“John Wayne was more of a mentor and a father to me in the business than my own father was…Duke did nothing but give me support. He took me from a two or three-line role to costarring with him. He basically made my career…” Chris Mitchum, the second child of the masterful Winds of War naval commander emblazoned by the late Robert Mitchum, wound up good-naturedly sparring with Wayne in three westerns filmed consecutively in Mexico — Chisum, Rio Lobo, and the legend-embellishing Big Jake — before their relationship suddenly crumbled during a joint 1972 summit on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. So pull off your spurs for the third installment of an ongoing, exclusive conversation where Mitchum examines his mentor almost 50 years since Chisum began production under the tutelage of gentle giant Andrew V. McLaglen. Previous segments in this “Next Stop, John Wayne Station” column uncovered the naturally reserved, intelligent actor’s startling encounters with Steve McQueen and Elvis Presley.
I didn’t meet him until I filmed Chisum in 1969 with director Andy [Andrew] McLaglen. Of course my dad had known Duke for decades and worked alongside him in Howard Hawks’ excellent El Dorado [they were also among the all-star cast in the 1962 World War II epic The Longest Day but had no scenes together].
I actually went in for the part of Billy the Kid in Chisum. One day when we were down in Durango, Mexico, I was probably the fourth guy in the back doing the scene. Duke’s sitting down with a chaw of tobacco in his mouth watching.
He walks over towards me. I’m on a horse’s back. Duke slaps his hand on my side and says [Mitchum adopts a dead-on Wayne impression], “You should have played Billy the Kid.” “Gosh Duke, that was my thought when I went in for the interview” [laughs].
Duke added, “Howard Hawks is coming down to talk to me about my next film [Rio Lobo]. I want to introduce you to him.” Duke did just that, and Howard gave me his card. Howard told me, “When you get to Hollywood, give me a call. I want to see you.” “Okay.”
Howard and I had about an hour meeting in Hollywood. We started off talking, and then Howard had me do a reading for the part. We chatted some more, and Howard asked me to do a reading again. This time he gave me totally different direction on how to play the part which I closely followed. I guess Howard wanted to see if I could take direction on set. That was on a Tuesday.
Howard wondered, “Would you mind coming in to screen test on Thursday?” “Sure.” I screen tested with Sherry Lansing, who later became the head of Paramount Studios, for the part that Jorge Rivero eventually played [Rebel Capt. Pierre Cordona].
It’s the scene where the captain is being chased by the bad guys. He ducks into the store, and there’s a topless woman bathing herself in a wash basin. They have a little conversation, and she ends up becoming a quasi-love interest to the captain.
If you look at Rio Bravo , El Dorado , and Rio Lobo — that scene is in all three films. Basically Howard made the same western three times. He said, “Chris, you just need five good scenes that people will talk about. You won’t need to advertise to film. It will be a success.” Those five scenes are in all three.
Howard decided that Jorge looked more mature and was better as a captain and that I was more suited to be a sergeant. So I ended up playing Tuscarora Phillips.
While we were doing Rio Lobo Duke came back from getting his True Grit Academy Award and pulled me aside on the Tucson Street. He told me, “While I was in Hollywood I made a deal to do my next film. I’d like you to play my son.” “Duke, I’m honored. Absolutely.” That’s how I got Big Jake.
I have no idea. Jorge had been a Mexican champion body builder — the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Mexico — and started doing some movies. Somehow Howard ran into him and signed him for Rio Lobo [Rivero’s first American production was as the noble, albeit naive Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf in director Ralph Nelson’s excessively violent Soldier Blue, filmed about three months prior to Rio Lobo].
he guy was sharp as a tack. He was 73 years old during the filming of Rio Lobo. I was a young kid so to me he seemed to be 110. At lunch time he’d get on a dirt bike and go riding over the hills in Cuernavaca, Mexico [laughs]. The guy had grit. Howard insisted that I come to his hotel at the end of the day and have a slow gin fizz with him every evening, so I did [laughs].
Howard edited in his head as he shot. You would walk onto the set and Nancy Reeves, a lovely person who functioned as Howard’s girl Friday, would hand us a stack of pages for the day’s shooting.
As we would start rehearsing, we would change lines. Howard would give my line to Duke and Duke’s line to me. We would swap everything around. Until Howard said “Print,” we did not have a script. Nancy was taking shorthand and then would type up the pages. That became the script for the day after we shot it.
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