‘Hey Mom, look! There’s Dad!’ In the shadow of movie star Robert Mitchum
The Chris Mitchum Interview, Part Five [Conclusion]
Compared to your father Robert, little is known about his brother, Dirty Harry character actor John Mitchum. What was your relationship like with your uncle?
Uncle John was almost like a second father to me. He was a wonderful, very talented person. My dad explained to me that after he had hoboed for a year or two — incredibly starting at the age of 14 — he went back and picked up my uncle. They went on the rails together.
He said that John had a knack for picking up accents. They might land in Savannah, Georgia. If the railroad bulls caught them, my uncle would immediately start talking in the local dialect. They thought he was a local kid [laughs]. That way they wouldn’t get him for vagrancy and throw him in jail.
Another little hobby my uncle had — he always loved music and had taught himself to play guitar. He had a Burl Ives style of singing. He would dig out the local folk songs. God knows how many thousands of songs he knew from all over the country. It was considerable.
By chance do you sing? Your dad released two albums [1957’s Calypso — Is Like So and That Man Robert Mitchum…Sings distributed 10 years later], cut the theme song for Thunder Road, and scored a Top Ten country single with “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me.”
Not at all [laughs]. Dad cut several albums, wrote songs, taught himself to play the piano and saxophone, and could write music. He was gifted in music just like Uncle John. I’m the generation it skipped. My oldest son Bentley writes music and has a band. He’s cut a couple of local CD’s.
Did your mother Dorothy [1919–2014] give you any advice?
She never really gave any advice but was always there holding down the fort. They met when she was about 14 and he was 16 years old. They got married when they were about 20, took a bus out to California, and started life together.
Your parents were one of the few Hollywood couples who had a long-lasting marriage.
Fifty-seven years together until my dad’s passing in 1997.
Who disciplined you?
My father was the one who took care of that [laughs]. With Mom it was, “Wait ’til your father gets home.”
What would have been one of your worst offences?
Oh God. Countless — too many to remember [laughs].
When did you first see your dad on the silver screen?
I was slow on the uptake as to what my father did for a living. He left for work at the studio then came home and was a dad. He taught us boxing, archery, and badminton in the backyard. We were living on 3372 Oak Glen Drive in the Hollywood Hills [1946–1949], and there was a little local theater where our parents would drop off my brother and I. We often saw Saturday Matinees featuring cool Lash LaRue B-westerns.
Dad’s movie career started with seven cheaply-made Hopalong Cassidy B-Westerns that he shot alongside protagonist William Boyd [distributed between March and December 1943]. I was probably five or six years old when my mom took me to see Dad’s official debut as an outlaw henchman named Rigney in Hoppy Serves a Writ. The fifth guy in the gang riding along [laughs]. I was born on October 16, 1943, so obviously I saw a special United Artists re-release years later.
Mom said, “You’re gonna see your father in this movie. I don’t want you to say anything.” Of course, as soon as he came onscreen I yelled out, “Hey Mom, look! There’s Dad!” [laughs].
Did an usher come forward after you yelled?
No. Mom put her hand over my mouth to stop me from yelling. I can’t remember if we left the theater or stayed and finished the movie.
He could grow out his beard as a bad hombre in those Hoppy westerns.
Yeah, he’d get a little stubbly with a little shadow there. Incidentally, over six decades my dad made 31 westerns [from Hoppy Serves a Writ to Johnny Depp’s surreal Dead Man in 1995]. He was posthumously elected in 2013 to the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Was your dad the type father who let you watch much television?
Back in the early days of television it was a feared thing within the film industry. They were afraid television would replace movies, and people wouldn’t go to movies anymore. I’m sure my dad was concerned, too.
We were about the last people on our street to get a television. I don’t think we had a television set until maybe 1955 or 1956. We would watch Dragnet and one or two other shows. Back then most of what you got were test patterns [laughs]. There wasn’t much on TV.
