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Thunder Road - Asheville's Hot Rod Silver Screen Fiend: Part I

Over the last six months, Mountaineer Motor Tours has taken a deep dive into researching the history of the filming of Thunder Road, staring Robert and Jim Mitchum. Thunder Road was filmed in Asheville during the fall of 1957 and has become legend ever since. There are lots of rumors and stories floating around out there, but what was Mitchum's true inspiration for picking Asheville to tell his story of Appalachian bootleggers? Thunder Road would become his debut movie with his new production company, DRM Productions? To find out more, we had to look high and low to find out why Mitchum picked, the Land of the Sky. Over the course of several installments, we'll reveal all about the making of Thunder Road!

On a quiet, nondescript late summer day in 1957, a man wandered into the town of Asheville, North Carolina. He decided to check into a room at the Battery Park Hotel and tramp around town. His family, on his father’s side, traced some of their roots to a small town outside of Charleston, South Carolina called “Lane”, so he was somewhat familiar with the area. He was trying to sell his wife Dorothy on a vacation home in the Carolinas, but wasn’t sure if she would bite (she didn’t). He had an idea to make his first movie in the Carolinas, a movie about bootleggers but didn’t know where to start. In his head, he pictured being crouched down in the woods, listening to the sound of his own breath, inhaling the smell of hickory smoke and sour mash as his path was lit by sparkling stars and moonlight.

Day by day, he would transform himself into his main character - bootlegger, Lucas Doolan. This man was Robert Mitchum, a larger than life actor, poet, singer and part time beatnik who was trying to strike out on his own in his debut as director/actor/producer with his production company, DRM Productions (DRM stood for Dorothy and Robert Mitchum) to produce a movie that would go down in local lore and become a cult classic, Thunder Road. The movie was originally titled “Jack O’ Diamonds” then "The Whippoorwill" based on songs that were being written for the movie before finally landing on Thunder Road.

In his journey to produce his first movie, Robert Mitchum had traveled a long road. He started his career acting in B movies and half bit westerns. Living in California, Robert had observed some of the car culture that was being created out west through his son Jim. He had even bought an old service station and hired a mechanic to help Jim work on his 1955 Ford Thunderbird and his Hot Rod. Robert himself owned many unique cars, including a 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark and a 1955 Jaguar XK120. He’d pal’d around with Sinatra and other men of great stature and style. He’d spent most of his life living out a Jack Kerouac type lifestyle reminiscent of Kerouac’s book, On The Road. Mitchum had caused a stir, running from one place to another, from one woman to another and seeking out music and culture along the way. He started his career with the eccentric and off putting inventor, Howard Hughes at RKO studios in what turned out to be an excruciatingly difficult career, when finally his contract ended. He made his way to United Artists, where he would find a home for his own production company, DRM Productions.

Mitchum had been stewing on the idea of a bootlegger movie for several years. Thunder Road was his first personal production with DRM Productions. He wrote an article for the Hollywood Reporter that had his usual flair and swagger stating “You got problems? Well, climb on the pad and tell old Dad. I don’t have any. Or, I didn’t have any until producing a picture messed me up. As the man said, It all started with a cloud in the sky no bigger than a man’s fist. Home crouched on the couch one night, it occurred to me that we might get a motion picture out of moonshiners and government tax men trying to outwit each other in the southeastern area of these United States.”

For years, Mitchum had been asked to help write some dialogue and clean up wording on scripts that he had worked on, but never written a full length movie. He also was a voracious reader and would often write poetry in his downtime while filming. He knew he would need a true screenwriter to complete this project though. Mitchum met a smart, affable writer who was working for Batjac, John Wayne’s production company named James Atlee Phillips. Phillips was a Texas newspaperman turned mystery novelist who had written The Case of the Shivering Chorus Girls and Suitable for Framing. He was described as “a tyro scenarist and footloose character with a fertile imagination.” Mitchum and Phillips hit it off immediately and began discussing the actor’s idea for a movie about the southern moonshine business. Mitchum had been tinkering with a storyline about an ex-soldier who had returned to his Smoky Mountain home, running illegal liquor across the state, that outwits and outran the authorities. Another writer, Walter Wise, had done a draft of this story, but it needed a lot of work. Mitchum wanted the movie to have a more gritty, insiders feel, which would inspire a research trip for him and Phillips.

