CAMERON MITCHELL “A Psychotronic Legend”
By Dr. Abner Mality
There are those actors who find a kind of fame different than what is usually considered mainstream stardom. These thespians tend to be a lot more interesting than the plastic types who make big bank at the box office and who walk the red carpet at the award shows. They are the actors who inspire us here at Wormwood Chronicles.
And if you are reading this, I’ll bet you know them. Some we’ve even covered here, like the great William Smith. Anthony Eisley was another one. How about “that guy”, Dick Miller? And of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the legendary John Carradine. To this list of hallowed “psychotronic” stars we can also add the name of Mr. Cameron Mitchell, the subject of this article.
Mitchell’s list of credits is prodigious. His career started humbly and then worked itself into a time of great promise. Due to real life circumstances, Cameron’s promise never really materialized into the Oscar-worthy pictures he certainly could have excelled in. Some would look upon that as sad. But it opened up a different world for the Pennsylvania native...a world that led to films like “Nightmare in Wax”, “The Toolbox Murders”, “Supersonic Man” and “Action USA”. The psychotronic world of fringe cinema!
We’ll look later at some of the more notable roles of Mitchell’s unusual career. To cover them all would require a book, not an article of this length. That would be an interesting project for sure and hopefully someday somebody will do a detailed look at his staggering filmography. But first, let’s look at the early years that shaped this legend of film.
Cameron Mitchell was born the son of a preacher in Dallastown, Pennsylvania in 1918, not too far from Pittsburgh. He was one of seven children and his early years were pretty unremarkable, as he moved with his family from parish to parish in Butler County. Somewhere along the line, he caught the acting bug and took to the stage.
Young Mr. Mitchell
He worked some minor roles on Broadway in the early 1940’s and also did some work for the NBC radio network. Like most young men of the period, World War II proved to be a major interruption. Mitchell served as a bombardier in the Air Force.
Once his military service was over, he signed on with MGM Studios and got some small roles in movies like “They Were Expendable” with John Wayne and “Command Decision” with Clark Gable. He put in the work and started to turn some heads, but where he really excelled was his Broadway stage work. In particular, he drew a lot of praise for playing Happy Loman in “Death of A Salesman”, which was an enormous hit. He would reprise the role in the movie version of the story, which drew just as much critical appreciation.
At this point, Mitchell was considered a rising young star. He switched from MGM to Fox Studios and entered probably the most successful era of his career, appearing in hit movies like “How To Marry A Millionaire” and Sam Fuller’s war drama “Hell Or High Water”. In 1954, he had a kind of foretaste of his later roles when he popped up in the low-budget thriller “Gorilla At Large”, about a series of murders at a carnival apparently committed by a gorilla. Mitchell was the first-billed hero and the movie had a bevy of future stars in it, including Lee Marvin, Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb and Raymond Burr. Although the real star was the redoubtable George Barrows in his famous gorilla suit, who played the title character! That movie is good fun and well worth a watch.
A great Mitchell role that has been sadly overlooked through the years was his part in 1959’s “Face of Fire”. An adaptation of a story by Stephen Crane, the movie saw him playing a empathetic character and also allowed him to work alongside James Whitmore. Whitmore played a handyman working for Mitchell’s doctor character who became terribly disfigured in a fire. The disfigurement led to him being reviled by superstitious small-town folks and also Mitchell being shunned as well for helping him. This is a fine drama that showed Mitchell at his best.
While Mitchell’s professional life was at its artistic peak in the mid and late 50’s, his personal life was a maelstrom that would soon have a major impact on his acting career. He had been married to Johanna Mendel, whose father was a wealthy Canadian meatpacking magnate. Although the marriage produced 4 children, by the late 50’s, it was in tatters and Johanna divorced Mitchell. To say she took him to the cleaners is an understatement. He wound up having to pay her over 2 grand a month, a situation which resulted in his bankruptcy. He had a second marriage to Lissa Gertz, which ultimately also ended in divorce and more financial difficulty.
