JOHN MITCHUM ON LEE MARVIN

John Mitchum, veteran character actor of countless films and TV shows, was also the younger brother of the legendary Robert Mitchum. He once wrote a book in the late 1980s about his life and experiences in Hollywood that’s overflowing with anecdotes and sometimes bawdy tales.

Paperback cover of John Mitchum’s memoir, THEM ORNERY MITCHUM BOYS.

I discovered the book, titled Them Ornery Mitchum Boys after my book, Lee Marvin: Point Blank, had already been published. It concerned me at first as I had always been a fan of his “Big Brother Bob,” and thought there may be something therein I may have missed out on for my research. Luckily, I had interviewed John Mitchum during a visit to the Lone Pine Film Festival and was able to get some wonderful quotes from the man at the time.
Since that time, I purchased a copy of the book on Ebay and was happy to discover it was also signed by the author!

Signature of John Mitchum.

That said, I was able to enjoy reading the tales of John and “Big Brother Bob” without trepidation that I had missed out on any important talking points John may have included, since he did indeed work with Lee Marvin on M Squad and also Point Your Wagon.  By the way, if you want to see some of “Big Brother Bob’s” best work, check out his astounding trilogy of films fro the early 70s: The Yakuza (produced by my agent, the late Mike Hamilburg) The Friends of Eddie Coyle & Farewell My Lovely. if they don’t make you a fan of his world-weary cynicism, then nothing will.
Anyway, below is the section of tales John wrote about Lee that includes thoughts on Jean Seberg, Ty Cabeen, and more. Enjoy…
– Dwayne Epstein

John Mitchum’s take on working with Lee Marvin.

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ROBERT MITCHUM & LEE MARVIN: IN HONOR OF MITCHUM’S BIRTHDAY

Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin. Both names conjur countless images of never-to-be-forgotten films enacted by two men who although similiar, were far from identical. Each had their own persona, that sadly, other than a few brief scenes in Stanley Kramer’s Not As A Stranger (1955), never crossed paths on the silver screen. Along with Frank Sinatra, the 3 iconic actors played med students in producer Kramer’s directorial debut as seen right….

Lee Marvin (left), Frank Sinatra (center) and Robert Mitchum (right) as med students in Stanley Kramer's Not as a Stranger.

Lee Marvin (left), Frank Sinatra (center) and Robert Mitchum (right) as med students in Stanley Kramer’s Not as a Stranger.

Marvin’s one big scene in the film comes when the med students (all men, by the way) gather before class to discuss their future fortunes. Marvin, as Brundage, informs one and all that it’s not what you practice but where, as in Beverly Hills. The most idealistic of the students, Robert Mitchum’s Lucas Marsh, is clealry disgusted by Marvin’s philosophy.

Lee Marvin (far left) sets his fellow students straight, including Sinatra (center) future director Jerry Paris (next to Marvin) and a disgusted Robert Mitchum.

Lee Marvin (far left) sets his fellow students straight, including Sinatra (center) future director Jerry Paris (next to Marvin) and a disgusted Robert Mitchum.

Through the years, the two men would meet socially on occasion but were never close. More is the pity as they actually had much in common. Both men had a superficial veneer of indifference that shielded some deep-seeded emotional scars. For Marvin it was the war-induced PTSD, while Mitchum’s childhood abandonment, wanderlust and incarceration was rarely spoken of with any depth. When they did meet socially, as in the candid photo below with French director Roger Vadim, they kept the conversation light….

Mitchum (left) and Marvin (right) smoke and talk in this candid photo, with French director Roger Vadim (center) clearly distracted by possibly wife Jane Fonda .or another starlet in the proximity.

Mitchum (left) and Marvin (right) smoke and talk in this candid photo, with French director Roger Vadim (center) clearly distracted by possibly wife Jane Fonda .or another starlet in the proximity.

I would have liked to have interviewed Mitchum for  Lee Marvin: Point Blank, but sadly, never got the chance. I did however, speak with his character actor brother, John, in 1994 at the Lone Pine Film Festival the unused portion of which can be read below. He had co-starred with Marvin in Paint Your Wagon and as a famed storyteller, he had a fascinating take on working with Marvin and his older brother’s thoughts on men of their generation…..

