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.”
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 towards 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 says.
Find out why in the second part of Mitchum’s interview next week.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 550 magazines and newspapers. Follow on Twitter @TinseltownTalks.