Mitchum and Jim Phillips decided they would take a research trip to visit his brother, CIA Agent David Atlee Phillips in Washington, D.C. David Atlee Phillips was a rising star in the CIA and would later be connected with the Bay of Pigs invasion and “numerous other attention-getting CIA operations in North and Central America.” Some conspiracy buffs even later claimed that he had a part in the assassination of President Kennedy. Mitchum recalled that when he and Jim Phillips came to see David at his office, it was located behind a false front wall, with the facade of a brewery. Jim’s brother David made a couple of phone calls, which helped smooth the way for them to meet with officials at the Treasury Department.

Robert did what he did best and began to charm officers of the department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, explaining his desire to make a film documenting the battle against the evil moonshine empire in the American South. Mitchum and Phillips walked away from their meeting with a promise of full cooperation for his project. The week went by quickly as he and Jim Phillips flipped through Alcohol and Tobacco’s criminal files and case histories. The two then decided to carry on their research at the Library of Congress, learning more about the ancestry of southern mountain families and spending some time listening to the library’s collection of regional folk music and rare “hillbilly” recordings.

At some point after this research trip, Mitchum decided to just show up in Asheville, North Carolina, “The Land of the Sky,” a popular vacation destination in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville also happens to be the birthplace of Thomas Wolfe, who was a writer that Mitchum had always greatly admired. Asheville itself had a large moonshine trade that did a lot of business with Newport, Tennessee: the source of liquor for many bootleggers and runners for Asheville. Asheville was also a hotbed of automobile racing activity at the time and was a stop on the NASCAR circuit, with two local race tracks and many good mechanics in the surrounding area. Many of these NASCAR mechanics serviced bootlegger cars, to modify them for more speed.

Mitchum checked in at the Battery Park Hotel and with his introduction and authorization from Washington, he phoned the treasury’s man in Asheville, John Corbin to arrange a meeting. When Mitchum called Corbin, Corbin thought it was a crank call and replied “are you some kinda joker?” “Robert Mitchum the movie man?” After their phone call, they set up a meeting and Corbin brought along Al Dowtin, “a respected local legend and overachiever, former sports hero, former FBI agent and champion golfer, who was now head of the local ABC Board. Dowtin recalled “I was chief of the law enforcement for the Asheville ABC. The Liquor stores had just been voted in, in North Carolina and so liquor sales had just become legal in Asheville at the ABC Store; but prior to that, the only liquor we had coming in to Asheville, which is a town of fifty-six thousand people, well, it was illegal.”

Weighed down with armloads of information from his and Phillips’ research and meetings, Mitchum still needed inspiration on who was going to be the character and leading man role he would play. According to research done by noted historian Kate Clabough and ATG agent Grant McGarity, the man who would inspire the leading character of Lucas Doolin was from Cocke County Tennessee. Kate found in her research and a phone call to Cocke County Circuit Court Judge Ben Hooper not only the origin of the driver, but his name as well. Hooper said “Thunder Road” was based on the life of a man named Rufus Gunter. He didn’t die like Mitchum’s character, but he certainly lived like him.” Gunter was a legendary whiskey runner from Cocke County, who died in 1953 after running his car off the J. Will Taylor Bridge that crosses the Holston River in East Knox County. Before his death, Gunter raced stock cars and Hooper got to ride with him when he was a young boy.