D: If I could, Mr. Mitchum, just talk to me about Lee Marvin.
J: Well, you want the truth, don’t you?
D: Absolutely.
J: You can edit it any way you want. Well, the first two weeks on Paint Your Wagon, Lee had been drinking a great deal. I don’t think he needed an excuse… Now, as you remember, I played the Mormon with two wives. I had this big black outfit. They flew me in a helicopter on the day before I was to shoot so they could try my outfit on. So, here I got this big outfit on and Lee came over and he grabbed me by the collar, drinking, mind you. He said [slurred] “Well, Mitchum, tonight when we wrap, why don’t you wear this outfit down in Baker so they’ll know you’re an actor?” Then I found out why he was so incensed because I had done nothing to merit that. He had a babysitter named Boyd Cabeen, who’s gone now, too. They hire babysitters to work with the star, so if the star get in a fight in a bar, the babysitter walks in and stops it. He says, “If you want action, try me on for size.” So, Boyd was talking to Lee and said, “Why don’t you quit drinking, Lee? You can’t handle it. You don’t know your rear end from the Grand Canyon after you’ve had two beers. I used to babysit Mitchum at Metro and he would be drinking until six in the morning, be on the set at seven, never drop a line. But you can’t….” But the name Mitchum, “Ah Ha!” That was stewing in his mind. So, when I came up there — of course, I’m the closest target — Bob wasn’t anywhere around. Lee did apolgize a couple of days later after he saw the rushes. His apology was very left-handed. They showed the rushes of my coming in on the jackass with two women, the first scene at the trading post, there. He stood up and looked at the whole cast and crew and said, “Finally, we got an actor up here who’s got balls.”

John Mitchum, brother of Robert, as he appeared in Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin.

John Mitchum, brother of Robert, as he appeared in Paint Your Wagon with Lee Marvin.

D: [laughs} That sounds like Lee Marvin.
D: That’s a Lee Marvin compliment.
J: But Lee was a very complex man. He was in the Marine Corp during the war. By the way, I saw him up on Paint Your Wagon do a karate kick straight up in the air. If he wanted to kick your chin off, he could have done it in a second. He was that agile. During the war, he made a number of invasions. He was a very, very tought man. With all that movie star stuff, he was very tough.
D: Was there any rivalry betweent him and your brother, at all?
J: No.
D: They were often up for the same parts.
J: No, I don’t think there was any rivalry. As far as my brother is concerned, he didn’t understand that, at all. He did a picture with Bruce Dern, That Championship Season. I said, “Bob, what was it like working with Bruce?” His answer was clarifying. He said, “He [Dern] still doesn’t know that acting is not a competitive business.”
D: Bruce Dern obviously thinks it is.
J: Oh yes. “You have to compete with so and so..” Now, how can you do that? You can do that by upstaging and picking your nose at the wrong time.
D: And in the long run, you’re going to suffer for it.
J: That’s right.
D: Did your brother know Lee Marvin, well?
J: He knew him, but he didn’t know him closely.
D: They were also offered the same roles on occassion, like Patton. Was there any animosity between them?
J: No, no such thing. No way, with either of them. They’re too manly. They’re men. They’re not little boys. Both of them were extraordinary men, as far as I’m concerned.
D: Oh, definitely.
J: Extraordinary. See, I worked on “M Squad” with Lee. I did it years ago.
D: Any stories about that?
J: Only that he was a marvelous man to work with. There was no heroics. No, ‘I’m the star.’ None of that.
D: Just a professional.
J: Total professional. Total. Which to me, is the most beautiful way to work. People just do their jobs, shut up and go home. None of this posing around. Neither one, Bob or Lee, would do that, whatsoever.