In the early 60’s, Mitchell moved to Italy in part to avoid financial obligations. It may have saved him money, but his serious acting career in A-list pictures came to an end and a long, wild career in low budget and exploitation films began. While in Italy, Cameron found himself in a close working relationship with the great B-movie maestro Mario Bava. Their first collaboration was a blood-and-thunder period adventure “Erik The Conqueror”, which was itself a thinly veiled remake of “The Vikings”. It told the story of two brothers separated at birth who find themselves later on opposite sides of a war. Erik was the heroic brother raised in England while Mitchell played the lusty but not entirely evil Eron, a Viking invader. It was a handsome looking film, not the equal of “The Vikings”, but nothing to really be ashamed of.
“Blood And Black Lace” was the first of many horror movies Mitchell found himself in. This bloody mystery was an early example of what would later be known as the “giallo” subgenre. Cameron played the head of a famous Italian fashion agency, whose models are being brutally murdered by a masked killer. In many ways, this movie, again directed by Bava, set the stage for horror films thirty and forty years down the road.
Like Lee Van Cleef and Franco Nero, Mitchell was becoming a familiar face in the burgeoning Italian film industry. “Knives of The Avenger” was another rip-roaring Viking epic he worked on with Mario Bava. Bava proved himself to be a miracle worker on this particular film, coming onboard after the previous director left suddenly. In six days, he reshot the whole movie, which has been recognized over the years as a cult favorite with Mitchell delivering a lusty performance as the knife-throwing hero. I would recommend any of the Mitchell-Bava films if you’re looking for an entertaining B-movie done well.
Cam as "Buck Cannon" in "The High Chapparal"
"Nightmare in Wax"
Spaghetti Westerns were exploding in popularity during the 60’s and Mitchell wasn’t left out. He had many Western roles over the years, ranging from folksy heroes and sidekicks to nasty bushwhackers, but one of special note was “Minnesota Clay”, directed by the great Sergio Corbucci, who later did the “Django” films. Cameron had a great part in this one, playing a man looking for revenge against the man who set him up for a wrongful stretch in prison. What makes this a little different than the usual is that the character is slowly going blind and has to settle things before he loses his vision.
Mitchell also returned to acting in the States during the 60’s, but the top roles eluded him, so he set out with a vengeance to do TV work. A list of his credits in American TV of the 60’s and 70’s would be prodigious indeed and tedious to go over in detail. The late 60’s gave him perhaps his best known and most beloved role, as happy go lucky cowboy Buck Cannon on “The High Chaparral”. Although Westerns were starting to fade in the late 60’s, this show was one of the highpoints and Buck was a memorable character that showed Mitchell hadn’t lost his acting touch at all.
Ironically, while Mitchell’s TV career was at its highest peak, his movie career was starting to head in the direction of “I can’t say no” to any role. Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. knew this phase well, starring in potboilers by Edward D. Wood Jr. and Al Adamson at the ignoble ends of their careers. For Cameron Mitchell, two movies announce his arrival to full blown Grade-Z film. “Autopsy For A Ghost” was a strange, abysmal supernatural comedy made in Mexico where Mitchell played a mad scientist. His co-stars were Basil Rathbone (his last role) as a lovesick ghost and a ridiculous looking John Carradine as the Devil himself. For the man who once received almost universal accolades as Happy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” to appear as a ranting madman in a cheap Mexican comedy has to be considered a calamitous fall.
Worse was to come with “Nightmare In Wax”. This 1968 cheap horror was a defining piece of schlock cinema. Mitchell played Vince Renard, the embittered owner of a wax museum who is horribly scarred and forced to wear a huge eye patch. The accident drives Renard around the bend and he spends his time furiously chain smoking and killing the people responsible for his mutilation, putting their bodies on display in his wax museum. Mitchell is seen talking to a decapitated head that’s clearly somebody with their head in a hole in a table. Renard also seems to control zombie-like victims. There’s some go-go dancing, bad music from an awful band and a psychedelic mess of an ending. “Nightmare of Wax” was a bold announcement that Cameron Mitchell was willing to take any role that came his way.
