For instance, Mitchell admits that he
has been called almost everything in the book. Maybe not a chimera, but
any of Pascal's other words might well apply to him -- plus a few more. It
has been said that he is "an outspoken, hard-headed guy who has fought with
all his High Chaparral colleagues and who manages to alienate just about
everybody who runs into him, from fans to producers." Here again
Mitchell readily admits, "Everybody on the show hates me, except David
Dortort. Maybe hate is too strong a word. But I think they all
respect the truth of what I say."
Dortort, executive=producer of
High Chaparral, denies any dissension in the ranks of his stars, co-stars,
guest stars and special guest stars. "They're just like one big
family," he says. But a few years ago he was saying the same thing
about Bonanza at a time when Pernell Roberts, the prodigal Cartwright,
was sounding off in quite another way.
It is true, though, that relations
among the members of High Chaparral's big cast seem friendly
enough. When they come to advance screenings at the studio, they bring
their wives and children, there are cheery greetings all round, and something
like a family picnic atmosphere prevails. So far, only one real
"incident" has been reported -- between Leif Erickson and Cameron
Mitchell on location in the 120-degree desert heat near Tucson -- and that was
talked out and settled amicably.
Probably the 49-year-old Mitchell did
most of the talking. He has acknowledged that one of his major faults is
that he is a marathon talker. Although his language may become strong on
occasion, his conversation is laced with more religious quotations and
references -- from the Bible to Zen Buddhism -- than with profanity or
vulgarity. His preoccupation with religion is great. He says,
"If you can't believe there's something more to life than the stink of man,
there's nothing." Once he flew from Miami to Nassau when he heard
about a "miracle" in a church there.
He comes by this interest
naturally. His background is theological rather than theatrical.
Born in a rural, Pennsylvania Dutch community, Cameron Mitzell -- his real name
-- was one of seven children of a minister. As a child during the
depression, he wore his sisters' hand-me-down shoes and coats to school.
But it was while he was in school that he first became interested in
acting. Once, in a church pageant, his pants fell down. "I must
admit that I rather enjoyed the laughter," he says. Later, when he was
in high school, one of his teachers, convinced of his acting talent, lent him
money to go to New York to dramatic school.
"When I got to New York I had
never ridden in an elevator or used a telephone," say Mitchell. But
he did know how to write letters, and write letters he did -- to producers,
actors and agents -- while holding down jobs like ushering, washing dishes,
being a mail clerk and a guide at Radio City. None of his hundreds of
letters even got a reply until he wrote a particularly brash one to Alfred Lunt,
criticizing his performance in the motion picture "The
Guardsman." Lunt replied and gave him a chance to audition.
Afterward, when he tried to apologize for his letter, Lynn Fontanne said,
"Don't worry about what you've done. Acting is your life's work, and
you're not only going to be a good actor, you're going to be a great
actor." She also suggested that he change his name from Mitzell to
The newly baptized Mitchell worked
with the Lunts ("the greatest training in the world" until he joined
the Air Corps in 1942. ("I don't like to talk about that. I was a
lousy bombardier -- I never hit anything". Meanwhile, in 1940, he
had married actress Johanna Mendel. "The marriage lasted until 1960,
when an acrimonious divorce ended it.
Possibly Mitchell's talents as an
actor, as appraised by Lynn Fontanne, have been a handicap rather than an asset
during his 30-year career. Despite appearances in many top box-office
films -- from "Death of a Salesman," in which he repeated his Broadway
role, to the voice of Christ in "The Robe" -- he has never really made
it big. The reason undoubtedly is that, unlike the Gables and Bogarts and
Grants, he projects no image of his own. "Nobody ever knew me as
Cameron Mitchell -- I become the character," he says. Although he is
contemptuous of Method actors ("You can't be somebody else, because you're
you"), he completely immerses himself in each part he plays. Once he
became carried away during a scene and choked another actor so hard that
shooting had to be stopped and the two forcibly separated. When he
appeared as an Indian in "Pony Soldier" with Tyrone Power, his own
parents did not recognize him when they saw the picture. He says,
"This may be nice artistically, but not financially."
