When the actor E.G. Marshall died in 1998 — remember him in the movies Twelve Angry Men and Interiors, as well as a slew of TV shows, including The Defenders? — the world’s media took note. Newspapers and magazines passed along many tidbits on Marshall’s life: that he was born on June 18, 1910 (Variety), that he was “of Norwegian stock” (People magazine), that his full birth name was Edda Gunnar Marshall (The Times of London), and that he “was educated at Carlton [sic] College and the University of Minnesota” [London’s Independent].
Much of it was wrong.
I was interested in Marshall’s Minnesota roots, so I began an examination of the late actor’s past. I discovered that records at the Steele County Courthouse in Owatonna, Minn., listed him as being born on June 18, 1914, as Everett Eugene Grunz, the son of Charles and Hazel Grunz, who claimed only German, Scottish, Irish, and English ethnicity. “There is no Norwegian ancestry in the family that I know of,” I heard from Joe Grunz, Marshall’s youngest and only surviving sibling, who lived in Williams, Minn.
The Grunz family moved from Owatonna to St. Paul when Marshall was about eight, and he went through the public schools there. Joe Grunz speculated that his brother may have used a busy thoroughfare in St. Paul, Marshall Avenue, as the inspiration for his stage name.
Then I contacted Eric Hillemann, the archivist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. (my own alma mater), who had spent several years tracking the actor’s slippery past. “I saw him listed among people who were well-known Carleton alumni,” Hillemann told me. “I checked his file through the college’s central records. It was clear there was a mystery about him.” No Carleton records, in fact, suggested that Marshall was ever a student. Similarly, the University of Minnesota’s archivists were unable to find any paper trail of a student named Everett Grunz or Everett Marshall. “To my knowledge, he did not go to college,” Joe Grunz said.
So how did all this false information about Marshall’s origins make it into print? Over the years, Marshall apparently supplied the information himself to the editors of such reference works as Who’s Who in America, Current Biography, and Who’s Who in the Theatre. When he died, obituary writers around the globe consulted those sources, and the rest is (or isn’t) history. (Books like The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors continue to include the incorrect information, as does Marshall’s Wikipedia entry.)
I asked Clifford Stevens, Marshall’s last agent, why the actor would fib about his past. “E.G. had a good time being mysterious about his early years,” Stevens told me. “It’s not that he was ashamed of his past. He just liked to keep it mysterious.” A sad consequence is that new fans of Marshall’s artistry may never know the true story of his life.