‘Hey Mom, look! There’s Dad!’ In the shadow of movie star Robert Mitchum

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Railroad hoboing, calypso music, antagonizing Hopalong Cassidy, shooting rifles, riding horses, famous neighbors, parental discipline, and acting with his dad in “Promises to Keep” decode an exclusive Chris Mitchum interview divulged below. Plagued by emphysema, 76-year-old Montecito, California, resident Robert Mitchum nevertheless surrenders to no one in this striking January 1994 candid taken about a month after the distribution of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer’s “Tombstone.” Mitchum provided the opening narration for the blockbuster western. He was forced to withdraw from the role of “Old Man Clanton” when his back failed him after a day in the saddle according to biographer Lee Server. The film noir antihero terrorized moviegoers in “The Night of the Hunter” as well as the original “Cape Fear” but criminally received his sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for the World War II film that made him a household name, “The Story of G.I. Joe,” for director Wild Bill Wellman in 1945. Photography by Richard Avedon

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.

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“I don’t want a drink, I want the whole bottle.” “Just hold your horses, sheriff:” Sporting an atypical mustache, bartender John Mitchum and boozing, down on his luck sheriff-real life big brother Robert Mitchum spend time together on a Paramount soundstage filming director Howard Hawks’ splendid western “El Dorado,” also starring John Wayne and James Caan and issued on June 7, 1967. Image Credit: Paramount Pictures / eBay

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.

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Recorded in March 1957 at the landmark Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood after spending months on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago filming “Fire Down Below” and “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” here is the rum-soaked Technicolor cover of “Calypso — Is Like So,” the debut album of actor Robert Mitchum. Lee Server uncovered in his exhaustive bio of Mitchum that the laconic actor ran into songwriter Johnny Mercer in Beverly Hills and let him in on everything he had been hearing in Trinidad and Tobago. Mercer recommended that he go to Capitol, who “had been talking to Mitchum about an album for some time, but no one had ever come up with a game plan. The calypso thing appealed to everybody.” Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat [Day-O]” was a Top Five smash, and “sexy, so-called exotica records, from high-octave Andean warbling to Balinese bachelor pad instrumentals, were all the rage. Now Mitchum was going to be calypso’s great white hope…the resulting album was an enticing romp, equal parts Belafonte, Martin Denny, and karaoke bar. It was the first time, until his series of accented film roles in the ’60s and ’70s, that Mitchum got to show off his talent for foreign accents, belting out the Carib ditties with scrupulously authentic intonations…but music lovers didn’t buy many copies, and the man went back to his day job.” Almost 30 years later David Letterman teased the macho tough guy about the vinyl long player during a summit plugging “Promises to Keep,” a 1985 CBS TV movie costarring Chris Mitchum and grandson Bentley Mitchum, which you can watch below. Image Credit: 45Worlds user Louis Sidney / Capitol Records

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].

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Robert Mitchum, long-suffering wife Dorothy Clements Spence Mitchum, and sons Chris [left] and Jim are the quintessential American family in a rare color shot circa 1947 inside their $12,500 four-bedroom home near Universal Studios at 3372 Oak Glen Drive in Los Angeles. Mitchum was then under contract to Howard Hughes’ RKO Radio Pictures, appearing regularly in westerns like “Rachel and the Stranger” and suspenseful film noir like “Out of the Past.” Image Credit: ScreenProd / Photononstop

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.

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Don’t open that door, Hoppy! Bearded, pistol-packin’ cattle rustler Robert Mitchum awaits perpetually heroic man in black William Boyd in “Hoppy Serves a Writ,” Mitchum’s debut acting credit issued on March 12, 1943. Image Credit: U.S. Television Office, Inc. / Zeus DVD’s
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I’ve had just about enough of this! In his seventh and final occurrence in a Hopalong Cassidy western, Robert Mitchum has a score to settle with a downright fierce William Boyd in “Riders of the Deadline,” dropped on December 3, 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II. Image Credit: U.S. Television Office, Inc. / Larry Green Productions

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.

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On April 23, 1955, Robert Mitchum gives eldest son Jim and youngest son Chris [middle] some accurate shotgun lessons on the lawn of their home located on Mandeville Canyon Road in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Two months later Mitchum teamed with Frank Sinatra and Olivia de Havilland in the medical melodrama “Not As a Stranger,” Stanley Kramer’s directorial debut. Before the year was over Mitchum unleashed one of his most disturbing performances in the seminal “Night of the Hunter” directed by “Mutiny on the Bounty” antagonist Charles Laughton. Journalist Lee Server tells a story about why the Mitchums moved from Oak Glen Drive to Brentwood. Mitchum’s wife “Dorothy had joined her husband in Mexico for the last week of filming ‘The Big Steal.’ While they were away, the children were left in the care of a nanny. On April 28, 1949, a precocious five-year-old Chris and four other kids had a run-in with a store owner on Cahuenga Boulevard , not far from the Mitchum home. When the store owner chased them away, young Chris ran into an oncoming car. He was rushed to Hollywood Receiving Hospital and treated for cuts and bruises. When Bob and Dorothy got back and heard of the incident, they were newly motivated to move out of the small house and congested neighborhood.” Photography by Sid Avery

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.

