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Christopher "Chris" Mitchum could be described as a severe case of bad luck : the son of legendary movie star Robert Mitchum saw his career take flight in the late 1960s, before suffering a sharp decline for a variety of reasons, as he went from Hollywood wunderkid to B-movie stalwart. Mr Mitchum was kind enough to grant us some of his time and look back at his career, which explored the nether regions of B, C and F cinema.
Interview conducted by John Nada in March 2008.
Thank you for being kind enough to accept answering our questions. To start from the beginning, could you tell us what motivated you and your brother James to take on your father's profession? Have you been encouraged to do so or was it a choice of yours?
I cannot answer for my brother. I know he began at the age of 16 when Elvis Presley was unable to play the part of my father's brother in the 1958 film Thunder Road. For my own part, I never wanted to get into the film business. I went to college, attending the University of Pennsylvania then the University of Arizona. I have a degree in English Literature. I wanted to write and teach. As Life would have it, by the time I was out of college, I was married and had two children. I needed to work. While at Arizona, I would often work at Old Tucson as an extra in films and television ($13.80 a day, plus lunch!) Sam Maners, the production manager on the TV series Dundee and the Culhane (w/John Mills) offered me a part "if I ever came to LA." We moved to Los Angeles and, needing work, I went to see Sam. I was hired for a part on the show, one day's work, $150. I was very excited, until I read the script. I died before the opening credits, off screen! I played a dead man. Well, it turned into two day's work. $300 was a lot of money in 1967. After that, I fell into another part on the Danny Thomas Hour, one hour dramas. Sammy Davis Jr. starred. It was a WWII story and I played a GI. I was in the barracks, on my bunk, and had two lines with Bo Hopkins. I was still horizontal, but alive, with nowhere to go but up! I had no more film jobs for the next two years, so I worked in various fields. In 1969, I landed a production job as a "go-for." Aka errand-boy. I worked on a number of films in production, 1st AD, 2 AD, Associate Producer, production assistant, etc. and started getting hired out of the office to act. Acting paid more. I will say that it wasn't until I worked with Howard Hawks that I appreciated the profession and began to love my work. So, acting wasn't my choice, at least at the start. I was never encouraged. In fact, it wasn't until 1973 that my father even acknowledged that I was an actor.
Robert Mitchum, with his sons James and Christopher.
As a kid, did you hang out with your father on film sets, and grow up in a "show business" social milieu, or did your father rather strive to "protect" you from that?
Yes and no. I remember, as a child, going to RKO and playing in the prop room with the miniature King Kongs and remote control battle ships while my dad was off "working." I didn't have a clue as to where I was. In fact, I think I was 12 before I realized my dad was an actor. So, yes, I went to the studios. Summers, I might be in Greece or France while he was on a film, but, to him, it was a job. When you left work, you went home. So no, I didn't go up in the "milieu."
Could you tell us a bit about your earlier movies experiences, like Rio Lobo? From a professional perspective, how helpful or inconvenient was it to be Robert Mitchum's son? (Like "was it socially and professionally fulfilling for you in the film crew eyes", or were you rather despised and considered as "the kid whose daddy pulls some wires for"?)
Growing up as "Robert Mitchum's son" was a pain in the ass. In grade school, older kids would beat me up. As a young man, I never knew if someone liked me just because I was my father's son. When I started working in the industry, casting director Ed Foley told me he would never hire me because he didn't believe in "nepotism." When they flew me in from the East coast to screen test for Winds of War, director Dan Curtis made sure I flew in on a "red-eye," went right to the studio to test, and was told I could not wear makeup because "they wanted to see what I really looked like." As I was walking onto the set to test, there was Jan-Michael Vincent, a friend of Dan's, coming off the set in full make-up. He got the part. It didn't help me that my dad was the star. He never "pulled strings" for me, and I think everyone in the business knows that. However, today, despite my own career of over 30 years and my father being dead for over ten years, I'm still referred to as "Robert Mitchum's son." I have always been treated as my own person on the set.
Rio Lobo? Starring with John Wayne? Directed by Howard Hawks? The last years of the Studio Era? What do YOU think that was like?
