Strother Martin (March 26, 1919 – August 1, 1980) was an American actor in numerous films and television programs. Martin is perhaps best known as the prison "captain" in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, where he uttered the line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."
Strother Martin Jr. was born in Kokomo, Indiana. As a child, he excelled at swimming and diving, and got the nickname "T-Bone Martin" from his diving expertise. At 17, he won the National Junior Springboard Diving Championship. He served as a swimming instructor in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was a member of the diving team at the University of Michigan. He entered the adult National Springboard Diving competition in hopes of gaining a berth on the U.S. Olympic team, but finished third in the competition.
After the war, Martin moved to Los Angeles and worked as a swimming instructor and as a swimming extra in water scenes in films, eventually earning bit roles in a number of pictures. He quickly became a frequent fixture in small character roles in movies and television through the 1950s, having appeared in such programs as Frontier on NBC and the syndicated American Civil War drama Gray Ghost. He appeared in the first Brian Keith series, Crusader, a Cold War drama. He guest starred in 1958 as a henpecked soldier in an episode of the syndicated Boots and Saddles. In 1960, Martin guest starred in James Whitmore's crime drama, The Law and Mr. Jones on ABC. In 1966, he appeared twice as "Cousin Fletch" in the short-lived ABC comedy western The Rounders, with Ron Hayes, Patrick Wayne, and Chill Wills.
Martin's distinctive, reedy voice and menacing demeanor made him ideal for villainous roles in many of the best-known Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s, including The Horse Soldiers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By the late 1960s, Martin was almost as well-known a figure as many top-billed stars. In 1967, he appeared in the episode "A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord" of NBC's The Road West series starring Barry Sullivan.
Martin appeared in all three of the classic Westerns released in 1969: Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (as Coffer, a bloodthirsty bounty hunter); George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (as Percy Garris, the "colorful" Bolivian mine boss who hires the two title characters); and Henry Hathaway's True Grit (as Colonel Stonehill, a horse dealer). He frequently acted alongside L. Q. Jones, who in real life was one of his closest friends.
Though he usually appeared in supporting roles, he had major parts in Hannie Caulder, The Brotherhood of Satan (both 1971), and SSSSSSS (1973). Martin later appeared in another classic George Roy Hill film, Slap Shot (1977), again with Paul Newman, as the cheap manager of the Charlestown Chiefs hockey club. He appeared six times each with both John Wayne and Paul Newman. Strother Martin can also be seen in Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978) as Arnold Stoner, the father of Tommy Chong's character Anthony.
He also appeared in numerous television shows. In I Love Lucy he played a store clerk when Lucy traveled to Florida. In the 2 part Gunsmoke episodes "Island in the Desert," he starred as a crazy desert hermit named Ben Snow. In 1963, he appeared in Glynis Johns's short-lived comedy series Glynis in the episode "Ten Cents a Dance." In 1965, Martin appeared in the episode "Most Precious Gold" of the NBC comedy/drama series Kentucky Jones, starring Dennis Weaver. In 1965, he guest starred as Meeker in the episode "Return to Lawrence" on the ABC western The Legend of Jesse James. In 1966, he guest starred in the Lost In Space episode "Blast Off Into Space" as a gritty mining engineer. On a Gilligan's Island episode, Martin played a man living supposedly alone on the island for a radio show contest. He also starred in a two part The Rockford Files 1977 episode as T.T. Flowers, an episode that took on urban invasion and the environment. One of his last acting jobs was as host of Saturday Night Live on April 19, 1980. Ironically, in one of the skits Martin played a terminally ill man who videotaped his last will and testament. This episode was supposed to be rerun during the summer of 1980, but was pulled and replaced with another episode due to his death.
Martin was married to wife Helen from 1967 until his death. He died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 61.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (uncredited)
Rhubarb (1951) (uncredited)
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (uncredited)
Black Patch (1957)
The Shaggy Dog (1959)
The Horse Soldiers (1959)
The Deadly Companions (1961)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Nevada Smith (1966)
An Eye for an Eye (1966)
The Flim-Flam Man (1967)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
True Grit (1969)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
Red Sky at Morning (1971)
The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)
Fools' Parade (1971)
Hannie Caulder (1971)
Pocket Money (1972)
Hard Times (1975)
Rooster Cogburn (1975)
The Great Scout & Cathouse Thursday (1976)
Slap Shot (1977)
The End (1978)
Up in Smoke (1978)
The Champ (1979)
Love and Bullets (1979)
The Villain (1979)
The Secret of Nikola Tesla (1980)
1.^ Strother Martin. Films in Review, November 1982
Beaver, Jim. Strother Martin. Films in Review, November 1982.