Who were some of your famous neighbors over the years?
When we lived at 1639 Mandeville Canyon Road in Brentwood [1949–1959], Dick [Richard] Widmark lived up the street. Rod Taylor and Dick Powell did, too. Greg [Gregory] Peck lived on the hill behind us. I didn’t know them as actors. I knew them as family friends.
What did your dad teach you to do? What about driving or swimming?
I learned to drive when I was at boarding school. I took Driver’s Ed, an in-the-car training course. Dad wasn’t so much a hands-on teacher who set out to teach us things. He would get a bee in his bonnet. I remember him getting a target and taking us out in the back yard to teach us how to shoot a bow and arrow.
Dad also taught us to shoot a rifle. I went hunting with him up in Colorado. I don’t think he was really expecting me to hit anything. I had a Stevens .22 .410 over and under [laughs]. He shot a deer. The most I could get was a squirrel. He instructed my brother Jim and I how to box. My dad fought 29 professional fights in his youth, so he knew what he was doing.
Did your dad ever shoot a bow and arrow onscreen?
Not that I know of. Neither did I. It’s strange when you consider all the films we made.
When did you learn to ride a horse?
My parents bought a 280-acre property called Belmont Farms in Trappe, Maryland, back in 1959. My dad was talking to Dale Robertson and said, “I’d like to get a horse to ride around the farm.”
Dale replied, “Bob, a good horse eats as much hay as a bad one. Let me sell you a couple of good horses.” My 16th birthday was also coming up so my dad asked me, “What would you like for your 16th birthday? Do you want a horse or a car?” I said, “I’ll take a horse.”
Dale had just won the Ruidoso QH Futurity with his two-year-old Spanish Fort. He sold my dad a Top Deck mare, a foal of Spanish Fort. He also sold him a little two-year-old colt named Cap Gun. He was my horse and the son of King’s Pistol, the 1954 World Champion cutting horse. King’s Pistol was a son of King P-234, a foundation quarter horse. And Dale sold us, which is really the only horse my dad wanted, a gelding named Woody Pecker.
We got those horses and Dale said, “You oughta take a guy back there from Oklahoma and have him work your horses, train, and take care of them.” So my dad hired a guy from Oklahoma named Bird Dog Rogers who trailed the horse back. Bird Dog went on to become head of the Oklahoma City Zoo and design zoos. He ended up with a rather bright career in the future but started out as a rodeo cowboy.
Bird Dog came to my father one day and said, “We oughta get a couple of calves and see if this colt has any cow in him.” I was already learning to ride by then on a gelding around the place. My dad got four little Herford calves, and by gosh Cap Gun had cow in him. I ended up winning four state champions in reigning and cutting with Cap Gun and showed all over the eastern coast. It was great.
Years later when Ben Johnson started his Cowboy for Kids charity and held Pro-Celebrity Rodeos, I started riding in those. I showed down in Mesquite, Fort Worth, Houston, Scottsdale, and all over at these charity rodeos.
Because I learned to ride and actually competed in reining and cutting, I usually beat out the other celebrities in cutting and team penning events because they learned to ride doing westerns. I learned to ride to ride [laughs]. I had a leg up on them.
When you were learning how to ride did the gelding buck you off?
Oh, God no! My colt did a time or two. I’ve gone down with a horse that slipped. One cowboy told me, “You show me a man who’s never fallen off a horse, and I’ll show you a man who’s never really ridden one.” It happens.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s never ridden a horse and might wanna acquire one?
Get a quarter horse. It’s a good trail horse. They’ll take care of you.
Do you still ride?
No, I haven’t been on a horse in a couple of years now.
Did you have a hand in writing Promises to Keep, a 1985 CBS movie of the week featuring your only substantial role alongside your father?