In the early 1970s, you went to work in Europe (Italy, Spain, France...) and appeared in many "B" pictures directed by the likes of Tulio Demichelli or Aldo Sambrell. What motivated you on this career change? Did you ever feel that it could have a negative impact on your image?
Of course it had a negative impact on my image. After I filmed Big Jake with Wayne, I received a number of awards. NATO and Box Office Star-to-watch. Photoplay Gold Medal Award Best New Actor, and so on. While on the PA tour for the release of Big Jake, I received a job offer to shoot a film in Spain with Olivia Hussey, Karl Malden and a great international cast. I was the star. I took it. When I got back, I didn't have a job interview for 11 months. Finally, I got an interview for Steelyard Blues. The casting director took one look at me and said, "Oh, you're THAT Chris Mitchum. I'm sorry, I can't interview you."
"Because you've starred with John Wayne."
Duke was very visible standing up for our troops in Viet Nam. Hollywood saw that as "supporting the war." It wasn't. Still, anyone who starred with Duke was blackballed. "They" didn't want to chance another star having a political voice with which they disagreed. So, I was blackballed in some circles. I had another job offer in Spain. When I went there, my first film, Summertime Killer had been a big hit. Ran for a year on the Gran Via. I was a major star there and immediately upon arrival, I was offered another film. I had a family to feed. Europe was where the work was, so I moved to Spain. Of course, once you become a "foreign star," you're regarded as a "B" actor and fall out of the loop.
How did you get to work in the Philippines and Indonesia? How was the working atmosphere and shooting conditions in each country? For example, would you have any specific memories about producer Bobby A. Suarez (the head of BAS Films, for whom you did "Master Samurai" in 1974), father and son directors Cesar & Jun Gallardo, or memories or anecdotes about 1987 film "SFX Retaliator" and fellow actors Linda Blair and Gordon Mitchell?
When Franco was alive, Spain had a great film industry with great, worldwide distribution. When he died, about a month after I had moved back to the States, the film industry fell apart there. All they wanted to do was make porn and anti-Franco films. Because of the films in Spain and Europe, I became a major star throughout Asia. I started getting film offers from that part of the world. In fact, my first film there was H-Bomb, in Thailand, which hooked me back up with Olivia Hussey. (Summertime Killer, which was Spain's biggest grossing film at the time, was a major hit throughout Asia.) After doing one film in Asia, other companies started coming after me.
Linda Blair? I think I'm in love with her. She is an absolutely terrific woman. Gordon Mitchell? Funny, before acting, he was my brother's gym teacher at University High School. I liked Gordon. We kept in touch until his death. As for other stories, you'll have to read my book.
Your brother James also made films in Italy and in the Philippines: concerning shooting films in those countries, who set the path to the other?
The actors in the family all walked on the same beach, but we all made our own footprints.
What are your memories of Jess Franco and his working methods? "Faceless" was reportedly directed in part by Franco's wife Lina Romay. We also heard that the film was supposed to have a sequel. Is that true? Any specific comments about Franco's film "Dark Mission"? Any memories about Brigitte Lahaie, Telly Savalas, Christopher Lee, Helmut Berger, Richard Harrison?
Ah, yes. Again, you'll have to read my book.
You appeared in "Commando Mengele" (aka "Angel of death"), directed by Andrea Bianchi. The film reportedly included a lot of stock footages from "El Hombre que mató a Mengele", a Jess Franco film on the same subject starring Howard Vernon. Were you aware of this? Did you work with Franco on this production? Would you have any comments on the French producing company Eurociné in general and its boss Marius Lesoeur?
Funny story about the Mengele film. When I was contacted by Daniel Lesoeur for the film, I had a herniated disk in my lower back. In fact, after the film, I had surgery. I was in constant pain and could hardly walk, but I needed the work so I took the job. I arrived with cane (and pills) in hand and had a meeting with Daniel. I gave him this spiel that my character was a Viet Nam vet, wounded in Nam and partially crippled, and he hated the Commies for doing that, which is why he worked for Mengele. Daniel, God bless him and understanding little of actors, said, "Fine." So, we walked down the hall to Andrea's room for a meeting, at which I made the same pitch. Now, picture the star telling the director how he'd like to play it, and the producer there nodding. Andrea said "Fine." So, I played it with the cane, which I really needed. When we got to the first fight scene, Andrea wanted me to do all these high, spinning kicks. We were about two weeks into shooting. I said, "Andrea, the guy's a cripple." He went ashen. Being a black belt in Kenpo, I had already worked out a routine using the cane which is what we shot. I had heard that Andrea is also Drew White who made porn films. I never checked that out. Jess? Had not yet met him, but he and Daniel were good friends and, of course, Howard was on the film. I loved working with Daniel. A very "family" company. I have met Marius, but can't really say that I "know" him.
