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A story arc worthy of Hollywood

A showbiz family's son is poised to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He'll bring an independent streak.

July 30, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Mike Mullen's dad was a charismatic actor-turned-Hollywood-press-agent who had quit smoking and taken up tennis to improve his health. So when Jack Mullen dropped dead of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 54, friends and colleagues were stunned.

"He always seemed so physically strong," recalled actor Peter Graves, a longtime client of Jack's. "He was a tall man, and a rugged fellow, and looked like he would never have a sick day in his life."

Mullen's funeral at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City drew some of the most prominent actors and reporters of the day. His austere wooden coffin was borne to his grave by his four sons and two nephews. But Mike, the eldest son, could not stop to mourn for long: A junior naval officer, he soon had to return to sea to man a ship in a Navy at war.

More than three decades later and during another war, Michael Glenn Mullen, now 60, is an admiral poised to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior posting in the military.

Mullen's views on the Iraq war, including his initial skepticism about the U.S. troop buildup, have been the focus of attention since he was nominated for the post last month, and probably will dominate his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. If approved, he will succeed the outgoing chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace.

But Mullen's unusual rise to the top of one of the country's most tradition-bound institutions is less widely known. Unlike many who reach his rank, Mullen's family had almost no tradition of military service.

He didn't just grow up around the Hollywood glamour of his father's world; his relatives included vaudevillians and a professional singer. Only one uncle was a veteran.

And Mullen had never intended to make the Navy a career, let alone become chief of naval operations, the post he now holds, friends and family members recalled.

"It was an improbable course," said one officer who works closely with Mullen.

But it was also a course that close associates believe made him more well-rounded and self-effacing than many who wear four stars -- an approachable leader who urges subordinates to dust themselves off after making mistakes and to work even harder.

In addition, his backers insist that because Mullen for so long did not aspire to the military's top ranks, he developed an independent streak they hope will suit him well in his new job. Two immediate predecessors have been accused by critics of failing to stand up to Pentagon civilian leaders.

"If he doesn't think things are going well in Iraq, he's going to say so and he's going to say why," said retired Rear Adm. William W. Cobb Jr., a close friend of Mullen's since their days at the U.S. Naval Academy. "He is nobody's fool. He's his own independent thinker."

Mullen's improbable rise began in Los Angeles, a city that is still home to most of his siblings and close relatives.

His father was a towering figure among Hollywood's elite -- clients included Ann-Margret, Anthony Quinn and Julie Andrews, whom Jack once escorted to the Oscars. But the family's beginnings in Southern California were more modest.

Both parents moved to L.A. from the Midwest during World War II -- mother Jane Glenn from Sioux City, Iowa, and father Jack from Chicago -- drawn by the glitz of the burgeoning movie business.

Each realized only modest success in the war years. Jack's acting career amounted to a handful of roles in live theater. The two would eventually end up in the publicity department of Republic Pictures, home to singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, where they met and quickly married.

The couple first lived with Jane's parents in a small house in the Hollywood Hills, which was also shared by Jane's sister and her husband. The next year, in October 1946, their first son arrived.

"They joked they were married nine months and 15 minutes before Michael was born," said Bernice McGeehan, a close friend.

The war over, Jack Mullen's new career as a publicist began to take off. He traveled with performers like Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers, Rogers' former singing group, often leaving Jane alone to raise the growing family.

Within a decade, Jack would become one of the most prominent press agents in Hollywood, respected by leading actors and the powerful columnists who covered them, including Hedda Hopper, Luella Parsons and Daily Variety's Army Archerd.

"He really had a terrific reputation," recalled Archerd, who became a family friend. "When he came into a restaurant on the Sunset Strip, the Cock 'n' Bull, he didn't have to wait for a table. They always had one for him."

Mike Mullen's siblings and cousins remember celebrity snippets from their childhood: a Christmas at Ann-Margret's; cowboy star Jock Mahoney firing off blanks in the Mullen family home; Steve McQueen buying brother Kevin a Fudgsicle off a Good Humor truck.

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