Unsung Auteurs: Leslie H. Martinson

September 29, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: TV veteran Leslie H. Martinson, who also directed a clutch of fascinating big screen curios.

If you grew up glued to the television in the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, then you likely owe a debt to Leslie H. Martinson for keeping you entertained. He directed instalments of, well, just about every piece of American episodic television produced over those three decades. Just a quick skim of Martinson’s resume yields classic title after classic titles: Maverick, Lawman, The Green Hornet, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Dallas, CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Diff’rent Strokes, Buck Rogers, Manimal, Big Shamus, Little Shamus, Airwolf, Eight Is Enough and, yes, The Brady Bunch, on which he helmed the notorious, dark-hued ep in which Bobby becomes obsessed with outlaw Jesse James.

As well as his wealth of TV episodes, Leslie H. Martinson also directed a handful of feature films, all of which display a authorial bent towards – singularly or occasionally all at once – the colourful, the cartoonish, the garish, the wilfully silly, and the deliriously pop. Though certainly not “great works of art”, most of Leslie H. Martinson’s feature films are now completely forgotten, and if they are remembered – like his best known efforts, 1966’s Batman: The Movie and the 1967 Raquel Welch vehicle Fathom – they are not duly discussed as his work, but rather as mere pop culture artefacts or cinematic curios.

Leslie H. Martinson on the set of Mission: Impossible.

Born in Boston in 1915, Leslie H. Martinson worked prolifically as a newspaper journalist before accepting a job as a script clerk with Hollywood studio MGM in 1936. From there, Martinson moved successfully around the industry, and began directing episodic television in the 1950s, quickly working up a truly admirable work ethic. Martinson’s directing work on three TV situation comedies for big name Mickey Rooney led to his feature film debut in 1954 when he was tapped by Republic Pictures to helm a big screen vehicle for the former child star. Little more than goofy filler, The Atomic Kid stars Rooney as a hapless everyman who gains special powers after being exposed to nuclear radiation. Silly and forgotten, but still offering a glimpse into the pure pop pictures that Martinson would continue to make, The Atomic Kid does have an appropriately pop cultural claim to fame: it’s the film playing  at The Town Theater in the time travel smash Back To The Future.

Martinson took the wheel on two cheap, exploitative, shoddy but, again, pure pop pictures with 1956’s Hot Rod Girl and 1957’s Hot Rod Rumble, and was then brought in at the eleventh hour to replace director Aram Avakian on the 1962 family B-movie Lad: A Dog, basically on the beloved canine short stories by Albert Payson Terhune. Martinson worked again with a minimal budget and minor stars, but made his first mature, emotionally complex feature with 1962’s action drama Black Gold, a rough and tumble following two friends caught up in the Oklahoma oil boom of the 1920s. Though now completely forgotten (like most B-movie programmers), it’s a solid entry from Martinson, and amply showed that he was capable of more ambitious work.

Cliff Robertson and Ty Hardin in a scene from PT 109.

The first film of true note for Leslie H. Martinson was 1963’s PT 109, a war film which also had the kind of pop imprimatur that the director was slowly making his own. With a much bigger budget and higher profile than his previous films, PT 109 stars Cliff Robertson as a pre-Presidency John F. Kennedy, who famously commanded a PT boat in WW2. Though gifted a certain gravitas by the narrative participation of JFK, PT 109 is also a rollicking action adventure flick, as Kennedy’s boat is sunk by the Japanese and he and his crew are forced to survive on a deserted island in The South Pacific. Boasting a strong turn from Cliff Robertson and a wonderfully fast paced narrative, PT 109 effectively showcased Martinson’s skill with action, spectacle and characterisation. The fact that Martinson had himself served in The Pacific during WW2 likely added to his obvious feel for the project.

After PT 109, Martinson’s film work took on a distinctly pop flavour. After the typically bright and cartoonish 1964 beach party flick For Those Who Think Young (which featured the likes of James Darren, Nancy Sinatra, Tina Louise and Pamela Tiffin), Martinson went the whole ten yards with the pop frenzy of 1966’s Batman: The Movie, which took the antic of TV’s Adam West and Burt Ward and blew them up beautifully for the big screen. With The Dynamic Duo facing off against a rogue’s gallery of top-tier bad guys (Cesar Romero’s Joker, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Lee Merriwether’s Catwoman), this is a pure camp overload of comic strip fun. Batman: The Movie also features one of the great moments in Dark Knight screen lore, wherein The Caped Crusader infamously fights off a shark while dangling from a helicopter.  Thank god for that can of shark repellent…

Raquel Welch with Tony Franciosa in Fathom.

Only slightly less cartoonish than Batman: The Movie, and even more enjoyable, was Martinson’s follow-up film, 1967’s Fathom. A female take on the popular espionage genre sent supernova by James Bond, this kitsch classic stars the impossibly beautiful and volcanically sexy Raquel Welch as the brilliantly named Fathom Harvill, a skydiver touring Europe with a US parachute team who is drafted by a Scottish secret agent to recover an atomic triggering mechanism. Wildly entertaining, sexy, funny and very silly, Fathom is another pure pop delight from Leslie H. Martinson, while the film’s opening credit sequence – in which Welch alluringly puts together a parachute – is one of the best of the decade.

Still running on the whole female spy trope, Martinson’s next film was 1971’s Mrs. Pollifax-Spy, an adaptation of Dorothy Gilman’s novel about a New Jersey widow who volunteers for the CIA on the basis that she would never be suspected of being a spy. The last big screen effort from screen legend Rosalind Russell (who also penned the adaptation), it’s a cheery, entertaining and now, of course, totally forgotten curio. Increasingly busy with his work on the small screen through the 1970s (which included both episodic TV and stand-alone telemovies, including a triptych with Diff’rent Strokes superstar Gary Coleman), Martinson only directed two more features (1976’s wildlife adventure film Escape From Angola and 1979’s thriller Teheran Incident) before his eventual retirement in the mid-eighties.

Leslie H. Martinson

Leslie H. Martinson passed away in 2016 at the grand old age of 101, leaving behind an extraordinary small screen legacy (check out the mammoth five-hour video interview with the director if you want to know literally everything about his work on TV), but also a handful of pop-tastic big screen curios that reverberate with cartoonish style and an abundance of good humour.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Nancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara Kopple, John D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.