The Mitchells' father, Robert (known to all as Bob), an "Okie", was a professional gambler. He and his wife, Georgia Mae, settled in Antioch, California near San Francisco, and according to the Mitchell brothers' biographers, provided a relatively stable childhood for Jim and Artie; the boys were popular and their childhood friends would become important members of the Mitchells' porn empire.
Jim, a part-time filmmaking student at San Francisco State University in the mid-1960s, aspired to become an "important" director like Francis Ford Coppola and Roman Polanski, and headed a clique of classmates with similar ambitions. While in school, he worked at the Follies, a cinema showing "nudies" (brief, plotless films featuring naked performers), and observed that each night the theater was filled with "horn dick daddies" (masturbators) who arrived simply for the onscreen nudity. He therefore perceived pornography as a potentially lucrative career opportunity for himself and Artie, who had just been discharged from the Army.
In 1969, with the help of Artie's Ivy League-educated wife Meredith Bradford, the brothers fulfilled their ambitions by leasing and renovating a dilapidated two-story building at 895 O'Farrell Street, which they converted into the O'Farrell Theatre, a movie theater with a makeshift film studio upstairs. They also rented a larger facility at 991 Tennessee Street in which to shoot some of their films; nevertheless, even their fans conceded that the Mitchells' movies ranged in quality from mediocre to atrocious. Jim Mitchell once quipped, "The only Art in [porn] is my brother."
The Mitchells opened the O'Farrell Theatre on the July 4, 1969, and were confronted almost immediately by the authorities. They would open other X-rated movie houses in California over the years, spending much time in court and money on lawyers to stay open as indignant locals and officials repeatedly tried to shut them down.
They became incorporated as Cinema 7 (headquartered in the managers' offices at the O'Farrell Theatre), and in 1972 produced one of the world's first famous feature-length pornographic movies, Behind the Green Door, starring then-Ivory Snow girl Marilyn Chambers in her porn debut. The movie, produced for $60,000, grossed over $25 million.
The Mitchells rode the porno chic wave, using some of their Green Door profits to produce fairly lavish hardcore movies including Resurrection of Eve in 1973 and Sodom & Gomorrah in 1975. One of their last big-budget movies was The Grafenberg Spot (1985), featuring Traci Lords, who had entered the adult-video industry underaged using fake identification. The Mitchell brothers were the first to transfer film titles to videotape and market them via ads in national sex magazines. The brothers were inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame.
In 1985, the brothers made the sequel to Behind the Green Door that had been long-awaited—and often postponed. They hired Sharon McNight, a cabaret singer and frequent movie collaborator, to direct the picture and, uncharacteristically, chose to cast the film exclusively with amateur performers, despite the availability of such adult-industry stars as Lady Ashley Liberty, who had just concluded an engagement at New York City's Show World Center. The Mitchell brothers auditioned virtually every newcomer who responded to their advertisements (which appeared in Variety and Bay Area sex tabloids). A handful of O'Farrell dancers accepted small roles; one of them asked to be cast as Gloria, the female lead, reprising the role originally played by Chambers, who did not participate in the sequel. While McNight considered the house dancer for that part, Artie Mitchell's then-girlfriend, who then called herself Missy Manners, cast herself as Gloria. Filming of the sequel occurred mainly in the O'Farrell Theatre, and took only one day.
Missy, overweight and utterly inexperienced at acting and public sex, reportedly had much difficulty performing in front of the film crew; the set was so tense that at one point Jim Mitchell harangued one of his O'Farrell managers in front of everyone because their catered lunch was inadequate. The Green Door sequel was also the world's first safe-sex film, in which all the men wore condoms, and self-protection advice was given to the audience by one of the characters. Highly over-budgeted at $250,000, Behind the Green Door: the Sequel, according to adult magazines, was one of the worst porn pictures ever made, mainly due to the absence of a professional cast.
In the mid-1970s, low-level organized crime began making unauthorized copies of the Mitchells's movies, and the brothers retaliated in the courts. When one judge ruled that obscene material could not receive copyright protection, the brothers eventually prevailed in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to the FBI copyright warnings now found at the start of videos.
The O'Farrell Theatre was frequently raided on obscenity and related charges, leading to over 200 cases against its proprietors. They were defended by maverick attorney Michael Kennedy.
