Thompson, simply put, was a nice guy. He remained a nice guy until the
day he died. He was also an incredibly talented actor and writer. In
rapid succession, a youthful Marshall Thompson played roles in Homecoming and B.F.’s
Daughter two outstanding film productions starring two of his
most admired stars at the time, Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. He
was boyishly charming in his early work and was cast accordingly as
the “boy next door.” It was the era of “studio stables”
where careers were crafted for young contract players by their studios.
At the age of nineteen, Thompson was dubbed by the MGM spinners as the
“next Jimmy Stewart.” As hard a worker as you could find
in Hollywood’s party-time town, Thompson began his career making
14 films in 2-1/2 years, although he now is best remembered for television
roles. He was a favorite of the Hollywood press during the 1940s and
1950s and received excellent reviews for his films. He is, however,
only politely documented for his film work by contemporary biographers.
To date he is virtually unknown for his true callings: Marshall Thompson
was a passionate citizen of the world, an animal conservationist, and
a committed humanitarian.
Born November 27, 1925, in Peoria, Illinois as James Marshall Thompson,
he was the son of Dr. Laurence B. Thompson, the very image of a good
man whose persona guided Marshall his entire life. His mother, Pauline
Marshall, was a well-known concert singer who met Marshall’s dad
while entertaining troops prior to their departure overseas in 1919.
The senior Thompson was a decorated medic in World War I. Thompson was
five years old when his parents moved to Southern California. His father
became a prominent dentist managing a practice in Westwood Village,
California for 30 years before retiring in 1959.
Thompson attended Fairborn Elementary and graduated from University
High School along with actors Richard Dean and lifelong friend Betty
Lynn. Urged by his high school drama teacher, Grace Barnie, Marshall
joined “Uni’s” Drama Club. It was while appearing
in one of the school plays that he was seen by a talent scout and taken
to a studio for a test. The acting bug had bitten. He was, however,
rejected his first time out. Thompson was a voracious writer and he
decided he would direct his creative energies to writing. He scripted
a three-act play called Faith which was produced by the Westwood Village
Players. A review from the local paper documented this production as
follows: “Under the general guidance of Camillo Guercio, three
plays were individually directed by their authors. Most surprising,
perhaps, of the offerings was a sketch entitled “Faith,”
which dealt with the meeting of two aviators, one English the other
American, in a Nazi prison. Dealing with the theme of death and sacrifice,
and written with a rare feeling for pathos and beauty, the audience
was amazed to learn that the author of “Faith” was the 16-year-old
son of Dr. and Mrs. Laurence Thompson of Westwood.”
Thompson went on to Occidental College where he made their cross country
team. He also continued to perform in plays becoming a member of the
“Occidental Players” in 1944. Often quoted as having a lifelong
goal to become a member of the clergy, he was actually a pre-med student
in college and “dabbled” as he would say, in theater on
the side. He continued to write, but the desire to tread the boards
once more, returned. His first “real” screen appearance
was with Gloria Jean in Reckless
Age in 1944. Ms Jean recently sent a note about Thompson saying,
“Oh, he was such a really nice boy.”
Richard Whorf, about to direct Blonde
Fever, saw a preview of Reckless
Age and decided on the spot that Thompson was the juvenile
he had been seeking. It was then that MGM signed Marshall to a long-term
Thompson’s career at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took off like a meteor
in the 1940s. He made four films in 1944; another four films in 1945
Clock with Judy Garland; the highly regarded, Valley
of Decision with Greer Garson and Gregory Peck; Twice
Blessed with the popular Wilde Twins; and the role that caught
everyone’s attention as the irrepressible “Snake”
Were Expendable starring legends John Wayne and Robert Montgomery.
Five films followed in 1946: Bad
Bascomb shot in Wyoming with the master of expression, Wallace
Beery and the soon to be legendary child star, Margaret O’Brien.
This production was immediately followed by Cockeyed
Miracle with Walter Pidgeon and Claudette Colbert.
