When Robert Mitchum considered Elvis Presley for ‘Thunder Road’
The Chris Mitchum Interview, Part Two
Since your father Robert Mitchum offered Elvis Presley a leading role in Thunder Road , did you get to meet the King of Rock ’n’ Roll?
Actually my parents saw Elvis before he was well known. They were down in New Orleans staying with Frank and Isabell Monteleone, who owned the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter in New Orleans. On the weekend, they went to their place in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
The Monteleones said, “There’s a little club about a half hour from here. They’ve got this singer there, and we ought to go up and see him.” It was Elvis Presley. I think he had a contract to work at that little club one week a month. When they got back to the Monteleone Hotel they ran into Colonel Tom Parker. They urged him, “You oughta go up and see this guy.” So the Colonel went, saw Elvis, and signed him.
[Author’s Note: Esteemed music biographers Peter Guralnick and Alanna Nash have documented that Parker’s Jamboree Attractions advance man Oscar Davis discovered the 19-year-old Presley and the Blue Moon Boys on October 30, 1954, less than four months after his career launched with debut single “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” at the Eagles Nest mini nightclub in Memphis upon the invitation of Presley’s early manager Bob Neal. Davis was in town on a 10-day barnstorming tour with country superstar Eddy Arnold and eventually drove to Parker’s Madison, Tennessee, home to report how impressed he was by Presley’s dynamic stage presence. Parker attended Presley’s January 15, 1955, appearance on the Louisiana Hayride, an influential Shreveport-based country radio program akin to the Grand Ole Opry that booked Presley on Saturdays beginning the previous October when he first ventured outside Tennessee. By February 6 the groundbreaking artist met his future Svengali in person in a café across the street from Memphis’s Ellis Auditorium. Presley scholar and For Elvis CD Collectors message board member Dr. John Carpenter notes, “Biloxi is just 22 miles east of Pass Christian, about a half hour drive. I’ll wager that the Montelone couple took Mitchum to see the Elvis phenomenon at Keesler Airman’s Club in Biloxi. Elvis performed there June 27–28, 1955, and later that year on November 7–8. In Lee Server’s aptly-titled biography Baby, I Don’t Care, he writes that Mitchum took a ship to Europe to film Foreign Intrigue in June 1955. So…if my assumption about Biloxi is correct, and I suspect that it is, Mitchum was taken to see one of Elvis’ performances in November. However, if so, it must have been a very low key visit, as a film star coming to see a show like that would have left an impression, especially with a singer who loved movies”…and had been a part-time usher at Loew’s State Theatre during high school].
When my dad was preparing his original written story of Thunder Road [the first of three films Mitchum produced — The Wonderful Country (1959) and The Night Fighters (1960) were the others], he wanted Elvis to play his younger brother Robin Doolin. They got together and talked about it.
My parents always had a Christmas party, and Elvis and two of his bodyguards came to the party. My mom served us some delicious roast beef. I remember at the end of the party everybody had left. My dad and Elvis were at the piano taking turns playing and singing songs.
My dad loved jazz and knew a lot of Southern jazz songs. Dad would be like, “Do you know this one?” I sat there half the night listening to them. I didn’t pay much attention as to who Greg [Gregory] Peck and Marilyn Monroe were, but at 13 years old I knew who Elvis Presley was [laughs]. It was something.
It turned out that Elvis didn’t do the picture because Colonel Parker did not want him to do a movie that he couldn’t get an album out of. Thunder Road was not a musical. My brother Jim eventually played the part [Presley was also under contract to both MGM and Paramount Studios. Thunder Road was financed by United Artists].
Obsessed with control, Colonel Parker may not have been too thrilled that your dad approached Elvis directly rather than going through the proper channels.
Oh absolutely. I imagine the fact that my dad knew Elvis before he knew the Colonel probably pissed him off, too [laughs]. I saw Elvis just that one time at our house which was enough.
I imagine you caught Elvis’s three incendiary appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Oh absolutely. Ed Sullivan was a Sunday night favorite.
[Author’s Note: In Memphis rock ’n’ roll deejay George Klein’s 2010 memoir Elvis: My Best Man, the Memphis Mafia member confirms that he and Arthur Hooten went with Elvis to Mitchum’s Mandeville Canyon Road home in Los Angeles. The occasion coinciding with Christmas is impossible, as Elvis’s final California sojourn of 1957 fell during the first week of November according to Guralnick and Jorgensen’s Elvis Day by Day: The Definitive Record of His Life and Music. Klein also divulges that Mitchum showed up unexpectedly at Elvis’s Beverly Wilshire presidential suite with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a script for Thunder Road in the other while Elvis was filming Jailhouse Rock which would have been either May or June 1957. Elvis, who normally shunned celebrities and felt uncomfortable attending glitzy Hollywood parties, told Klein that Mitchum “had the best walk of any movie star.” The dynamic hit chewed the fat like longtime pals. Both had risen from hardscrabble backgrounds and battled jealous, obnoxious, so-called fans. Reading the script out loud, Elvis excitedly accepted the role and urged Mitchum to call Colonel Parker to smooth over any red tape. Klein sadly wrote, “The Colonel claimed that Elvis had too many obligations to fulfill and too many film contracts already pending to take on Mitchum’s project, but I think the real problem was that the Colonel was unhappy that someone had gotten straight to Elvis without going through him…unfortunately it wouldn’t be the last time that Elvis’s enthusiasm for a creative project would be undercut.” Filming for Thunder Road, which had working titles of Jack of Diamonds and The Whippoorwill, began on Labor Day, September 2, 1957, in Asheville, North Carolina. If you missed it, catch up here with “Chris Mitchum’s Fluke Showdown with the King of Cool Steve McQueen,” the debut installment of my ongoing conversation with Robert Mitchum’s second child].
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