August 17th, 2011
When Cameron Mitchell comes out flatly and says he thinks NBC-TV’s new cowboy-and-Indian series The High Chaparral will be a good one you’d better listen. The free-swinging, outspoken Cameron can tick off on one hand’s fingers the roles he’s done that he likes.
” ‘Carousel’. ‘Carousel’ was just dreadful,” he told me while practicing chip shots in his Regency hotel suite. ” ‘Death of a Salesman?’ I thought it was a flop on film; such a shame, because it was so good on Broadway. And listen, I made a lot of movies in Europe that were among the worst ever produced anywhere.”
The stocky, athletic actor still has an unsigned contract from baseball’s Detroit Tigers. Mitchell, thus, has extremely high standards for himself. He thought a while and came up with two performances he didn’t mind: “Parts of ‘Monkey on My Back.’ The Barney Rosa picture, were good. And I just finished a low-budget western, ‘Ride in the Whirlwind’ that I think ought to be up for some awards. It’ll be out in the late fall or winter and it’s a good one.”
Anthropologists tell us man is supposed to be complex, not just a simple animal, and Cameron fits into their image. His whole world isn’t acting. “I spent some time in a Zen monastery in Japan,” he said, “and who knows – if I hadn’t become an actor, I might have been a holy man. I come from a long line of Pennsylvania ministers.”
“But I’m like all humans, I guess – victimized by my own bad habits, like smoking too much. I got used to a good, easy material life and with a family to support, I don’t see how I can change. But holy men do inspire me. Gosh, can you imagine a modern, average man spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness?”
Candor is Cameron’s middle name and has been, most of his life. When he came to New York before World War II from Dallastown, Pa., working as an usher, mail clerk, dishwasher and Radio City sightseeing guide (with another unknown, Gregory Peck), he went to see the Lunts act one night and promptly wrote them a letter criticizing their work.
“Their secretary told me to come see her,” he smiles, “and boy did she bawl me out. But she let me audition for her and I did a serious scene and reduced her to tears. The next night I auditioned for the Lunts themselves and won a part in their ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ which was my big break. Would I write a letter like that now? I doubt it. I’m aware now that it was a damned audacious thing to do.”
Mitchell is blunt about almost everything. He mentioned some movie directors he thought were simply awful – big-name directors – and he said there were no two ways about it, movies cost too much to make these days. “I feel sorry for most producers, whose hands are tied in so many ways,” he said. “They can’t do this or that, for fear of offending different blocs and groups.”
In High Chaparral, he plays Buck – “a lovely, amiable, active bum” – and he says that Mark Slade, who plays his nephew in the series, can’t miss stardom. An old Indian aficionado, Mitchell’s happy that Chaparral makes Indians out more heroes than villains. “What about that new series on ABC about General Custer?” he demanded, gloweringly. “How can they set that guy up on a pedestal? He was one of the most miserable men of our times, who used to kill women and children – and you know, that was how he lost out, finally, when the Indians baited a trap for him with women and kids.”
Mr Mitchell swings from the heels. If he says his new show is good, you pay a little attention. He might belt you if you don’t.