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With unconventional blonde hair, Dean Martin’s daughter Deana Martin, “Strangers on a Train” star Robert Walker’s son Robert Walker Jr., “Grapes of Wrath” character actor John Carradine’s son David Carradine, and Robert Mitchum’s son Chris Mitchum are likely exceeding this horse’s carrying capacity in a charming candid taken during the Tucson, Arizona, location filming of “Young Billy Young.” Director Burt Kennedy of “Support Your Local Sheriff” fame helmed the unassuming western, starring the elder Mitchum as Deputy Marshal Ben Kane and ultimately released on October 8, 1969. Chris made his screen debut as the peace officer’s son in a brief flashback sequence [thanks to Lee Server’s Mitchum biography for identifying where Chris can be seen]. Photography by Don Christie / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / The Chris Mitchum Collection
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A reining and cutting cattle exhibition at the end of 1988 or 1989 finds actor Chris Mitchum demonstrating why he received the “Winning Reserve Champion” award later that evening at the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Championships in Los Angeles. Image Credit: The Chris Mitchum Collection

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.

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Chris Mitchum, Robert Mitchum, and Bentley Mitchum are three generations of Hollywood royalty in “Promises to Keep,” a CBS movie of the week broadcast on October 15, 1985. Fostering a dream to write just like his dad, Chris actually penned a script that was rejected by the suits since he wasn’t a member of the Writers Guild. Lee Server recounts in his definitive Mitchum biography “Baby, I Don’t Care” an interview that Chris granted to the New York Times plugging “Promises to Keep.” “Whether he is proud of me or not, God knows; he’ll never tell me,” said the younger Mitchum. “Until we did this picture together I never had any evidence he knew what I did for a living. We never discussed the fact that I was an actor. My father has never expressed an opinion one way or another about my doing anything…my father didn’t say to me nine times a day, like I do to my kids, ‘I love you.’ He just won’t open up. But I know my father loves me.” Image Credit: Sandra Harmon Productions / Entertainment Pictures

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.

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Robert Mitchum gives fledgling sons Chris and Jim a headphone-fueled lesson in what appears to be a homemade radio circa 1947. Both boys became actors — Jim can be seen in the Pearl Harbor World War II retelling “In Harm’s Way” with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas while Chris filmed three back to back westerns with the Duke — “Chisum,” “Rio Lobo,” “Big Jake”—and aided Charlton Heston in bringing flamboyant outlaw James Coburn to justice in “The Last Hard Men.” Image Credit: CSU Archives / Everett Collection

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 [2005], a coffee table book she did about the history of horses in film.

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Dorothy Clements Spence Mitchum, husband Robert Mitchum, and youngest child Petrine Day “Trina” Mitchum attend a premiere for “Lawrence of Arabia” director David Lean’s bloated, still-essential epic “Ryan’s Daughter” circa November 1970 in New York City. Set in the thick of World War I on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, Mitchum was cast against type as the impotent, widowed schoolmaster Charles Shaughnessy. At the dawn of the seventies Mitchum began wearing oversized glasses and consistently refused to adopt a more conservative pair. Image Credit: MPTV Images
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James “Jim” Mitchum and doppelgänger father Robert Mitchum get seriously laconic for a publicity still depicting director Arthur Ripley’s moonshine chase flick “Thunder Road,” released on May 10, 1958. The eldest Mitchum child later worked with his famous father in 1961’s “The Last Time I Saw Archie” — a very rare Mitchum comedy outing — and the 1989 USA Network movie of the week “Jake Spanner, Private Eye.” Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / IMDB

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.

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Sweethearts Chris Mitchum and Doreen Corkin ecstatically attend the Le Bal Révolution gala, hosted by the French Cultural Center / Alliance Française of Boston and Cambridge, on May 12, 2018, at the Liberty Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. A recent two-time U.S. House of Representatives candidate for California’s 24th District, in the early 1970s Chris worked on three westerns with the staunchly Republican Duke Wayne and found himself blacklisted in America during the waning days of the politicized Vietnam War. Author Lee Server maintains that Chris “went where the work was and moved his family to Spain for three years. In Hollywood they couldn’t even spell it, but the name Chris Mitchum on a marquee meant good box office in Algeciras or Manila. Usually, he would say jokingly, he played a smiling, renegade CIA agent who kills hundreds of people. In 1980, he returned to the United States hoping to try his luck again in Hollywood. ‘From 1980 to 1982, I didn’t work at all,’ Chris told the Los Angeles Times. ‘That was one of the many times I bottomed out. It was rough.’ He’d had an established price for his services in Europe, and in California no one wanted to pay it.” Photography by Michael Blanchard / Boston Common Magazine

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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In a brown fedora with a conspicuous bullet hole on the brim, 57-year-old Robert Mitchum portrays battle-scarred private eye Philip Marlowe in one of his best latter-day movies — “Farewell, My Lovely.” Director Dick Richards’ film noir throwback was distributed on August 8, 1975. Sylvia Miles was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar as Jessie Halstead Florian, a “dirt poor widow of a former club owner who is sought out for questioning” by the hard-nosed detective. Photography by John R. Shannon

© Jeremy Roberts, 2019. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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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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