Celluloid Prairie Scum and Lithe Championship Diver: Strother Martin’s Two Lives
Strother Martin in Rooster Cogburn, 1975
Strother Martin was a character actor who rose to the very top of the character category. While his credits run from 1950 to 1980, his character star shone the brightest in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was often conscripted to play time-worn, hard-bitten, tobacco-spittin’ codgers in Westerns.
Martin spoke with a very distinctive nasal voice that immediately imprints on your brain. Martin himself reportedly described his characters as “prairie scum.” Writer Walter Hughes describes Martin’s sidekick role Floyd in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as “a gunk-toothed buddy, a screeching, wheezing ugly little man.”
Yet Martin was a versatile actor. For the first six years of his career, he played no Western roles. At age 36, he took on his first Western role in the TV series Frontier. Other Western roles slowly came his way, until the deluge: Gunsmoke, Nevada Smith, Daniel Boone, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
He is best known, though, in a non-Western role. As the sadistic prison gang boss who whips Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Martin’s nasal passages intone the immortal line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
So it may seem surprising that Martin–ancient, crotchety Martin, hitching up his trousers and spittin’ tobacco–had a previous earlier life as a finely tuned athlete–a championship swimmer and diver.
In 1935, the Indianapolis Star-Press reported that a “14 year old swimmer, Strother Martin, Indianpolis [was the] freestyle boys champion.” And that was just the beginning. Martin piled up both swimming and diving wins all throughout his high school years.
As a fresh-faced member of the Indianapolis Athletic Club, Martin–nicknamed Tee-Bone–regularly performed as an exhibition diver.
He moved on to the University of Michigan and, as a Wolverine, continued to crush collegiate rivals in high diving events.