The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Strother Martin – Character Actor with Profound Impact

Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Strother Martin - The actor behind "failure to communicate"

Strother Martin Short Biography

Strother Martin while famous for that line and many others, he was a springboard champion, taught swimming in the Navy during WWII, and missed the 1948 Olympic team by one place. He moved to Hollywood and among other things, was a swimming instructor to Charles Chaplin’s children. After meeting Sam Peckinpah he began to get roles like Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slap Shot (1977), and The Wild Bunch (1969).

Strother Douglas Martin, Jr. (March 26, 1919 – August 1, 1980) was a character actor who often worked with John Wayne and Paul Newman. Many of his memorable western films were directed by John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. He is no doubt best known as the prison “captain” in Cool Hand Luke (1967), where he utters the famous line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” This line is ranked number 11 on the American Film Institute list 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.

As a youth, he was very good at swimming and diving. He placed first in the National Junior Springboard Diving Championship at the age of 17. During World War II he served as a swimming instructor for the Navy. Following the war, he was on the diving team at the University of Michigan. He tried to make it on to the Olympic team but placed third in the adult National Springboard Diving competition.

Martin eventually moved to Los Angeles, California, where he worked as a swimming instructor and as a swimming extra in films. He began getting bit parts and eventually worked extensively in television. Martin’s very distinctive, high-pitched voice and his ability to seem menacing lead him to roles in westerns such as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), both directed by John Ford and featuring John Wayne. His insane giggling is some of the most memorable parts of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Martin was excellent in comedy, playing an incompetent “Indian agent” in McLintock! (1963), and as a hapless horse trader in True Grit (1969).

Strother Martin

Strother Martin

Other great roles include Cool Hand Luke (1967), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and the previously mentioned True Grit (1969). After making a few duds Martin returned to comedy was Slap Shot (1977), opposite Paul Newman and in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) as Arnold Stoner, the father of Tommy Chong’s character. Of course, my favorite role of his was as Poe, the morphine-addicted medical school drop-out in Hard Times (1975). His last acting job was on Saturday Night Live. Martin played the pedantic owner of a French Language camp for children – where he copied the prison captain from Cool Hand Luke (1967). His phrase was “What we have here is failure to communicate BI-LINGUALLY!”

Sadly he died shortly after the show was recorded. This man was a great talent and one day his total contribution will hopefully be remembered.

Selected Film Roles

1980 The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla
1980 Hotwire
1979 The Villain
1979 Nightwing
1979 The Champ
1979 Love and Bullets
1978 Up in Smoke
1978 The End
1977 Slap Shot
1976 The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday
1975 Rooster Cogburn
Hard Times (1975)
1972 Pocket Money
1971 Hannie Caulder
1971 Fools’ Parade
1971 The Brotherhood of Satan
1971 Red Sky at Morning
1970 The Ballad of Cable Hogue
1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1969 The Wild Bunch
1969 True Grit
1967 Cool Hand Luke
1967 The Flim-Flam Man
1966 An Eye for an Eye
1966 Nevada Smith
1966 Harper
1965 Shenandoah
1965 Brainstorm
1964 Invitation to a Gunfighter
McLintock! (1963)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
1961 The Deadly Companions
1961 Sanctuary
1959 The Horse Soldiers
1959 The Wild and the Innocent
1959 The Shaggy Dog
1958 Cowboy
1957 Black Patch
1957 Copper Sky
1956 The Black Whip
1956 Attack
1956 Johnny Concho
World Without End (1956)
1955 Target Zero
1955 The Big Knife
1955 Kiss Me Deadly
1955 Strategic Air Command
1954 The Silver Chalice
1954 Drum Beat
1954 A Star Is Born
1954 Prisoner of War
1954 World for Ransom
1953 South Sea Woman
1953 The Magnetic Monster
1952 Androcles and the Lion
1952 Storm Over Tibet
1951 Rhubarb
1951 The Red Badge of Courage
1950 The Asphalt Jungle
1950 The Damned Don’t Cry

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