It was, however, Gallant
Bess that landed Thompson a starring role for the studio and
resulted in a nationwide promotional tour which rivaled the likes of
any MGM had ever conducted. Thompson became a family name and female
heart throb. It was an animal story and a heartwarming, true story of
the Navy Seabees who found a horse they named Foxhole during the capture
of the Solomon Islands. The horse became their lucky charm and pet.
Playing Tex Barton, an orphan who tries to maintain his late father’s
horse ranch, he loses his favorite horse during foaling just before
Tex leaves for the Navy. But he finds “Foxhole” (named “Bess”
in the film). Thompson became an avid horseman while filming Bad
Bascomb but the Bess saga was a turning point for him when it came to his serious
love of animals.
Following the success of Bess he won increasingly larger and better
roles. Also filmed in 1946 was The
Secret Heart with June Allyson. He played Joe Fisher in the
Red Skelton film, The
Show-Off. In 1947 he became Van Johnson’s barefoot friend
in The Romance
of Rosy Ridge.
1948 he played one of the leads in MGM’s extravagant production
and Music starring Micky Rooney and Tom Drake, with cameo appearances
made by every leading “musical” star at Metro. This was
followed by another Clark Gable film, Command
Decision, which reunited him with Van Johnson. In this film
he played one of the great scenes in any career as Capt. George Washington
Bellpepper Lee--a role sought after by every young talent at MGM - and
he played it brilliantly.
A change of leadership at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949 had a stunning
repercussion for Thompson: his contract was cancelled with no explanation.
But he was quickly rehired as MGM prepared to film Battleground,
one of the greatest war films ever made, and one that was far ahead
of its time.
Thompson played Private John Layton, an emotional and caring soldier
posted in Europe during World War II. This was a remarkable film which
told the story of our 101st Airborne Division in December of 1944. The
Nazis had retreated to the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg and surrounded
the U.S. Army in the town of Bastogne during what was later called the Battle of the Bulge. This movie chronicled the personal struggles
and triumphs of this band of soldiers, showing a side of war that movie
audiences had never seen before. The film technically starred John Hodiak
and Van Johnson, but it was a true ensemble cast. Ricardo Montalban,
with whom Marshall forged a lifelong friendship, as well as other pals
Jerome Courtland, James Whitmore (later in life became a neighbor and
friend), George Murphy, Don Taylor, Leon Ames and Richard Jaekel (with
whom Thompson also became buddies) were the heart of the cast. The picture
was nominated for many Academy Awards. MGM pushed hard to have James
Whitmore and Thompson nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Whitmore
got the nod. Thompson, unfortunately, came down with appendicitis during
the filming, and his brief exit during the shoot meant many of his scenes
went elsewhere. Still, he was the poster boy for the film’s advertisements
as well as, the studio’s PR Department for the Academy selections.
After Battleground a series of more mature roles followed: as the murder suspect in 1950s Mystery
Street starring with his close friend Montalban; Devil’s
Doorway and his first lead as anything but “the boy next
1119 for Murder. In Dial 1119 Thompson played a crazed
killer who held a local bar and its guests hostage. It played to mixed
reviews but became a classic noir film, along with Mystery
Street and a series of other movies like My Six
Convicts; two of sport’s bad-boy roles in The
Basketball Fix and The
Rose Bowl Story starring Vera Miles as his love interest and
newcomer Natalie Wood.
1955 he starred with his brother-in-law, Richard Long, in the melodrama, The Cult
of the Cobra. Richard and Marshall had already formed a brother-like
bond when Marshall married his sister, Barbara in 1949. Their courtship
was like a storybook tale. Richard, Barbara, Roddy McDowell and his
sister Virginia were traveling one afternoon back from a Photoplay photo
shoot in Malibu, California. While driving down a foggy highway, a car
crossed over into their lane hitting their vehicle head on. Richard
was thrown from the car and only slightly injured. Roddy and his sister
were both hurt but not seriously. Barbara was in the passenger seat
up front, and the engine of the car burst through the dash board landing
on her leg. She was the most seriously injured. This made headlines
in the Los Angeles Times newspaper. A picture of Barbara caught Marshall’s
eye. At the time, he was not a close pal of Roddy’s who was already
famous in the Hollywood party circle for his poolside gatherings. Barbara
healed quickly and resumed palling around with her brother. Marshall
wrangled an invitation to one of Roddy’s pool soirées and
there she was, relaxing in the sun. So began the relationship that tied
the Long and Thompson families together. Barbara was an aspiring actress
who, along with her girlfriend Judy, got her Equity card and went to
Laguna Beach to do summer stock. Marshall followed her down there and
also won roles at the Laguna Playhouse. In fact they were both in French
Without Tears together. Barb’s best friend dated her
older brother Robert Long and later married him. Marshall proposed to
Barbara on July Fourth on the beach. Richard instantly became his best
friend. And it was a grand friendship that lasted throughout their lives.
