John Marley started out amid tough surroundings in Harlem, New York, as the son of Russian immigrants. A high school dropout headed for trouble, he managed to avoid the gangland trappings by joining a theater group, which eventually led to some Broadway work. World War II interrupted his career when he joined the Army Signal Corps. Post-war film credits were comprised mostly of unsympathetic bit roles—thugs, reporters and other sly, shifty characters—that were routinely Greek or Italian in origin.
In the 1960s, Marley appeared in the film Cat Ballou (1965) as Jane Fonda's father; earned kudos for his work in John Cassavetes' stark, improvisational indie Faces; Ali MacGraw's blue-collar father in Love Story; and the mouthy movie titan who becomes bedmates with a horse's head in The Godfather.
John Marley died on May 22, 1984 following open-heart surgery at age 76. He was survived by wife Sandra and his four children.