Hooper remembered “I remember my Uncle George Poe taking me to see Rufus Gunter race in Knoxville. He talked him into giving me a ride. He drove a ‘37 or ‘38 Ford. I remember the car had no passenger seat so I sat down low on the floor. The car bounced all over. I was scared to death. I wouldn’t say it was a good experience.”

In Kate’s investigation into the true identity of Thunder Road’s inspiration for its main character, Lucas Doolin (played by Robert Mitchum), she came across a couple other sources that pointed the finger at Gunter. Ronnie Moore, son of east Tennessee racing hall of fame legend Ralph Burdette “Duck” Moore said his dad knew Gunter well. The two of them raced against one another at various tracks in the South throughout the early 50’s until Gunter’s death took him out of the circuit. They both ran a little moonshine, which had been known as a “training program” for racers like Junior Johnson. Clabough also received two anonymous letters that claimed Gunter was the inspiration for the character, Lucas Doolin. One of the letters stated that Rufus’ father, Pinkney Gunter, made moonshine in a place called Mountain Rest in upper Cosby, in Cocke County. After Rufus’ death, his family was approached by Mitchum’s people about making a movie based on their son’s exploits. At first, Rufus’ father refused, but eventually they were able to get his mother to sign the release.

In the second letter that Kate received, the 84 year old author also confirmed Gunter’s identity and added “The revenuers chased him so fast that he ran off the highway into the lake under the bridge at Swan’s Boat Dock. I went to the lake to watch when they were dragging it for his body.” The writer also claimed that Gunter was born about 1920, which would have made him about 33 years old when his life ended during his last moonshine run. The name Thunder Road was a term coined by the Feds that denoted an ongoing pursuit of any moonshiner worth chasing.

Even with this information for the foundation of a character based on Gunter, Mitchum was also continuing to develop his character, Lucas Doolin. Doolin, a brooding recent Korean War Veteran who had served in the 32nd Regiment 7th Army Division (seen hanging on a battle pennon when he entered his room at his mother’s house) was conflicted between two worlds. He had seen the horrors of war and experienced the sights and sounds of an entire world away. This particular military unit was sent in to stop the invasion of South Korea under Lieutenant Colonel Don Faith. Despite Doolin’s experiences in the war, his heart still belongs in Rillow Valley and yet has an unrequited feeling of wanting more out of life. He seems to not care about anything except hauling moonshine and living in the moment, not getting close to anyone or forming any true intimate relationships.

After all of their field work and research, Mitchum and Phillips returned to Hollywood, to set about putting together a cast and crew for Thunder Road. Mitchum’s choice for a director was described as “unconventional, yet emblematic.” He chose sixty two year old Arthur Ripley, who was known as “an eccentric and mysterious figure in American film circles.” For all of the people that had worked with him over the past forty years, there were many stories about his behavior and appearance that had generated as many stories as his unquestionable talent. Many actors and crew commented about his gloomy demeanor, shouting and poor hygiene. He was known to hardly change clothes or bathe and according to one story, while filming a movie for Walter Wanger in the 1930s, Ripley looked so dreadful that the crew hid him under blankets when the producer visited the sets. Although he was not a conventional choice, he was the obvious choice for Mitchum, as he was typically drawn to eccentrics and oddballs. Mitchum was quoted as saying “he was a very gifted man and a drinking fellow. A tall, sonorous, big-nose character from Brooklyn teaching at UCLA when we nailed him.” Robert’s assistant, Reva Frederick had other ideas saying “We found Arthur Ripley. Oh boy. He was one hundred and ninety years old or looked it. He liked to drink, and when he drank he didn’t know where he was, where he lived or how to get back home. Robert liked him.”