Marshall, an only child, often said that when he married Barbara, he
gained an instant family of brothers and a sister. To this day, anyone
who knew Richard and Marshall in their later years figure they are up
somewhere sipping a martini and playing poker with the best....preferably
In the late 1950s he was off to Pinewood Studios in London where he
made two films, It!
The Terror form Beyond Space and The
Secret Man. Successful films, these led to his first starring
role in a television series. Up until now, he had done a number of excellent
live dramas such as “Matinee Theater” and “Zane Grey
Theater” and he felt most at home in the smaller confines of a
sound stage. He was an excellent stage actor, having both a natural
presence and a comfort in that venue. He was a line-memorizing wizard
(just a glance over and he had it) and he had a easy grace and physicality
in his performances. All of this transferred beautifully into the small
began in 1959 with The
World of Giants where he played Mel Hunter surrounded on the
set by items and animals ten times his size. For this effort, huge sets
were created and the scene was a virtual Disneyland to visitors. He
continued to perform on many, many television series and live productions
but took time out to star with Jeffery Hunter in No
Man is an Island the true story of a soldier’s courage
in a time of war. Altogether he did twelve war films. He was always
a patriot and over this time he became a real student of war history.
He produced, directed and starred in a Yank
in Vietnam shot in 1962, the film had a delayed release in
1964. It was shot when the U.S. was still working as advisors in Viet
Nam. Yet it was a dangerous shoot. Thompson had a price put out on his
head by the Viet Cong for filming an anti-Viet Cong picture and was
actually shot by one of his crewmen. The bullet hit his shirt pocket
and deflected off a sterling silver lighter he had purchased in Saigon,
grazing his shoulder. Not critically acclaimed, this picture did make
movie history as the first production about this war filmed during the
war and under fire.
was five years earlier, however, when Thompson’s life would change
He traveled to Africa for the first time in 1957 to film East
of Kilimanjaro. There he met his first white hunter, had a
close call with a white rhino and fell into a lifelong passion over
this amazing country. He was never a fearful man; he would try anything.
As with every film he ever made, he did his own stunts, whether riding
a horse at full bore or wrestling a leopard in his hit TV show, Daktari.
Africa cast a spell on him, and it was one that would never leave him
Daktari was a spin-off from Clarence
the Cross-Eyed Lion, a movie in which he collaborated on the
script and starred. Daktari was simply a gift for him to do. He was truly in his element. In 1966
he became a household favorite because of the series’ focus on
family and animals. He worked closely with Ralph Helfer the owner of
“Africa USA.” Helfer was a highly skilled animal trainer,
and Thompson learned from him everything he could. All the animals used
in the series and all the animals trained by Helfer were “love-schooled”
from birth. To be a part of that set was a joy and an adventure every
Daktari was ground-breaking in many ways. It was the first television series
providing an ongoing platform of work for Black actors. It had wild
animals as its stars, not horses and dogs. Ivan Tors was the show’s
producer with a reputation for mass production of family fare. By the
second season, Thompson insisted upon getting his hand in everything
and the show improved in its reality and story lines. He did his own
stunts, once again.
was one incident that almost cost him his life. The scene called for
him to be in a pit with a leopard. Shot in the San Fernando Valley near
Ventura, the animals, actors and crew worked in very hot temperatures.
This scene was shot in the late afternoon. The leopard was hot. Her
front paws were de-clawed, but she had all of her teeth. Like any performer
after a long day at work in the heat, she got cranky and grabbed Thompson’s
forearm with her mouth. Thompson did not react by pulling his arm away.
