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Obituaries

Gordon Mitchell, 80; Bodybuilder Made 'Sword and Sandal' B Movies

September 25, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Gordon Mitchell, a bodybuilder who joined entertainer Mae West's buffed all-male chorus line in the mid-1950s and went on to make about 200 B-movies, excelling in the "sword and sandal" genre, has died. He was 80.

Mitchell died Saturday night in his sleep at his Marina del Rey home of an apparent heart attack, said his personal assistant, Bill Comstock.

The still-fit actor had been in good health, Comstock said, and had recently completed a film in Germany.

Of all the European spaghetti westerns, sci-fi flicks and sparsely scripted fantasy adventures of ancient heroes saving fair damsels and suffering hordes, Mitchell's most noted film probably was Federico Fellini's 1970 "Fellini Satyricon." Mitchell played a robber in the colorful portrait of ancient Roman debauchery, which is still an art-house favorite.

Mitchell, who lived and filmed in Italy from 1961 to 1989, was featured in the Swords & Sandals Festival presented in June by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. His showcased film was the 1961 "The Giant of Metropolis," in which he portrayed the title's prehistoric, loincloth-clad muscleman who endures torture in a weird futuristic world.

"I did my own stunts. I tried to make everything real," Mitchell told The Times during the festival, adding that he often worked on three films at once and trained constantly off-camera, often lifting rocks when no barbells were available.

On Labor Day in 2001, Mitchell, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay and five of their fellow celluloid he-men were honored by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks at Venice's Muscle Beach, where they first built the muscles that made them beefcake stars.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s when the bodybuilders, including fitness advocates Joe Gold, Vic Tanny and Jack LaLanne, worked out at Muscle Beach, society matrons and celebrities alike would come to ogle. One admirer was the aging but canny Mae West, who realized decades before Madonna that scantily clad boy toys could enliven her stage act.

The exposure earned Mitchell uncredited roles in some major A-list films of the 1950s, including "Prisoner of War," starring Ronald Reagan; "The Man With the Golden Arm," starring Frank Sinatra; and "The Ten Commandments," featuring Charlton Heston.

But Mitchell still didn't give up his day job as a Los Angeles high school teacher and guidance counselor. Not until muscleman Steve Reeves starred in the 1959 "Hercules," which touched off a new genre of movies about bigger-than-life heroes of ancient Greece and Rome.

Then Mitchell moved to Italy and really started making movies. His first starring role was as Maciste, a strongman of Italian folklore turned into the better-known Atlas for American audiences in what was titled in the U.S. "Atlas Against the Cyclops."

Mitchell also played other mythical or literary giants: Pluto, Goliath, Igor, Ali Baba. The stern-faced bodybuilder remained in demand over the years as a general or other military officer of armies from various nations and eras.

The knockoff Hercules films were made cheaply in Italy and Spain, mostly by Italian production companies. The little dialogue they featured could easily be dubbed into many languages, making the bodybuilders international stars.

Mitchell, like others, acknowledged that he never knew what was going on in a film because he couldn't read or speak Italian.

Born Charles Pendleton in Denver, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. He served in the Army during World War II, seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge, and reenlisted for the Korean War.

Comstock said that he was unaware of any close survivors and that services were pending.

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