Chris Mitchum’s fluke showdown with Steve McQueen

Chris Mitchum, the middle child of the disturbed “Night of the Hunter” preacher powerfully portrayed by Hollywood icon Robert Mitchum, reveals how he serendipitously met the King of Cool while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway shortly before his demise. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…in early May 1980 Steve McQueen and third wife-fashion model Barbara Minty finally celebrated their honeymoon after tying the knot four months earlier in a quaint domestic setting where the preacher had to be reimbursed with a dozen eggs from a convenient chicken coop. The King of Cool is seen aboard the 553-foot Pacific Princess, forever enshrined as television’s “The Love Boat,” on a week-long cruise to Acapulco, Mexico. McQueen was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma three days before Christmas 1979 and as stated by Minty in her 2006 memoir, “The eye of my camera caught all the character in his face — deep lines, age spots, mustache, and beard…Steve reminds me of an Ernest Hemingway literary character come to life in his sunglasses and windbreaker.” Six months after this candid McQueen succumbed to cardiac arrest from widespread metastasis mere hours after undergoing a controversial operation in a Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, clinic to remove a massive five-pound tumor from his abdomen. Photography by Barbara Minty McQueen / appears in “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited”

Robert Mitchum may have been the inventor of big screen cool but that didn’t necessarily translate to a glowing appreciation for those that followed in his footsteps. While shooting David Lean’s overblown romantic war epic Ryan’s Daughter over a rain-delayed 10 months in 1969-era Dingle, Ireland, the laid-back tough hombre unpredictably disparaged Steve McQueen during a conversation with The Chicago Sun-Times’s new kid on the block critic Roger Ebert. “I never saw Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles,” admitted Mitchum. “Of course, that was a problem picture out in front with Steve McQueen in it. You’ve got to realize a Steve McQueen performance just naturally lends itself to monotony. Steve doesn’t bring too much to the party.” Mitchum didn’t give a damn that McQueen received his sole Academy Award nomination enlivening stubborn Navy machinist’s mate Jake Holman in the post-World War I Yangtze River saga.

Both Mitchum sons — Jim and Chris — were actors. Lookalike kid Jim’s seventh-billed part in the elder Mitchum’s cult classic moonshine drama Thunder Road [1958] seemed promising but meatier roles in slick studio productions largely eluded him. On the other hand, the blonde-haired, sensitive child in the middle dreamed of being a writer. Obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Literature degree from the University of Pennsylvania, Chris transferred to the University of Arizona and picked up extra work in TV westerns filmed at the Old Tucson Studios. Then the acting bug bit. Three back to back John Wayne westerns — Chisum, Rio Lobo, and Big Jake — and action hero accolades in Spain and China kept Chris’s name on the marquee. While it is unknown whether Robert encountered McQueen, Chris did. Heretofore never divulged, his serendipitous brush with the King of Cool is unveiled in part one of a mammoth 9,000-word interview series debuting exclusively this month.

The Chris Mitchum Interview, Part One

Did you ever stumble upon Steve McQueen?

I met Steve very briefly shortly before he died [McQueen succumbed to mesothelioma after controversial tumor surgery in Juarez, Mexico, on November 7, 1980]. I was going up the Pacific Coast Highway with Michael Parks [Chris Mitchum’s costar in The Last Hard Men who accumulated juicy latter career character parts in From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill, Grindhouse, and Kevin Smith’s Red State until his death in 2017].

McQueen was alone in his little top down sports car. They waved to each other and pulled over. We all got out, and Michael introduced me to Steve. Steve already had cancer and had a full beard. He admitted, “God, the skin on my face just looks awful. I’m wearing this beard to hide it.” They chatted for about 20 or 30 minutes, and then we got back in our cars and went our separate ways.

[Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited co-author Marshall Terrill believes Mitchum’s reminiscence to be genuine. “The story rings true,” says Terrill. “I know Michael Parks was a big McQueen fan. When my first book Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel came out in 1993, Skip E. Lowe, a famous radio show host in Los Angeles, told me he had lunch with Parks and brought Portrait with him. He said Parks paid no attention to him during lunch and just kept reading the book”].

Clutching an omnipresent cigarette in one hand and dark glasses in the other, a black and white still finds 59-year-old celluloid private eye and scene-chewing cowboy Robert Mitchum leaning against a brick doorway of a barn in Holland during the shooting of director Robert Clouse’s action-packed, albeit barely remembered “The Amsterdam Kill,” which debuted March 31, 1978, in New York City. Photography by Terry O’Neill / Iconic Images

© Jeremy Roberts, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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