Meeting the Man in Person was Quite a
Dave Cass is one of the all-time great stuntmen in the Hollywood movie business. He is also a script writing partner of mine. We wrote the Kenny Rogers CBS movie of the week, Rio Diablo, a few years ago with our good friend, Frank Q. Dobbs. Dave is now a prominent television director, turning out movies and TV episodes for The Hallmark Channel. During his 30-year career as a stuntman, Dave doubled for a lot of the big stars. One of those top-billed actors – an actual Hollywood legend whom I had the personal pleasure of meeting myself – was the late, Robert Mitchum. Dave had doubled the rugged actor before, on two Westerns: Young Billy Young, and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys. His next show with Mitchum was the Raymond Chandler classic, Farewell my Lovely, a 1940s, noir, Phillip Marlow murder-mystery.
Dave has quite a few tales to tell about what it was like working with Robert Mitchum. One of them is: Mitchum had a great sense of humor and would laugh at anything he found amusing; another: that Bob was always first on the set in the morning whether he’d been out carousing all night or not; and another: Yes, Mitchum really did enjoy his notorious escapades with the women and the booze; and, of course – he did inhale.
In one of the scenes, while they were filming Young Billy Young, Mitchum’s character was required to chase after a moving stagecoach as it rumbled down a Western street. Then he was supposed to hop onto the boot at the rear of the coach. Because of insurance reasons, the star was not allowed to work in the long shot that panned the galloping six-up team and stagecoach with Mitchum’s character in hot pursuit. Instead, stuntman Dave Cass, dressed in the actor’s wardrobe, did all the running. “The movie’s director, Burt Kennedy, had to shoot the sequence more than a few times,” says Cass, “because when the coach was moving the speed Kennedy wanted it to travel I couldn’t have caught it if I’d been on the front of a Greyhound bus.” They tried doing it at a slower pace, with the stunt coordinator fastening a piece of bungi cord to the boot to give Cass something to grab on to. But during the next take, as Dave caught the coach and grabbed the bungi cord, he was shot like an arrow, up and over the back wheel of the coach. It took the set nurse more than a few minutes to put the stuntman back together. When they did the next take, Kennedy had the driver slow the coach even more, and Dave was finally able to make it. “Very painfully make it,” is how Cass likes to put it. Mitchum, who was sitting on the sidelines in his canvas chair the whole time, found Dave’s animated attempts to catch the coach so hilarious he laughed uproariously at one of Dave’s running misses. Burt Kennedy had to call cut and then wait until the entire crew stopped laughing along with their star. Later, the scene would be edited with a close shot of Mitchum himself doing the hopping on. The only difference was the star’s close-up was filmed from an entirely different angle – one that didn’t require the coach to be moving at all.
The fact that Farewell My Lovely was not a Western mattered not to me. Just knowing I might have the opportunity to see one of my favorite Western stars in person, made me call Dave and ask for an invite to the set. “Sure,” he said. “Come by anytime. We’re shooting at an old mansion in Los Angeles and this company is very comfortable with visitors. You can park on the street, then come on up the driveway and ask anyone you see where I am.”
I drove in to L.A. the following day, and after a few misguided turns, I finally found the Farewell my Lovely set. I couldn’t see anything from the street, but the address was correct, and there was a driveway – a very long driveway. It seemed like a funny place for a mansion, on a corner, in a rundown section of Los Angeles. Small businesses mixed with one-owner shops had replaced the one-time, stylish, residential neighborhood. The buildings appeared to be all squeezed together, like a back lot New York movie street. All, that is, except for the dense shrubbery-covered corner, thick with eucalyptus trees, where Dave had said the mansion would be.
I parked my car, crossed the street, then headed cautiously up the curving driveway. It wound around through the foliage until the mansion was finally revealed. And what a mansion. I figured it had to have been built somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, or before. It looked foreboding and unreal, standing there in front of me. At any other time I might have found it chilling and haunted in appearance. Except that now it was surrounded by motion picture gear, klieg lights, prop and wardrobe trucks, a myriad of vans, and other movie company vehicles. Plus, there were a number of crew members shuttling an assortment of equipment from those trucks into the sizeable structure behind them.
I saw a man who appeared to be in charge – of what, I wasn’t sure. But he looked somewhat important. I approached him and asked if he knew where Dave Cass might be. “He’s not upstairs where their shooting,” he said, while at the same time motioning for a driver to move one of the trucks forward another inch. “So he must be in the big guy’s motor-home. That’s where he usually hangs out ... in there with Mitchum.” I gulped. “I ... uh, won’t be disturbing Mr. Mitchum, will I? I asked. “No way,” he said. “Mitch ain’t even in there now. He’s upstairs working in the scene. He won’t be through for another hour, at least.” He took out a cigarette and lit it. “His motor-home’s around back of the house,” he continued, pointing toward the mansion. “You can walk right on through the house if you want. The company’s upstairs so you won’t be bothering anyone.” I thanked him; then I turned toward the mansion and headed for the wide-open front doors.
