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Obituaries

Jim Mitchell, 63; developed a multimillion-dollar adult film empire with his brother

July 16, 2007|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Jim Mitchell, who developed a multimillion-dollar adult film empire with his younger brother, Artie, but was later convicted of killing him, has died. He was 63.

Mitchell died Thursday night at his ranch near Petaluma, Calif. The cause of death was not immediately known, but foul play was not suspected, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department said. An autopsy was conducted Friday, but the results were not made available.

The dramatic rise and flesh-and-blood fall of the Mitchell brothers has been chronicled in books, the Showtime movie "Rated X" and in countless newspaper and magazine articles.

In the 1960s and '70s, they produced a string of adult film hits, including "Resurrection of Eve" and "Sodom and Gomorrah: The Last 7 Days."

But their most famous and financially successful film was "Behind the Green Door," which starred Marilyn Chambers, who previously had worked as a model for Ivory soap ads. That movie, which cost about $60,000 to make, reportedly earned $25 million.

From their offices atop the O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, a combination movie and stage show emporium that opened in 1969 and was called the Carnegie Hall of Sex, the brothers built an empire that at one time included 11 movie theaters, including two in Southern California, as well as movie and video productions, The Times reported in 1991.

Their success brought instant recognition from the police, who constantly raided their theaters on various morals charges. The brothers were no strangers to arrest and, at the height of their career, were said to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on legal expenses, according to The Times.

One of their longest legal disputes was a 10-year battle with the city of Santa Ana over one of their theaters.

In San Francisco, the brothers displayed a keen knack for seeming more naughty than nasty. They played the media well, supporting causes such as saving the whales and the rain forests, and once demanded that Geraldo Rivera donate $15,000 to AIDS-related charities before they allowed him to film their strip shows for television.

They attracted a coterie of interesting friends, including Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton; an up-and-coming writer named Hunter S. Thompson, who worked for them briefly as the night manager of the O'Farrell; and counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb.

Others in the city were not pleased by their business endeavors and tried to close them down. One of them was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and later the city's mayor.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, their response to her campaign was to put her private phone number on the O'Farrell's marquee with the message: "For a Good Time, Call."

The brothers' personal lives were as complicated and expensive as their business dealings.

Seemingly inseparable, both were married and divorced multiple times and fathered numerous children.

Jim was relatively quiet and contained while Artie was known as the party guy. But at 45, he was caught in a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that prosecutors later said stimulated increasingly erratic behavior that disrupted the business.

Their empire came crashing down on Feb. 27, 1991, when Jim Mitchell, armed with a pistol and a rifle, went to his brother's home in the Marin County community of Corte Madera and shot him to death.

Prosecutors said the killing was a coldblooded act sparked by a dispute between the brothers over the future of the business.

Mitchell claimed that the shooting was an accident that happened when he was trying to persuade his brother to seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

Convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Mitchell was sentenced to six years at San Quentin State Prison but served less than three years. After his release in 1997, he lived quietly, raising horses at his ranch near Petaluma.

Several of his brother's children filed wrongful-death suits against him that eventually were settled out of court.

"Rated X," the film based on their lives, appeared on Showtime in 2000.

Directed by Emilio Estevez, it starred Estevez as Jim and his brother Charlie Sheen as Artie.

jon.thurber@latimes.com

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