Did you ever feel that you were used mostly in order to have your family name in the credits? If so, how did you feel about it?
In my early work, I had to be ten time better than anyone else tested so that, if the film bombed, whoever cast me could not be accused of putting me in because they knew my father. No one's going to hang millions on just someone's last name. You have to deliver, too. Same thing when I was working in Europe and Asia. I had my own name. In fact, my father told me, when he was in Japan shooting The Yakuza, a young woman came up to him and asked, "You Robert Mitchum?" "Yes," he said. "Father of Chris Mitchum?" "Yes," he said. "Could you please get me his autograph?" He loved telling that story. In the later years, when my star has dimmed and my father's still shown bright, I'm sure the combined power of the name "Mitchum" helped. Hey, it's work.
In the 1990s, you appeared in many supporting roles, as in "Tombstone" for instance, and made fewer movies. Did you deliberately wish to take a step back from acting?
No, I did not. I got mad at my agent and fired him, unaware of how much the business has changed. Now, with the extras all in SAG, work paying less except for the big names, it's hard for the small, really good agencies to get enough work for their clients and they aren't interested in taking on someone new... unless you're already working. The bigger agencies work for the agency, not for their clients... well, I like the more personal touch. So, I've been without an agent for 14 years. Makes it hard to get work.
Your son Bentley is also an actor. Did you support his career choice? You are also starring together in one movie, "Soul Searchers", directed by Bentley. Could you tell us more about it?
If that's what he wanted to do, yes. I had preferred that he stayed at USC and graduated from the film school. It would have opened many more doors for him. His career started when he starred with my father and me in Promises To Keep, a CBS MOW. Soul Searchers is a little horror film he wrote, directed and produced down in Texas. He got some good talent to come in for him. It's been edited and he's marketing it, now.
Robert, Christopher et Bentley: three Mitchum generations.
What are your (other) current projects? Do you concentrate only on your acting career, or do you have other activities? Are you involved in the management of your father's films' rights?
If I had an agent, I'd love to do more acting. We'll see. Right now, however, I'm doing a great deal of writing. I've written nine screenplays that have been filmed, all overseas. I am working on a western, have two finished scripts I'm marketing, have two children's stories for which I'm trying to find a publisher, and am writing a murder mystery (novel). There's not much to manage of my father's film rights, other than collect checks when they are shown.
During your career, you have worked all over the world, in the US, in Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Germany...) and in Asia (Hong Kong, The Philippines, Indonesia, Japan...), with some of the biggest stars and also in some of the baddest movies in the history of Cinema. With the benefit of hindsight, what look do you take at your career, as a professional and more specifically as a human experience?
I was shooting American Commandos with John Phillip Law in the Philippines. I was lamenting about not working back in the majors in Hollywood. "How many films do you do a year, Mitch?" JP asked. "Three." "You making a living?" "Well, yeah, a pretty good one," I said. "Mitch, do you know how many actors in SAG would kill to be doing what you're doing?" JP asked. I did know. I knew the amount of work I had, and my earnings, put me in the top 2% of all actors in Hollywood. I stopped complaining.
I've worked in 14 different countries and starred with the world's top stars. I've made a good living. I did the best with that which I had to work, tried to maintain my values by keeping my clothes on and profanity out of my dialogue. I wanted my children to be able to watch me in my films. I met wonderful people and wonderful characters and travelled to wonderful places... being paid for it all the time! It's said the "Life happens while you're making plans." It certainly did to me, but I've always tried to make the best of it. Regrets? Sure, I wish my career had stayed in Hollywood, but I'm not dead yet. So far, Life's been a terrific ride... and it's going to make a great book!