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John Mitchum

John Mitchum, actor, singer and poet: born Bridgeport, Connecticut 6 September 1919; married first Joy Grahame (two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Nancy Munro (deceased; one son deceased), third Dorothy McCoy (marriage dissolved), fourth Bonnie Duff; died Los Angeles 29 November 2001.

Wednesday 05 December 2001 01:00 GMT
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John Mitchum, actor, singer and poet: born Bridgeport, Connecticut 6 September 1919; married first Joy Grahame (two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Nancy Munro (deceased; one son deceased), third Dorothy McCoy (marriage dissolved), fourth Bonnie Duff; died Los Angeles 29 November 2001.

John Mitchum, though far less well-known than his older brother, Robert Mitchum, had a multi-faceted career as an actor, a singer and a poet. He appeared in over 80 films as a character actor, notably as Clint Eastwood's detective partner Frank di Georgio in Dirty Harry (1971) and two sequels, Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976).

It is di Georgio who comments, "You're a sweet man, Harry" after a typically caustic remark from his partner in the first film, and who, when he is unable to follow Harry over a fence while chasing a killer, grunts, "Too much linguine." Mitchum will also be remembered as the author of a set of patriotic poems recorded by John Wayne on the only album Wayne ever made. Recorded in 1973, America, Why I Love Her was re-released after Wayne's death in 1979 and again last summer. It won Mitchum a Grammy nomination in the spoken-word category.

Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1919, two years after Robert. His father died in a railyard accident before he was born, and the boys were raised on an uncle's farm in Delaware. In 1930 they joined their mother, who had remarried, in New York, and three years later the brothers hitch-hiked and rode freight-trains to California, where their showgirl sister Annette was living. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, John spent some time at sea, considered boxing as a career and took vocal lessons with hopes of singing in opera.

In 1939 he joined the Long Beach Players Guild, where his brother was already a star performer. When in 1941 John Mitchum married Joy Grahame, older sister of the actress Gloria, they moved to San Diego where he worked at an aircraft factory. He was drafted into the army as a radioman in 1944, and at the war's end became a member of the GI Chorus, which had been formed to improve the image of GIs on the Hawaiian Islands.

Discharged in 1946, he later recounted that he was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard when an agent stopped him and asked if he was an actor. When he said he was not, the agent replied, "Do you want to be one?" and took him to a studio where the director Frank Wisbar, who was making a western, The Prairie, cast him as a naïve young man in love with the heroine. The film was a minor one, but it started Mitchum on a long career as a character actor. (He was billed as John Mallory until 1962, when he started to use his own name.) He was a jury foreman in the Bogart movie Knock on Any Door (1949), a pilot in Flying Leathernecks (1951) and a fur trapper in Perils of the Wilderness (1955), one of the last multi-chapter serials to be made.

He was also in several films starring his brother, playing an artillery officer in One Minute to Zero (1952), a rodeo wrangler in The Lusty Men (1952), a frontiersman in The Way West (1967) and a crooked bartender in El Dorado (1967). Between screen assignments he worked on radio, sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale and as a soloist in night-clubs, and appeared in many television shows including The Untouchables, The Virginian, Riverboat (a recurring role as Pickalong), Dragnet, Perry Mason, The Waltons, and Have Gun, Will Travel.

In an episode of Laramie he displayed his vocal skills singing "Sweet Genevieve" accompanied by Hoagy Carmichael at the piano. Mitchum also sang in the film version of My Fair Lady (1964) as one of the quartet performing "Get Me to the Church on Time" with Stanley Holloway, and in Paint Your Wagon (1969) he was the Mormon with two wives who sells one of them (Jean Seberg) to the characters played by Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. He worked with Eastwood again in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and High Plains Drifter (1973) plus the "Dirty Harry" films.

In 1964 Mitchum and Dan Blocker ("Hoss" of Bonanza) made a record album, Our Land, Our Heritage: stories of America's great songs, on which Mitchum sang (with a 23-piece orchestra and the Ken Darby Choir) such songs as "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Springfield Mountain" while Blocker narrated special material that Mitchum had written about each tune's origins. The same year Mitchum toured the United States with Senator Barry Goldwater during Goldwater's abortive effort to become President.

While making Chisum (1970) with John Wayne, Mitchum wrote a poem, "Why Are You Marching, Son?", prompted by a photograph of anti-war protesters burning the American flag in Central Park. He recited it to the actor Forrest Tucker, who had him recite it to Wayne, who was moved to tears. At Tucker's suggestion, Wayne later recorded the award-winning album of Mitchum's patriotic poetry.

The Mitchums acted together for the last time when they played brothers in the 1989 television movie Jake Spanner, Private Eye. Asked if he ever minded being overshadowed by his brother, Mitchum replied, "There's no jealousy. I feel very definitely that my forte is as a character actor." Recently he lived in semi-retirement with his fourth wife Bonnie in Nevada, where they occasionally appeared at the local theatre in such plays as I Remember Mama and Noises Off. In 1989 Mitchum published a biography of himself and his brother with the title Them Ornery Mitchum Boys.

Tom Vallance

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