"The Toolbox Murders"
The 70’s offered Mitchell tons of TV roles on virtually every series out there, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “The Rookies” to “Quincy M.E.”. He’d often play a policeman, a sheriff or some kind of authority figure, both heroic or villainous. Occasional good roles came his way, as in the mystery thriller “The Midnight Man” and an underrated made for TV sci-fi film “The Stranger”. But more and more, he’d get parts like “Butt Cutt Cates”, the evil racist Klansman hellbent on stringing up a fugitive O.J. Simpson in “The Klansman”.
In 1978, Mitchell had his ultimate exploitation role in “The Toolbox Murders”. Supposedly based on a true story, Mitchell plays apartment superintendent Vance Kingsley, who runs around in a ski mask slaughtering the naked female tenants in his complex with power drills and other implements carried in his tool box. This movie was sleazy in a way that no prior Mitchell film was, featuring future porn queen Kelly Nichols as one of his victims. If the scenes of him using power tools on screaming nude females weren’t bad enough, he kidnaps kid star Pamelyn Ferdin, ties her to a bed and terrorizes her while sucking on a lollipop and singing country music. Mitchell’s performance was beyond crazy and he disliked talking about the role in later years. When asked by one reporter about being in such a gory film, he replied “that doesn’t mean I have to like it!”
1979 brought two more bargain basement roles...a part in the Italian monster horror “Island of the Fishmen” (aka “Screamers”) and a role as evil supervillain Dr. Gulik in the abysmal superhero film “Supersonic Man”. This last movie, made in Spain by the dreadful Juan Piquer Simon, has to be seen to be believed. The special effects are grade school level bad, Euro-disco music throbs on the soundtrack and Mitchell’s character is dubbed with an outrageous English accent, making any actual acting he does academic. This certainly had to be the low point of Mitchell’s career thus far, which was now firmly in the exploitation realm. Yet worse was to come.
Cameron had a relatively small part in “Without Warning”, a low budget sci fi film, but it allowed him to act alongside other veterans like Martin Landau, Jack Palance and Ralph Meeker. This film itself is not all that bad. The same could not be said for “Frankenstein Island”, an absolute abortion from the master of boring cinema, Jerry Warren. It’s a neck and neck race between this and “Supersonic Man” for the most idiotic film Mitchell ever starred in. It’s an incomprehensible mess featuring the floating head of John Carradine, 50’s SF star Robert Clarke, mutants and Amazons. That makes it sound more exciting than it actually is, as Jerry Warren was incapable of writing anything with action in it.
More from "Nightmare in Wax"
If anything, Mitchell was even more active in the 80’s than before, frantically accepting every role that came his way as a method of digging out of bankruptcy. His TV work included “Matt Houston”, “Knight Rider”, “Fall Guy” and, inevitably, “Murder, She Wrote”. His movie work was now almost exclusively low budget grindhouse and direct to video films.
The absolute nadir of his career was indisputedly 1982’s “It’s Called Murder, Baby”, a murder mystery set in post World War 2 Los Angeles. Mitchell played “The Lieutenant”, one of his patented police roles that he could do in his sleep. Maybe he was asleep when he signed to do the movie, because it was later released as an X-rated porno film called “Dixie Ray, Hollywood Star”. Mitchell said he was told that the movie would be rated R, but a cursory look at his co-stars would indicate that wouldn’t be happening. It was a collection of the biggest porn stars of the era: John Leslie, Veronica Hart, Samantha Fox and Kelly Nichols (who Mitchell had drilled to death in “The Toolbox Murders”). Although Cam kept his clothes on throughout the movie, being in an actual porn film was a level of embarrassment he couldn’t have imagined even when he was doing “Nightmare In Wax”.