Once I was inside, I found the entrance hall to be as big as the apartment I was living in at that time. And the living room beyond was larger the house I’d grown up in. The entire dwelling had been furnished in 1920s elegance by the film company, and just walking through it was awesome. I was taken back into an era I’d only read about in novels and seen in old movies. Two men came through the entrance hall behind me. They were carrying several small movie lights. They nodded as they made their way up the sweeping staircase leading to the second floor. I could hear a lot of confusion coming from up there so I decided I’d better continue on my way. I found a very wide hallway that lead to the back of the house.
Once I was outside again, I saw even more crew members carrying even more equipment back and forth between the trucks and the house. Some of them were forced to take a detour around the several motor-homes stationed beside the pool. Right off, I knew which one was Mitchum’s. His would be the largest, of course. Whether an actor wanted a huge dressing-room or not, the studios always made sure their top-billed stars had the biggest and the best.
Back in the old days – for me that would have been the early 1960s – when I was working on The Fugitive television series, the show’s producer, Quinn Martin, gifted his star, David Janssen, with the very first star motor-home/dressing-room in Hollywood history. It was a 30-foot, silver and gold motor-coach, made by the Streamline Trailer Company. David named it the Silver Bullet. Not very long after that, other Hollywood stars started demanding motor-homes similar to David’s. And they got them – one by one – until it became a Hollywood standard that all stars, including any actor with an agent tough enough to get a motor-home clause put into their contract, got their own special dressing-room on wheels as well.
I hesitated at the door to Mitchum’s motor-home, hoping like hell the guy out front had been telling the truth when he said Robert Mitchum was working upstairs and would not be in his dressing-room. I took a deep breath and knocked. There was a moment, then the door swung open. I was greeted by a big smile and a very familiar face: it was Whitey Ellison, a polite, wavy-haired man with a friendly twinkle in his blue eyes. Whitey had been the transportation coordinator on The Fugitive. It had been Whitey who had always made sure I didn’t get into too much trouble back in the old days. He stood there in the doorway with his hand extended. “Dave said you’d be dropping by, Kid.” We shook hands. “Come on in. Dave was here just a minute ago but they called him back to the set. You just missed him.” I climbed the several steps and followed him inside. “Close the door,” he called back as he plopped himself into the leather driver’s chair up front. He swiveled around to face me. “Have a seat,” he said pointing to a mahogany table with two exquisitely upholstered bench-seats on either side. “You want a drink?” he motioned to a full bar that was set up opposite the table. “Go ahead, pour yourself whatever you’d like. And don’t you worry ... Mitch’ll be tied up on the set for another half hour at least.”
I made myself a scotch and water, but I remained standing. I said, “If you don’t mind, Whitey, I’d rather not sit, Okay? It makes me feel too uncomfortable to sit.” He smiled. “Okay, Kid ...” he’d called me Kid ever since The Fugitive days, “... just hang loose and enjoy yourself. If anything happens, I’ll take care of you ... like in the old days.” He chuckled.
We spent the next fifteen or so minutes talking about the old times and bringing each other up to date on our present situations. I was about to pour my second drink when he ducked down to get a better view of something he’d seen outside the window. “Be cool, Kid,” he warned. “Here comes the Boss.” Before I understood what he was talking about, the door swung open and Robert Mitchum burst into the room. Oh shit, I thought to myself. I threw a panicked look in Whitey’s direction. Whitey nodded subtly. I knew that meant for me to stay put. Then Whitey stood up and casually crossed to the bar where he began fixing a drink for his boss. Robert Mitchum passed right by me before plunking himself down at the table. At exactly the same time, Whitey placed his glass in front of him. “Thanks,” he said; then he downed the contents in a single gulp. Whitey had a second drink in front of him in record time. Mitchum nodded. Then, without turning around, he said, “Who is he?” meaning me. My stomach dropped three and a half feet. “That’s Steve Lodge,” said Whitey. “We worked together on The Fugitive.” “Does he drink?” said Mitchum, still facing away from me. “Who doesn’t?” said Whitey with a big grin. The actor finally turned around in my direction. He motioned to me with a nod of his head. “Then come on over here and sit down, Steve Lodge. Both of us appear to have something in common besides Whitey Ellison.” I moved as casual as I could over to the table then slid onto the opposite cushion. He noticed I had brought my empty glass with me and he smiled. “Get him another one, Whitey.” Whitey was one step ahead of him as he set another scotch and water in front of me. Mitchum lifted his glass in a toast. I raised mine. We clinked. He winked. We both drank. Then he turned to Whitey, “Would you believe that damn director wanted me to operate the camera and shoot a point of view shot of my own shoes?” Whitey chuckled, I found myself chuckling, too. Mitchum went on, “I told those stupid idiots what they could do with their damn camera.” Whitey set a third drink in front of the actor, plus another one in front of me. We were on our way.
I’d love to go on about what we discussed that afternoon, but Mitchum had Whitey keep the drinks coming, while he kept mumbling about his resentment against the director. Before I knew it, I was reeling from the booze. After that, I don’t remember much more. But later on when I’d sobered up, I did remember that I had actually gotten drunk with the great Robert Mitchum. Or, maybe I should say, I got drunk, and Bob Mitchum didn’t. I was told later that Mitchum finally got over his indignation and returned to the set to finish the scene.
Someone had to drive me home. All I know is that I woke up the next morning and my car was parked in my driveway. Whitey Ellison had kept his promise – he’d watched over The Kid one more time.