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CHARLES CHAMPLIN, 1926-2014

L.A. Times film critic and arts editor Charles Champlin died last Sunday at the age of 88 from complications involving Alzeheimer’s Disease. Being a lifelong movie fan, as a rule, I’ve never been a particular fan of most film critics, but Champlin was an exception. I found the more well-known critics to be pompous, pretentious and more often than not, just plain wrong about the films they reviewed. For the most part, that exception was Champlin. He wrote of films from a place of appreciation, and was generally less stuffy and esoteric than many of his contemporaries. To me, that translates to a simple yet all encompassing difference: He genuinely liked movies.
When I was in the earliest stages of researching Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, I traveled with fellow biographer Marshall Terrill (Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American  Rebel) to Lone Pine, California, for the annual film festival held there. It was a rather small town affair for anything deemed a film festival, yet there were a surprising number of interesting guests and speakers. Marshall told me to be prepared to catch a good interview on the fly so with tape recorder at the ready, I did just that. Since Lee Marvin had filmed the likes of Stranger Wore a Gun and Bad Day Black Rock in Lone Pine, I was fortunate enough to speak with such co-stars as John Ericson, John Mitchum, Anne Francis, and several others.
At one point, I found myself simply having chat with Charles Champlin. When I told him I was working on a book on Lee Marvin, he began giving me his thoughts on Marvin, at which time I asked if hed be willing to go on record. He simply nodded as I fumbled with the tape recorder. Below is the transcription of that all too brief conversation which was already at full steam by the time I hit ‘RECORD.’ Enjoy…..

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Charles Champlin as he looked at the time I interviewed him at Lone Pine, Oct. 8, 1994.

Champlin:…I could put you in touch with Frankenheimer.
Epstein: I would love that!
C: Because you know they did Iceman Cometh and Iceman Cometh is one of the best things Lee Marvin ever did. But I think they worked together two or three other times, at least in live television.
D: Right. I was just going to say that I think they did some TV together.
C: Yeah. And John was a terrific admirer of Lee Marvin’s.
D: I know he took a lot of flack in the beginning for casting Marvin and not Jason Robards, which everybody anticipated him doing. He said in an interview at the time that he didn’t want somebody who knew the part inside and out and wouldn’t add anything new to it.
C: That’s exactly right. It made sense. Marvin was an interesting man. In some ways a tragic figure. You always had the feeling about Lee Marvin that there was more work that should have been done.

Lee Marvin as 'Hickey' in Frankenheimer's film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

Lee Marvin as ‘Hickey’ in Frankenheimer’s film version of The Iceman Cometh (1973)

D: Capable of a lot more than…
C: He’ll be remembered for Cat Ballou. But it’s a problem that actors always have. I remember interviewing Robert Ryan once. Of course, they were both in Iceman
D: Several films; The Professionals
C: ….Dirty Dozen. Ryan said, “I made 75 films and all but three of them were dogs.”
D: That’s a great quote. I remember reading that.
C: Of course, it wasn’t true. Ryan brought great dignity to everything he did. He was one of those actors that couldn’t do anything wrong.
D: Terribly underrated.
C: I told John Ericson here that the first laser disc I bought was Bad Day At Black Rock because I thought Ryan was just wonderful. His villains were heroic, too. It’s nice to go both ways. He dared to go both ways.
D: I thought he was most….he was like evil personified.
C: Absolutely right. Like I said, Marvin was a terrific actor, too.
D: What quick thought come to mind when you think of Lee Marvin?
C: I have one of those memories of Lee Marvin explaining in Stanley Kramer’s Ship Of Fools how he never made it in baseball because he couldn’t hit a curve.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

Marvin as Bill Tenney in Ship Of Fools (1964) explaining to Michael Dunn why his baseball career went south.

D: Curve ball low and inside, to Michael Dunn. Great scene.
C: That’s my memory. I never did an interview with him, to my knowledge, that I can remember. Cat Ballou of course was just a classic piece of film acting and film making, really. It was a wonderful idea. It’s Elliot Silverstein’s best film by far. There’s no question about that.

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin as Kid Shelleen, his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965).

Marvin had a great versatility. Probably, he tended to get typecast, I suppose in those action roles because he did have a kind of lean and hungry look about him. But he was a good actor. I just think that all actors are the victims of what they can do. I think there’s so many. Maybe Ryan, too, is a causality of a system that puts you in a certain niche. Then it’s hard for you to get a decent role.
D: Maybe more so than Marvin because Ryan never seemed to have the kind of choices in roles that Lee Marvin did.
C: Yeah, well that’s true. Thank you very much.

Once I turned off the tape recorder, Champlin was as good as his word and did indeed put me in touch with Frankenheimer. Naturally, I wished I had spoken with Champlin at greater length but still feel very fortunate to have the time with him that I did. Yet again, another example on my part of not appreciating my luck at the time. He will be truly missed.

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