John Wayne’s Co-Star Chris Mitchum Talks Duke’s Influence on ‘Big Jake’

by Allison Hambrick

Actor and costar to John Wayne, Chris Mitchum, opened up about the iconic actor’s role in shaping their film Big Jake.

“I’d see him off discussing the scene,” Mitchum said on A Word on Westerns. “[Director George Sherman] was about five feet tall. The Duke is, you know, 20 feet tall, so Duke is talking to him like this,” the actor mimicked looking down with his arms crossed. “Dick Boone kind of summed it up. He said ‘you know, what we have here is a movie starring John Wayne and 14 people playing John Wayne.’ So he had quite a bit of influence.”

According to Mitchum, Wayne acted almost like a second director for the film. He and Sherman would meet to discuss the scenes they were filming, and they would make sure they were on the same page. Wayne’s former costar said that Sherman usually did “what Duke told him to.”

“The scene where I have just killed a person and I find out there’s newspaper clippings in the trunk, Duke comes in,” continued Mitchum. “I wanted to go way on one side and pull it way back. I wanted to, like, break down in tears saying ‘I killed a man for newspaper clippings.’ Then he says, ‘you gotta be tough’ or whatever. Then I said ‘okay, you want tough?’ and I hit my father. So I wanted that, you know, transition. We start the scene, and Duke says ‘well, if I’d known you were going to be a crybaby in this scene, I wouldn’t have come to work today.'”

This is far from the only time that Wayne took an active role in determining Mitchum’s career.

How John Wayne Helped Mitchum Land Rio Lobo

Back on the set of Chisum, Mitchum and Wayne met for the first time. The former revealed that this encounter led Wayne to take in interest in him.

“That was the film that got me real knowable,” Mitchum said in the same interview. “I was like the fourth guy in the back, and I played actually a historical character named Tom O’Folliard. I’m sitting on the horse, and [Wayne] is sitting there with a child watching the scene. He’s looking at me, and after the shot, he comes over, slaps me on the thigh, and says, ‘You know, you should have played Billy the Kid.’ I said, ‘Well, dude, that was kind of my thought when I was put through casting.’”

Mitchum then explained what happened next: “[Wayne] said, ‘Well when Howard Hawks is coming down to talk to me about my next film, I’d like to introduce you to him.’ That’s how I got the part in Rio Lobo.

After that chance meeting, Mitchum went for an hour-long meeting with Hawks. They did several readings. Hawks would throw a new direction in to see if the then-young actor could take it. According to Mitchum, that lined up with Hawks’ on-set directorial style.

 Whatever Mitchum did worked. He was invited back for a screen test and ultimately made the cut for the movie. He went on to work with both Wayne and Hawks several more times.