Gordon Mitchell

Body-builder turned actor
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The Independent Online

Charles Allen Pendleton (Gordon Mitchell), body-builder and actor: born Denver, Colorado 29 July 1923; married; died Marina del Rey, California 20 September 2003.

A former body-builder and member of Mae West's backing team of muscle-men, Gordon Mitchell found fame in the cycle of "sword and sandal" films that came in the wake of the enormously successful Italian epics Hercules (1957) and Hercules Unchained (1959), which made Steve Reeves a superstar. Producers started scouring the beaches and gyms for muscle-men, and Mitchell was one of the first to be chosen to go to Rome and follow in Reeves's footsteps. He was to prove a remarkable durable actor, making over 200 films in a 40-year career.

Born Charles Allen Pendleton in Denver, Colorado, in 1923, he was taken to California by his mother in 1937 when his parents divorced. "When I was a young kid in Denver," he explained, "there were a lot of tough kids on the street who were bigger than me, and the only way I could get stronger was to do push-ups and chin-ups."

After serving in the Second World War, in which he became a prisoner-of-war, he completed college studies in anatomy, biology and physiology, using his degree to become a high-school teacher. His pupils included juvenile delinquents: "I was given all the rough kids," he said, "because of my physique. Wherever there were rowdies, I was called in."

He had become a denizen of the famed Muscle Beach, where he pumped iron with such body-builders as Steve Reeves, Dick Dubois, Joe Gold and the brothers Vic and Armand Tanny:

It was a beautiful place, a golden dream. All the champions were there and we trained all day long, from sunrise to sunset, and it attracted the world . . . all the women that you wanted were down there too! It was a fabulous time.

Mitchell also took film work as an extra and appeared in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956). In the latter, he and Joe Gold dragged the tortured Moses (Charlton Heston) to the feet of Rameses (Yul Brynner). In 1956 Mae West chose him to be one of the group of half-naked muscle-men whom she used on stage as the butt of many of her double entendres. Mitchell also modelled, and was on the cover of the magazine Strength and Health in July 1960.

The same year he sent his photograph to an Italian producer who had advertised for well-built actors, and who immediately signed him to a contract:

They sent me a ticket and advanced me money but I had no idea I was going to be the lead in their film.

The part was that of Maciste, a strong man of Italian folklore, in Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi, though for American audiences the hero became the better-known Atlas and the film was given the title Atlas Against the Cyclops (1961). Like most of the Italian films of the genre, it had minimal dialogue, so that it could easily be dubbed into many languages, and Mitchell later acknowledged that he never knew what was going on in a movie because he could neither read nor speak Italian.

The film was a tremendous hit, particularly in Europe, and was quickly followed by other epics such as Il gigante di Metropolis (The Giant of Metropolis, 1961), in which the loincloth-clad hero endured torture on the lost continent of Atlantis, Col fereo e col fuco (With Fire and Sword, 1962), which co-starred Jeanne Crain and John Drew Barrymore, and La vendetta dei gladiatori (Revenge of the Gladiators, 1966), in which he was a rebel Roman slave who leaves the army of Spartacus to track down the murderers of his parents.

Mitchell played other mythical heroes including Goliath, Achilles and Ali Baba in a career that outlasted all his muscular contemporaries, due he felt to his willingness to diversify and to play villains when the sword-and-sandal craze subsided:

I realised they didn't want muscle-guys any more, they wanted to see cowboys and 007 or gangster types, so I dropped my weight down, and then I worked all the time. A lot of these guys wouldn't adapt.

His first villainous role was in Giulio Cesare contro i pirati (Caesar Against the Pirates, 1962), in which Julius Caesar is captured by pirates, and he appeared in many spaghetti westerns, action thrillers, comedies, martial arts and horror films, though many were not shown outside Europe. He was a space alien in 2+5: Missione Hydra (2+5: Mission Hydra, 1965), a gangster in Fenomenal e il Tesoro di Tutankamen (Phenomenal and the Treasure of Tutankamen, 1967), a priest in Ora X - pattuglia suicida (Hour X: Suicide Patrol, 1970), and cruel Igor in Terror! Il castello delle donne maledette (Dr Frankenstein's Cast of Freaks, 1973).

In John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), shot in Rome, Mitchell played a groom, acting with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando:

When you work with big stars it's incredible, they really know their business. Of course, Brando and Taylor had their egos between them. He found out that her dressing room was two feet bigger than his, so he had them rip the walls out to make them the same.

Mitchell also appeared as a robber who helps kidnap a small albino youth in Federico Fellini's colourful portrait of ancient Rome, Satyricon (Fellini Satyricon, 1969).

After living in Italy for 28 years, Mitchell returned to California in 1989, and last June he was featured in the Swords and Sandals Festival presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, during which The Giant of Metropolis was screened. Mitchell told The New York Times during the festival, "I did my own stunts. I tried to make everything real," adding that he constantly trained when off-camera, lifting rocks when no barbells were available.

His last film role was in a cameo role last year, as General Murchison in Mike Martinez' An Enraged New World.

Tom Vallance