The hits kept on coming. “Raw Force” was another great psychotronic role for Mitchell. In fact, this is one of the best psychotronic films of the 80’s. There’s nonstop excitement as Cameron Mitchell is the captain of a boatload of martial artists who wind up stranded on an island that has Nazi white slavers and kung fu zombies on it. Man-eating monks and piranhas also show up in this all time classic.
“Mission Kill”, “Rage To Kill” and “Hollywood Cop” were some of the cheap action potboilers Mitchell churned out during this period, where he frantically pivoted between TV and movie roles. I don’t know if he ever made a profit, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. 1988 was the year Cam ventured into science fiction. He starred in the super obscure “Mutant War”, where he was evil warlord “Reinhardt Rex” in a post-apocalyptic world. The movie was fun in a rotgut lowbudget way, but his next movie “Space Mutiny” certainly belongs in any discussion of Mitchell’s worst films. Here Cam was joined by his son Cameron Mitchell Jr., John Phillip Law and the immortal Reb Brown in a movie that gained fame by getting roasted by Joel and the Bots on “Mystery Theater 3000”.
As the 80’s pivoted into the 90’s, there was no lack of B-movies for Cameron to appear in. Of special note was the wild and woolly “Action U.S.A.”, which was a lovingly insane tribute to the entire 80’s action genre, chock full of explosions, fights, impossible stunts and shootouts. He played gangster “Frankie Navarro” alongside the great William Smith and Ross Hagen. Another gem filmed the same year of 1989 was “Memorial Valley Massacre”. This cheap mess once again teamed Mitchell with William Smith in a story of a remote campground stalked by a murderous young “cave boy”. It’s hard to tell if the movie was meant to be taken serious or not.
The 90’s brought a slow down to the frantic pace of Mitchell’s appearances, as age and ill health began to catch up with him. Typical crime potboilers like “Easy Kill” and “Crossing The Line” popped up in 1990, but they were Oscar contenders next to the horrid “Demon Cop”, which should have been called “Werewolf Cop” except that name was already taken.
That was pretty much the last actual movie that the tireless actor took on. Always a heavy smoker, Mitchell developed lung cancer and after some difficult years, he passed away in 1994.
There was a very strange postscript to Cameron Mitchell’s career. Despite dying in 1994, he appeared in a “new” movie released in 2018. That was Orson Welles’ unfinished project “The Other Side of the Wind”, which he filmed over 100 hours worth of scenes for throughout the 1970’s. The movie, ironically, was about the last unreleased movie of a controversial director. Mitchell appeared in some of the footage, along with well known stars like John Huston, Susan Strasberg and Mercedes McCambridge. The footage languished until editing began in the 80’s and continued off and on into the 21st century, when the final movie was released in 2018. Although the movie was certainly not Welles’ best, it was far from awful and a quantum leap ahead of stuff like “Demon Cop” and “Frankenstein Island”.
Cameron Mitchell’s career was a literal embodiment of “what if”. Few young actors showed more promise than he did in his formative years. But when it came to relationships, he crapped out, to put it mildly. Three of his wives had him constantly over a barrel when it came to alimony and desperate choices had to be made. Whatever one can say about the quality of his movies, Mitchell was an actor first and foremost and never considered any other career. For fans of rotgut psychotronica like the Good Doctor and most likely you, dear reader, we can be happy at the turn Mitchell’s career took. It would be hard to imagine anybody else playing Vince Renard in “Nightmare In Wax” or Vance Kingsley in “The Toolbox Murders” or Dr. Gulik in “Supersonic Man”. Nobody played a hard bitten policeman or frontier sheriff with the same gravitas as Cameron. And fans of strange cinema always had their interest piqued when a movie had the name “Cameron Mitchell” in its credits.
Mr. Mitchell can take some comfort that he left quite a mark in the movie and TV world, with well over 200 separate roles, all performed with aplomb. Yes, even “Dixie Ray, Hollywood Star”.