Chris Mitchum began his movie career almost 50 years ago at Arizona’s “Old Tucson,” the historic film studio site of numerous film and TV Westerns since the 1940s (see www.oldtucson.com).
“I was a student at the University of Arizona in 1967 and someone told me the studio was looking for extras,” recalled Mitchum from Santa Barbara.
After being hired for $13.80 a day, plus free lunch, a production manager offered him a part on the short-lived TV show “Dundee and the Culhane.”
“When I moved back to Los Angeles, I took him up on the offer,” said Mitchum. “I walked in for the interview and the producer and director said ‘He’s perfect!’ before I even saw the script. They told me to pick up a copy on my way out and would pay me $150 a day.”
The role, however, was not exactly choice.
“My character was dead before the opening credits,” laughed Mitchum. “I just had to lie there and get rolled over, which explains why I didn’t have to read for the part!”
From that humble beginning, Mitchum worked his way up to production and writing credits as well as acting roles in some 60 films, including three with John Wayne and several featuring another fellow named Mitchum.
“People see my dad on film when he was 40 or 50 and ask me ‘Are you Robert Mitchum’s brother?’ I tell them ‘I’m not quite that old — he was my father,’” he said.
Like many actor-parents, Mitchum’s dad was often absent as Chris and his brother and sister grew up.
“He started acting around the time I was born, so I grew as his career was growing,” said Mitchum. “He did the best he could, and when he was around we had fun.”
Mitchum remembers one summer vacation trip in 1954.
“The studio helped him fit a camper to a1-ton flatbed Ford truck and we drove it across the Southwest fishing and hunting,” he recalled. “Campers like that were not yet commercially available. Someone bought the design and started the camper industry.”
Though his father was regarded as a screen legend, he offered little acting advice. “The only guidance he gave was ‘Don’t ever get caught acting.’ In other words, don’t act the part, just be the character.”
Working with Duke
In 1970, Chris was hired for “Chisum,” which starred John “Duke” Wayne and Forrest “Tuck” Tucker, and was executive produced by Wayne’s son, Michael.
“We were filming down in Durango, Mexico. Tuck’s wife’s birthday was coming up one Sunday, so Duke hired a private plane to fly him back to Burbank on the Saturday to be with her. But when Tuck got to the airport, they had to call him back for a scene next day.
“Duke and I were talking on the set, and Tuck was sitting in one of those tall director’s chairs. The assistant director came over to Michael Wayne to explain how upset Tuck was becoming. Duke heard them talking and asked ‘Michael, what’s the problem?’ He replied ‘Nothing Pop, we’ve got it.’
“Duke and I continued talking and again were distracted. ‘Michael,’ he asked again, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Pop, it’s OK,’ said Michael.
“When Duke asked a third time, Michael explained how upset Tuck was about the delay getting home. Duke, of course, had paid for the plane! So Duke started mumbling to himself: ‘I’m not gonna to get mad, I’m not gonna to get mad, I’m not the hell I’m not Tuckerrrrrr!’ and stormed off toward Tuck with that characteristic John Wayne walk.
“I thought, my God, where are the cameras to catch this, it’s right out of one of his movies. When he stepped off the screen, he was still ‘John Wayne.’”
Mitchum, who lost a run for Congress last year and is challenging the result (see www.mitchumlegal.com), went on to appear in two other popular Wayne films, “Big Jake” and “Rio Lobo.”
But rather than giving his early career a boost, “I couldn’t even get a job interview afterwards” he said.
“After ‘Big Jake’ I was on Johnny Carson’s show several times, I was one of Box Office Magazine’s top new actors, and was twice on the cover of Seventeen Magazine,” Mitchum said. “Then suddenly, I couldn’t get a job in Hollywood and even my agent didn’t know why.”
So when an offer came to star in a film overseas, Mitchum accepted.
“I went to Spain and made ‘Summertime Killer’ in 1972 with Karl Malden and Olivia Hussey,” he explained. “It was very popular in Europe and Asia, and led to more work offers over there.”
At the time, French actor Alain Delon was a top star in Europe, although he was little known in the United States.
“He was number 1, and Clint Eastward, Charles Bronson and myself were 2, 3 or 4 in Europe depending on who had the most recent release,” said Mitchum, who still recalls a publicity tour in Japan for “Summertime Killer.”
“I arrived in Osaka where a wall of police with riot shields lined up to keep back some 2,000 fans trying to see me as I got off the train. It was just crazy.”
After returning to America, Mitchum interviewed for the 1973 crime comedy “Steelyard Blues.”
“The casting director took one look at me and said ‘Oh, you’re THAT Chris Mitchum, I can’t hire you.’ When I asked why not, she said ‘Because you worked with John Wayne.’”
Wayne was a well-known conservative and was seen as a supporter of the Vietnam War by the ’60s anti-war movement, especially after his 1969 film “The Green Berets” which critics regarded as a propaganda film. But John Wayne was too big to take down, as large in life as he was on screen.
“So liberal Hollywood went after actors who worked with him, and I was blacklisted” said Mitchum. “But Duke loved our troops and couldn’t do enough for them. Today, people understand that you can support our troops but not a war. That wasn’t so clear-cut during Vietnam.”
Like Wayne, Mitchum’s dad was also politically conservative.
“He was also a radical,” said Mitchum. “In fact, Hollywood never really understood my father because of his disdain for Hollywood ‘games’ like campaigning for Oscars.”
Nor did his dad always display tolerance for authority.
“He used to drive up and down Sunset Boulevard at 100 mph — he had a wall covered with speeding tickets! One day, he was in his ’52 XK120 Jaguar and got pulled over. Recognizing him, the cops called up their buddies to come over and meet Robert Mitchum. But dad was in a hurry and getting impatient, so he just took off. They arrested him and it was front-page news the next day. I was kicked out of elementary school to avoid any future bad publicity.”
In the 1970s, Chris continued to star in overseas productions, but also returned to work in America starring in “Stingray” (1978), “The One Man Jury” (1978), and “The Day Time Ended” (1979).
“I also had nine films published overseas and am currently writing a murder mystery that was put on hold while I ran for Congress last year,” noted Mitchum.
Chris Mitchum’s dad?
While his own star status in the in the United States fell far short of his dad’s, Mitchum accepted the challenges of being the son of a Hollywood icon.
“I don't believe I ever got an acting job because I was Robert Mitchum’s son," he said. "In fact, I had to be better than anyone else auditioning for a part so they would hire me because of my performance rather than who I was.”
Even though his father never told him so directly, he knew his dad was proud of his achievements. “I heard it from many friends and people he worked with over the years.”
Mitchum also remembers a story his father would relate after returning from making “The Yakuza” in Japan in 1974.
“During that trip, a girl came up to him and asked ‘Are you Chris Mitchum’s father? Can you get me his autograph?’” recalled Chris. “He loved telling that story.”