A story arc worthy of Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Mike Mullen's dad was a charismatic actor-turned-Hollywood-press-agent who had quit smoking and taken up tennis to improve his health. So when Jack Mullen dropped dead of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 54, friends and colleagues were stunned.

"He always seemed so physically strong," recalled actor Peter Graves, a longtime client of Jack's. "He was a tall man, and a rugged fellow, and looked like he would never have a sick day in his life."

Mullen's funeral at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City drew some of the most prominent actors and reporters of the day. His austere wooden coffin was borne to his grave by his four sons and two nephews. But Mike, the eldest son, could not stop to mourn for long: A junior naval officer, he soon had to return to sea to man a ship in a Navy at war.

More than three decades later and during another war, Michael Glenn Mullen, now 60, is an admiral poised to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior posting in the military.

Mullen's views on the Iraq war, including his initial skepticism about the U.S. troop buildup, have been the focus of attention since he was nominated for the post last month, and probably will dominate his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. If approved, he will succeed the outgoing chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace.

But Mullen's unusual rise to the top of one of the country's most tradition-bound institutions is less widely known. Unlike many who reach his rank, Mullen's family had almost no tradition of military service.

He didn't just grow up around the Hollywood glamour of his father's world; his relatives included vaudevillians and a professional singer. Only one uncle was a veteran.

And Mullen had never intended to make the Navy a career, let alone become chief of naval operations, the post he now holds, friends and family members recalled.

"It was an improbable course," said one officer who works closely with Mullen.

But it was also a course that close associates believe made him more well-rounded and self-effacing than many who wear four stars -- an approachable leader who urges subordinates to dust themselves off after making mistakes and to work even harder.

In addition, his backers insist that because Mullen for so long did not aspire to the military's top ranks, he developed an independent streak they hope will suit him well in his new job. Two immediate predecessors have been accused by critics of failing to stand up to Pentagon civilian leaders.

"If he doesn't think things are going well in Iraq, he's going to say so and he's going to say why," said retired Rear Adm. William W. Cobb Jr., a close friend of Mullen's since their days at the U.S. Naval Academy. "He is nobody's fool. He's his own independent thinker."

Mullen's improbable rise began in Los Angeles, a city that is still home to most of his siblings and close relatives.

His father was a towering figure among Hollywood's elite -- clients included Ann-Margret, Anthony Quinn and Julie Andrews, whom Jack once escorted to the Oscars. But the family's beginnings in Southern California were more modest.

Both parents moved to L.A. from the Midwest during World War II -- mother Jane Glenn from Sioux City, Iowa, and father Jack from Chicago -- drawn by the glitz of the burgeoning movie business.

Each realized only modest success in the war years. Jack's acting career amounted to a handful of roles in live theater. The two would eventually end up in the publicity department of Republic Pictures, home to singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, where they met and quickly married.

The couple first lived with Jane's parents in a small house in the Hollywood Hills, which was also shared by Jane's sister and her husband. The next year, in October 1946, their first son arrived.

"They joked they were married nine months and 15 minutes before Michael was born," said Bernice McGeehan, a close friend.

The war over, Jack Mullen's new career as a publicist began to take off. He traveled with performers like Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers' former singing group, often leaving Jane alone to raise the growing family.

Within a decade, Jack would become one of the most prominent press agents in Hollywood, respected by leading actors and the powerful columnists who covered them, including Hedda Hopper, Luella Parsons and Daily Variety's Army Archerd.

"He really had a terrific reputation," recalled Archerd, who became a family friend. "When he came into a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, the Cock 'n' Bull, he didn't have to wait for a table. They always had one for him."

Mike Mullen's siblings and cousins remember celebrity snippets from their childhood: a Christmas at Ann-Margret's; cowboy star Jock Mahoney firing off blanks in the Mullen family home; Steve McQueen buying brother Kevin a Fudgsicle off a Good Humor truck.

Even the house where Mullen grew up, on Kraft Avenue in Studio City and still owned by Mullen's brother, would become a part of Hollywood lore: It served as the home of Quentin Tarantino's character in Pulp Fiction, where Harvey Keitel's "cleaner" washed out a car splattered with brains and blood.

