Directed by Arthur Ripley, "Thunder Road" is a classic crime film from 1958 that focuses on Lucas Doolin, a Korean War veteran who delivers moonshine in rural mountain states such as North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. He tries to keep the family business afloat while evading law enforcement. The film features thrilling hot rod chases and action sequences that inspired Bruce Springsteen's song "Thunder Road."
It was a very personal project for the high-demand actor Robert Mitchum, who also served as the producer, conceived the story, and wrote some songs. "Thunder Road" was also a family affair. The role of Robin Doolin, Lucas' naive younger brother and mechanic who wants to be a part of the dangerous, fast-paced moonshining business, eventually went to Robert Mitchum's son James Mitchum.
Robert's other son, Chris Mitchum, explained in a 2018 interview that his dad originally wanted musician Elvis Presley to play Robin, and they even met to discuss the possibility:
"My parents always had a Christmas party, and Elvis and two of his bodyguards came to the party. […] My dad and Elvis were at the piano taking turns playing and singing songs. […] It turned out that Elvis didn't do the picture because Colonel Parker did not want him to do a movie that he couldn't get an album out of. 'Thunder Road' was not a musical."Presley, it should be noted, was also under contract to both MGM and Paramount Studios, and "Thunder Road" was produced by United Artists. The controlling Colonel Parker was likely upset that Robert Mitchum had not asked him directly for his client to be a part of "Thunder Road." Also, TCM reports that his asking price "was more than the budget of the entire film." Without Elvis as he originally pictured, Robert Mitchum turned to his own son, who bore a striking resemblance to him.
Col. Parker Wanted Elvis In Musicals
"Thunder Road" would have allowed Elvis to stretch his acting muscles, but Colonel Parker had other ideas about the kind of movies he should star in. "He envisioned a musical career (in the movies) for Elvis. All those really sophomoric kinds of movies," James Mitchum remarked in the Knoxville News Sentinel. In films such as "Jailhouse Rock," "Blue Hawaii," and "Viva Las Vegas," Elvis played charismatic leading men who romance women by performing musical numbers and going on exciting adventures.
The role of Robin has more emotional gravitas and would have shown off Elvis' dramatic abilities — especially in the tension between Robin's rebellious desires and his brother's stern authority. However, the real-life dynamic and natural chemistry between the father and son acting duo Robert and James Mitchum heightens the conflict between their characters, as well as the film's familial and anti-authoritarian themes.
While Elvis would have been an intriguing choice, James Mitchum brings a vulnerability to the character, particularly Robin's need to prove his loyalty and contribute to the family business. James Mitchum's performance as Robin adds depth and emotional resonance to "Thunder Road," but it still would have been great to see Elvis in something other than frothy musical roles.
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