Arthur Ripley also had a connection to Asheville as well. He had previously adapted a screenplay of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel” in 1945. While filming Thunder Road, he gifted his copy of the screenplay to the Pack Memorial Library, in a ceremony held at Julia Wolfe’s boarding house, “The Old Kentucky Home.” Although the movie was never made, Ripley did shoot some scenes around Asheville and Chapel to try to find other supporters of the project after friends of his had invested a fair amount of their money in it. At one point, American film producer and director David O. Selznick formed a releasing organization and wanted to do “Look Homeward Angel,” but his organization went broke before Ripley could get the script ready. He was later forced to sell the script to Paramount, who did not ever do anything with it because they did not believe it would be a commercial success. Thomas Wolfe’s nephews were invited to hang out during filming of Thunder Road. During a break, they asked Ripley if he thought their Uncle was a good writer to which Ripley replied “he was one of the best I ever knew.”

Robert had even bigger ideas about casting the part of his younger brother, Robin in Thunder Road. Mitchum decided he wanted Elvis Presley to co-star alongside him. Elvis had just appeared in his first movie, Love Me Tender and apparently stole the show from Mitchum’s friend Richard Egan. Robert showed up at Elvis’ hotel suite one day with the screenplay and a fifth of scotch. Some members of the Memphis Mafia were hanging around and escorted Robert into the hotel suite. Elvis was a fan of Robert’s work and was said that the inspiration for his high, upswept pompadour hairstyle came from Mitchum. This seemed to amuse Mitchum as he poured drinks and laid out the script while they made small talk. Elvis was said to love his stories of escaping a change gang as a troubled youth, outrunning police bloodhounds during his escape and other tall tales. After feeling like they had established some friendly rapport, Mitchum supposedly said “Here’s the fuckin’ script - let’s get together and do it.” Elvis told Mitchum that he would have to run it past his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. Mitchum, obviously annoyed by this statement said “Fuck, I’m talking to you. I don’t need to talk to your manager. Let’s do the picture.” “Well, I can’t,” said Elvis. “Not unless the Colonel says I can.”

For Asheville residents, Thunder Road is something of a legend but the thought of having Elvis and Mitchum invade their town is beyond comprehension. This missed opportunity, stymied by Col. Parker was tragic, as his main priority was cold, hard cash and nothing more. Although no documentation exists of Parker’s correspondence with Mitchum, the story goes that the price for Presley in Thunder Road was most of the movie’s estimated budget, which stopped any discussion right in its tracks. Despite not accepting the role, Presley still accepted an invitation to Mitchum’s house in Mandeville Canyon, outside of Hollywood one weekend. Mitchum’s younger son, Chris Mitchum remembered being stunned by the visit. He was used to seeing people like Gregory Peck, Jane Russell and other neighbors on a regular basis. To him they were just “neighbors” but here was a real star sitting on their piano bench with his dad! Robert and Elvis sang and laughed, playing the piano and then sat down for a meal of roast beef at the Mitchum family dinner table.

After being turned down by Elvis, Robert decided to look for someone a little closer to him to play the part of his kid brother Robin: his sixteen year old son Jim. Jim had grown up to be the size of his father already and kept getting bigger. Robert thought, why not give him a taste of the family business and cast him for the part, offering him a salary of $280 a week. Mitchum hired his other young son, Chris to play an extra in the movie. In the scene where there is a bluegrass band, Chris can be seen playing the washboard. It was his first acting gig and reportedly paid him $10.

Robert Mitchum assembled an inspired cast of other rising Hollywood stars like Gene Barry (the Federal lawman who later starred in Burke’s Law and the Twilight Zone), Jacques Aubuchon (the gangster villain Carl Kogan), Mitch Ryan and Peter Breck (young gangster punks) and the singer and Las Vegas lounge sensation, Keely Smith. Smith was married to the singer and entertainer Louis Prima who had rising in popularity quickly. Robert saw her as playing the part of his night club singing girlfriend Francie. Robert’s manager Reva Frederick remembered Mitchum running into the office one day and saying “I have heard the greatest record of all time!” referring to Smith’s 1957 recording of “Autumn Leaves.”

**Tune in for our next segment on how Mitchum assemble his all-star cast and more trivia in part 2 of Thunder Road!

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