screen in Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), toplining Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, and Steve Martin.
His book of memoirs, Long Time No See: Confessions of a Hollywood Gangster, was published in 1991.
Thomas Gomez, Marc Lawrence, and Edward G. Robinson Key Largo image: Warner Bros.
“Marc Lawrence: Movie Gangster & Blacklisted HUAC Witness” last updated in January 2019.