Despite the swirling presence of Hollywood, however, both clients and family members remember how Jack tried to keep his business separate from his family. Sunday Mass was mandatory, and family trips to Newport Beach were frequent.

"Pop was very, very clear about not mixing family with business, and he rarely conducted his business at the house," Kevin recalled.

But keeping them separate was difficult. Dyan Cannon -- a devoted client of Jack's -- remembers placing late-night phone calls to the Mullen house during hard times in her life.

"My mother was in town once and she was worried about what was going on, and he came over at midnight to sit with us for a couple of hours to console and uplift," said Cannon, who went through a difficult divorce from Cary Grant in the 1960s.

The Mullen children remember the calls and social engagements. But they say it was a remarkably normal childhood. Mike, said friends and family, was popular and charismatic like his father, and his childhood included playing Little League baseball and attending Catholic schools.

He emerged as a basketball star at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks -- the MVP of a league that included future NBA guard and coach Rick Adelman -- and family members expected him to go to college in California.

His decision to go to Annapolis and join the Navy came "out of the blue."

"Oh, God, that was such a sad day," said cousin Virginia Haynes, remembering his departure for the academy. "It was far, and so foreign.... It just didn't seem like something he would do. There was UCLA, which everybody wanted to go to, or USC. No, he chose to go across the country."

Family and friends are divided on why Mullen chose to join the Navy. Mullen, citing his upcoming confirmation hearing, declined to be interviewed. One officer who works closely with Mullen recalled his "youthful fascination with East Coast basketball," including then-Princeton star Bill Bradley, along with a desire to shoulder the financial burden of his college education.

Whatever the reason, nearly everyone around him felt Mullen never intended to make the Navy a career. Annapolis was to be the educational foundation for a life in the private sector, they said, not the beginning of a lifelong commitment.

"I know he never had any desire to do more than his four years [at Annapolis] and his five years [in the Navy] afterward," said Danny O'Sullivan, a friend of Mullen's since grammar school.

Friends remember Mullen's tenure at the academy as unexceptional. Mullen's class of 1968 has gone on to become one of the most noteworthy in the academy's history, including Jim Webb, now a U.S. senator from Virginia; Michael Hagee, the recently retired commandant of the Marine Corps; and IranContra figure Oliver North.

"A couple stood out, but not necessarily" Mullen, said Cobb, Mullen's classmate, recalling that the class' academic standout was Dennis C. Blair, a Rhodes Scholar who would go on to become commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific.

"I bet if you asked Mike did he ever think he'd be chief of naval operations, he'd just start laughing. We were taking things one step at a time."

Mullen's early Navy career was decidedly mixed. As a young lieutenant, he received the rare honor of commanding a ship, the gasoline tanker Noxubee. But the job almost ruined him when he steered the vessel into a buoy in Hampton Roads, the naval waterway in southern Virginia.

"Scraping a buoy is considered not a good thing," deadpanned the Navy officer who works with Mullen, adding that Mullen once said it took five years of stellar reviews to dig out of the hole.

"The lesson that taught him was perseverance."

That early, difficult command coincided with his father's death, striking a double blow.

"Our whole life changed," recalled sister MaryKate Mullen, the youngest of the five Mullen children. She was 12 at the time.

Through a spokesman, Mullen said his prominent father taught him to "be responsible and to seek responsibility" as well as to "be trustworthy and be someone who can trust others."

By the 1980s, Mullen had emerged as a rising star in the Navy.

He took command of a guided missile destroyer, the Goldsborough, and in 1987 won the award as the top commanding officer in the Navy, the service's most prestigious prize.

But even then, colleagues said, Mullen remained hesitant over whether his future lay in the Navy hierarchy or elsewhere.

"I always gathered that he planned to go as far as he could, but that he was ready to make that transition to a civilian job at any time," said retired Navy Capt. Mark Van Dyke, who spent two years driving an hourlong daily commute with Mullen from Annapolis to the Pentagon in the early 1990s. "I never got the impression that Mike was doing everything in his power to become chief of naval operations, let alone chairman of the Joint Chiefs."

Barring an unexpected hiccup, the nation's top uniformed job will soon be his.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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