He worked with the leopard’s movement until a sedative could be
administered thus saving his arm. The cameras did not stop rolling during
the incident and the scene was shown on air as it happened. The blood
the audience saw was real and so were the 16 stitches it took to patch
Marshall up. But he was back at work the next day.
Thompson had another series prior to Daktari
in 1960. The producer of I Love Lucy was looking for the ideal American
husband to star with a French firebomb of a wife in a reversal of roles
from Lucille Ball’s legendary series. Angel hit the air with great expectations and received good reviews but only
lasted one season.
Thompson began his focus on Africa and African wildlife preservation
in earnest, sowing the seeds for a number of ventures with the many
contacts he had made over the years. His writing efforts intensified,
and he created both movie scripts and television documentary ideas.
As it often happens in “the business” he got sidelined from
these efforts when he filmed the movie George.
It was a family adventure story about a New York City St. Bernard dog
who is inherited by Jim (played by Thompson), an Air Canada pilot living
in Switzerland. George,
played by the very talented dog Monk, had never seen a blade of grass
outside Central Park. The sight gags were abundant as this huge animal
became acclimated to the Swiss Alps and the audience came along for
movie inspired a television series produced by Germany’s Telepool organization. It won a legion of
admirers in Europe and Canada where Thompson had achieved legendary
star status with fans via Daktari and promotional tours to hype the show. The series never played in the
United States but can still be seen in re-runs overseas. Thompson’s
life was again jeopardized by his desire to perform his own stunts.
He was buried in a real avalanche during the filming and was rescued
by his crew with special kudos to his Assistant Director Stefan, a Swiss
skier who was an experienced stunt man and certified in rescue operations.
Thompson’s last film of note was The
Turning Point where he was called in at the last minute to
replace Robert Donet as the love interest for Ann Bancroft. With little
time to prepare, Thompson stepped in like the pro he was and gave a
brief but strong performance in what had now been a reduced role.
One of his fondest memories of television was his 1989 role as Ward
Silloway on Murder She Wrote because he got the chance to work
with Angela Lansbury whom he described as “the industry’s
personal gift of professionalism and complete charm.”
Thompson spent the bulk of the 1980’s in Africa. He created the
internationally syndicated documentary called Orphans
of the Wild which tells the story of Vivian J. Wilson. Wilson’s
lifelong work in Zimbabwe was rescuing baby animals left alone in the
wild, primarily by death of their mothers from poaching and hunters.
The series still plays off and on in Europe. During this time he had
at least five other projects in the works focusing on Africa, its people,
its animals and its ongoing struggles with drought, famine and corruption.
His efforts were cut very short. He died in 1992 of congestive heart
It is difficult to capsulate Thompson’s life. He made over 50
films and over 60 appearances on television. He loved the theater and
made his Broadway debut in A
Girl Can Tell with Janet Blair in the fall of 1953 and was
active in regional theater through-out his career. He traveled back
to Viet Nam in 1967 with the U.S.O to entertain troops and meet with servicemen personally. This journey
had a tremendous impact on him. As he said, he was “humbled to
the core of existence by the bravery, loyalty and dedication”
he found in each individual serviceman he met.
His focus in life was not on himself. It was never on becoming a “star.”
His journey through films was his education and that is how he saw it
all. It was a means for him to discover all things new and different.
It was his adventure series.
One of Thompson’s best performances was as “Johnson”
in the 1955 film To
Hell and Back starring Audie Murphy whom he respected immensely.
His proudest moment was getting Orphans
of the Wild on air, his saddest ones, no doubt, the death of
his father and the loss of Richard Long.
His most emotional, per my mom, was when they drove across country to
Oklahoma University in Norman to deliver record albums and other vital
possessions to me as I started my first year of college. After a “go
get ‘em girl” lunch they left me sitting on the curb outside
the restaurant to drive back to California. My
dad cried two times in his life of which I am aware, when General Douglas
Mac Arthur died and when he left me on that curb. His gift of words will
always amaze me. His reverence of nature’s vast panoramas will always
inspire. Marshall Thompson was a nice guy and, God knows, a good man.