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John Mitchum, 82; Veteran Character Actor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Mitchum, who followed his movie-star brother, Robert, to Hollywood and became a character actor in scores of movies and hundreds of television shows, has died. He was 82.

Mitchum, who suffered the first of three strokes last spring, died Thursday of internal complications at a Los Angeles hospital.

Appearing on screen in the 1950s as John Mallory and under his own name after 1962, Mitchum had small parts in 80 feature films, including “Stalag 17,” “Submarine Command,” “Chisum,” “Paint Your Wagon,” “High Plains Drifter,” “The Outlaw Josie Wales” and “Bandolero!”

On TV, he appeared on about 800 shows, including “Gunsmoke,” “Perry Mason,” “Dragnet,” “Batman,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.” He also had recurring roles on “Riverboat” (as Pickalong) and “F Troop” (as Hoffenmueller).

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Mitchum’s most memorable role was as Clint Eastwood’s detective partner, Frank di Georgio, in “Dirty Harry” and its two sequels: “Magnum Force” and “The Enforcer.”

But Mitchum, a singer, songwriter and poet, had a far more unusual show business distinction. He wrote and co-wrote the pieces on the only album John Wayne ever made: “America, Why I Love Her,” a 1973 RCA recording of patriotic poetry recitations that was re-released after Wayne’s death in 1979.

As recounted in Mitchum’s 1989 memoir, “Them Ornery Mitchum Boys,” actor Forrest Tucker came up with the idea for the album while he and Mitchum were on location shooting the Wayne western “Chisum.”

Mitchum recited to Tucker a poem of his, “Why Are You Marching, Son?” Mitchum wrote the work after his teenage son, Jack, angrily threw down a newspaper with a photograph of antiwar protesters burning the American flag in Central Park.

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Tucker was so moved by the poem that he had Mitchum recite it for Wayne. Halfway through Mitchum’s reading, Wayne had tears in his eyes and agreed to Tucker’s suggestion that he record an album of Mitchum’s patriotic poetry.

The album, which earned Mitchum a Grammy nomination in the best spoken word category, was released again last summer through Mitchum’s Big John Records.

Mitchum suffered a major stroke in March after the unexpected death of 46-year-old Jack from a bleeding ulcer. While still in the intensive care unit, Mitchum asked his daughter, Cindy, to do everything she could to get the album re-released.

“America, Why I Love Her,” Cindy Mitchum said, was her father’s proudest career achievement.

The album, which was available through the Mitchums’ Web site, Amazon.com and the John Wayne Birth Place in Winterset, Iowa, sold about 3,000 copies without any advertising in the first four months of its re-release. It is now being distributed nationally.

Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1919. His father died in an accident before he was born.

He spent part of his childhood on his uncle’s farm in Delaware with brother, Robert, who was two years older. In 1930 they joined their mother, who had remarried, in New York City, where their sister, Annette, was dancing in a Broadway show.

In 1933, the two Mitchum brothers--16-year-old Robert and 14-year-old John--hitchhiked and rode the rails to California, where Annette was living in Long Beach.

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A 1936 graduate of Long Beach Polytechnic High School, John later followed his brother’s lead and went to work at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. Drafted into the Army in 1944, he was assigned to the 361st Harbor Craft Company in Florida and later was stationed in Hawaii, where he was assigned to the G.I. Chorus.

Discharged in 1946, Mitchum was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard a year later when an agent asked him if he was an actor. When Mitchum said he wasn’t, the agent said, “So, do you want to be one?”

As recounted in his memoir, Mitchum was taken to a studio on Cahuenga Boulevard where the director of a pioneer saga called “The Prairie” gave him a once-over and cast him as the naive young man in love with the heroine.

He appeared in a handful of films with brother, Robert, including “The Lusty Men” in 1952 and the 1989 TV movie “Jake Spanner, Private Eye,” in which the Mitchums played brothers.

Mitchum said he didn’t mind being overshadowed by his screen-legend sibling, who died in 1997.

“There’s no jealousy,” he told The Times. “I feel very definitely that my forte is as a character actor.”

In his earlier years, Mitchum sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale and conducted youth groups for the Los Angeles Bureau of Music, which was later incorporated into the city’s Cultural Affairs Department.

He also recorded “Our Land, Our Heritage: Stories of America’s Great Songs” with actor Dan Blocker (Hoss on “Bonanza”).

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On the album, issued by RCA, Mitchum sang songs such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Erie Canal,” and Blocker narrated special material that Mitchum had written about each tune’s origins.

Mitchum is survived by his wife, Bonnie; daughters, Victoria Mitchum of Granada Hills and Cindy Azbill of Santa Barbara; eight grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.


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