In just one season of High
Chaparral, Mitchell has probably become more identifiable to the public than
in anything he has ever done, and if the show continues indefinitely, a la Bonanza,
he may become as much an uncle-figure as Lorne Greene is a father-figure.
After an up-and-down career in
Hollywood movies and on the stage, Mitchell went to Europe in 1956 and acted in
a series of generally undistinguished films there, including 30 made behind the
Iron Curtain. On a trip to South Africa, he got the sort of mass adulation
he had never received before. "I was almost mobbed when I went into
the black compound," he says. "All those lousy movies I made in
Europe were the only ones those poor people could afford to see. I was a
big star to them."
On another trip two years ago, en
route to Madrid, he ran into David Dortort, who had once produced a television
version of "The Ox-Bow Incident," in which Mitchell appeared.
Dortort asked him if he would like to do a TV series. Mitchell's immediate
reaction was negative -- his appearance in an earlier series, Beachcomber, had
not been happy, and he liked living in Europe. But his second wife, Lissa
-- a blonde dancer he had met while doing the movie "Carousel" -- said
that she wanted to come back to the United States. "Our older son,
Buttons, learned to speak Italian before he could speak English," she
says. Mitchell took the role of Buck Cannon in The High Chaparral.
Today, the Mitchells and their
two-small-children-going-on-three live in a modest home in Pacific Palisades,
Cal. The actor is proud of the children from his first marriage, now
in their teens and 20's. And he speaks affectionately of his first
wife. "We get along better now than we ever did when we were
married." he says. She lives in Vancouver, B.C., which may have
something to do with it. The Mitchells rarely socialize and when they do,
it is not with actors. Says Cameron, "I like Angelo, the guy that
runs the little Italian restaurant, better than any actor I ever
met." (Mitchell has a prodigious appetite, by the way, and for
breakfast will have chicken noodle soup, calf's liver and onions, and mashed
potatoes with gravy._ He also enjoys the company of athletes.
"There's nothing phony with them -- they have to produce," he
says. "Their tongues can't do it, and a press agent can't do
it. It's closer to Zen than anything I know."
Mitchell has a disconcerting habit of
throwing in bits of philosophy, such as the Zen reference, with his ordinary
conversation. but, philosophizing aside, his major preoccupation is
golf. He has, literally, hundreds of clubs at home and abroad, many of his
own design and making -- his putter, for instance, is made from an old driver
with a five-pound lead weight taped to the top. Despite a painful
arthritic condition in his arms and back, he plays golf every day The High
Chaparral is not shooting and every chance he gets when it is. He says,
"If I had enough money, I'd buy an island -- with a golf course."
Which brings up the contradiction in
Cameron Mitchell. someone who knows him says, "He likes to revel in
the glory like any actor." But Mitchell, with an intensity
characteristic of him, says, "I shouldn't have been an actor. But now
I don't know anything else, and I have to make a living. I hate conceit,
and I hate vanity -- what does the Bible say? 'All is vanity.' I'm
in the worst business in the world." Also characteristically, though,
he can take an almost mystical view of his role in The High Chaparral:
"Here in Hollywood, it's another Bonanza, but just alone out there
in the desert, you have a feeling you're doing something that really happened to
somebody 100 years ago."
Of Cameron Mitchell the late Hedda
Hopper once wrote, "He isn't handsome. He isn't one of the
lucky-break boys or the overnight flashes." He certainly isn't.
Since the Lunts first saw his promise, he has been at it a long time. As
for his looks, what would pass for a bad nose job with any other actor is the
result of his nose having been broken five times. Despite his
philosophizing, which can sometimes become pretentious ("We make a world of
duality that doesn't exist"), he is basically a down-to-earth, rough-hewn
person, whose roots are still back in rural Pennsylvania. Yet he has
enough of the actor's vanity, no matter his claims to the contrary, to read
aloud a Variety review that one of his Italian movies was "sleeper of the
year," But he includes the reviewer's note that it has "poor
marquee value" and adds, "that's me."
A novelty? A
monster? A chaos? A contradiction? A prodigy?
Cameron Mitchell, in one way or another, seems to be all of them.