It’s interesting you should ask that. I actually went in and met a woman named Jenny Blackberry. She introduced me to Sandra “Sandy” Harmon, who had a sticker on her car that was a picture of Bozo the Clown in a red circle with a red line across the face. Underneath, it said, “No Bozos.” When I asked her about it, she told me her husband had been Larry Harmon — Bozo the Clown. Jenny had a story that Sandy had gotten from Priscilla Presley [Harmon penned Presley’s runaway bestselling 1985 memoir Elvis and Me]. In that condition it was a woman.
We developed a plot pitching the idea of three generations of Mitchums. All the producers and CBS cared about were three generations of Mitchums — ‘let’s get in on television, it’s gonna be great.’ They threw in a fight scene because you can’t have Mitchums without a good fight.
I kept thinking it could be something more. I finally sat down and wrote a good screenplay that scared the hell out of them because I wasn’t a contract Writers Guild writer. They rejected my script and just rushed the project through. It could have been so much more than it was. Even by that time it had been in development for about a year and a half. I tried my best to make it a better project. That’s television.
How did you pitch Promises to Keep to your dad?
I went to him and said, “Dad, they’re pushing for you, me, and Bentley to be in this movie of the week for television. Would you be interested?” Dad said, “Sure, but I want $500,000.” I said, “Okay.” I went back to the producers, and a $750,000 deal was put together for the three of us. Dad got his $500,000, I got paid, and my son got paid. Everybody was happy.
Promises to Keep has been released on DVD by Warner Archive. They track down obscure titles and distribute as manufactured on demand.
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Do you still write nowadays?
Oh yeah, I actually have an agent. Earlier this year I finished a murder mystery called Victoria Falls. It takes place down in Victoria Falls, Africa, and is modeled after an Agatha Christie book called And Then There Were None. A group of people go out on a tent and camera safari. Every single one of them is murdered, and there’s no one within a hundred miles. Look for it [laughs].
My agent wants to do a two-book deal including Victoria Falls. We are outlining a biography on my father. I have a perspective on my father that nobody else has.
As lung cancer and emphysema took their toll, were you able to spend any quality time with your dad?
I went over and saw him every single day when I was in town. I did the same for my mom.
Does anything come to mind about those conversations you and your dad had in those final months prior to his July 1, 1997, passing at age 79?
I saw that he was deteriorating. We had philosophical and religious conversations which I consider too personal to share here. We just talked about anything and everything.
What is your sister Trina Mitchum’s occupation?
My sister is a writer. You can go online and find Hollywood Hoofbeats: Trails Blazed Across the Silver Screen , a coffee table book she did about the history of horses in film.
What is your brother Jim Mitchum doing these days?
He has a ranch in Skull Valley, Arizona. He inherited the family’s quarter horse business as well as the rights to Thunder Road, which he costarred in with my father.
He went to a 50th reunion down south in Asheville, North Carolina. He said there were 40,000 to 50,000 people there. The film is a strong cult favorite. He got to talking with people, and he now produces Thunder Road moonshine, barbecue sauce, beef jerky, and all kinds of things [laughs]. He has a little niche business going down in the South.
How did you serendipitously meet your fiancé, Doreen Corkin, in 2000?
I was in Montecito, a nice little unincorporated community in Santa Barbara County. I walked into a Starbucks and there was a female friend of mine named Josie Gower. Doreen was sitting beside Josie, and they were spending the week together. I went over and got introduced. Josie said, “Josie’s gonna be leaving in a couple of days. I’m gonna have a dinner party for her. Will you be her escort?” I replied, “Sure.” That pretty much started it.
Sounds like she could be the one.
Yeah, she’s Connecticut born, Boston College. I’m West Coast all the way. We have a hard time getting the two to merge, so we go back and forth.
Has a wedding date been set?
Nope, we’re still trying to decide where we’re gonna live. I’m back in Massachusetts right now with her. I go back to California every three or four weeks to get my mail at my home in Santa Barbara.
What would the perfect day consist of?
Going to the beach. That’s it [laughs]. I’m California born. I love the beach.
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