The Mitchells were popular on the fringes of San Francisco's diverse society. Their friends included a who's-who of pornography plus San Francisco politicians: Warren Hinckle, Herb Gold, Aerosmith, Black Panther Huey "Doc" Newton, and Jack Palladino. Palladino would come to be considered the world's most expensive private investigator. The late journalist Hunter S. Thompson was a close friend of the brothers, and frequently visited the O'Farrell Theatre. In 1988, the Mitchells made a 30-minute documentary about him, Hunter S. Thompson: The Crazy Never Die.
Thompson claimed in his 2003 book Kingdom of Fear that he had worked for a while in 1985 as night manager at the club, an assertion repeated by some news articles. Thompson also claimed that the Mitchell brothers smuggled guns to the IRA.
Jim and Artie Mitchell supported various cartoonists, Dan O'Neill among them. During the 1984 Democratic National Convention, they opened the upper floor of the O'Farrell to a group of underground cartoonists, including Victor Moscoso, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Ted Richards, S. Clay Wilson, Gary Hallgren and Phil Frank, to cover the convention for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Jim launched the publication War News to protest the first Gulf War; journalist Warren Hinckle was hired as editor, Robert Crumb designed the logo, and Art Spiegelman and Winston Smith were paid contributors. Other contributors included Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Moore, Paul Krassner, Ron Turner, Bob Callahan, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring, Trina Robbins, S. Clay Wilson, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Twice-divorced Jim lived for years with Lisa Adams, a former adult-entertainment starlet and O'Farrell dancer. He and his second wife Mary Jane had four children and were married for seven years until 1986; one of them, Meta, is now the O'Farrell's general manager.
Artie was the father of six, three with his first wife, Meredith Bradford (who retained her maiden name and insisted that their children go by Bradford), and the others with Karen Hassall, whom he divorced in the mid-1980s. Meredith attended law school at her husband's expense and, upon graduating, represented the Mitchells until Jim fired her over a conflict involving his children's manners at her family's Massachusetts vacation home.
In 2011, Jim's son James "Rafe" Mitchell was convicted of murder. In May 2014, Artie's daughter Jasmine was arrested for her alleged participation in an identity-theft ring.
In Bottom Feeders, John Hubner characterizes the Mitchells as frequently quarreling with each other and everyone else, alternately stingy and profligate, and often misogynistic. In Hubner's book, the O'Farrell Theatre is a mirrored house of sleaze, filled with bikini-clad predators hustling money from men too insecure or ugly to get girls any other way. Cinema 7, the Mitchells' company, is a model of inefficiency, with its top members, almost invariably boyhood friends of the brothers, spending their office hours taking drugs, drinking beer and playing pool as customers' orders for videos go unfilled for weeks at a time.
In contrast, McCumber's X-rated focuses mainly on the personal foibles of Artie Mitchell; indeed, Jim Mitchell, his brother's keeper, is portrayed as surmounting many personal obstacles, such as overcoming drug addiction through voluntary rehabilitation.
On a rainy February 27, 1991 evening, Jim, in response to friends's and associates's demands to "do something" about alcoholic, cocaine-addled Artie, drove to Artie's house with a .22 rifle that he inherited from his father and fatally shot the younger Mitchell. O'Farrell dancer Julie Bajo (Artie's lover at the time) immediately called 911, and the police arrested Jim minutes later. Marilyn Chambers spoke at Artie's funeral, and he was then buried in Lodi Memorial Cemetery.
After a highly publicized trial in which Jim was represented by his old friend and lawyer Michael Kennedy (by then a prominent Park Avenue attorney), the jury rejected a murder charge and found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Before Jim's sentencing, numerous people spoke on his behalf (presumably appealing for clemency), including former Mayor Frank Jordan, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, and former Police Chief Richard Hongisto. Mitchell was sentenced to six years in prison.
One of the results of Jim's trial was that the California Courts allowed, in a precedent-setting decision, a computer animation reenactment of the murder to be entered into evidence. It showed the positions of Jim, Artie, the bullet impact points, and the path taken by bullets as they entered Artie's body. This was the first use of a 3D computer animation in a criminal trial. In his final argument before the jury, Michael Kennedy had attempted to mock the virtual-reality reenactment. However, the success of the method led to its use in other trials.
After he served three years in San Quentin, Jim was released in 1997 and returned to run the O'Farrell Theatre.
Jim established the "Artie Fund" to collect money for a local drug rehabilitation center and for the Surf Rescue Squad of the San Francisco Fire Department. (In 1990, Artie had been caught in a riptide off Ocean Beach, Jim had paddled out to help, and the Surf Rescue Squad had aided in the rescue of both of them; the squad members had received lifetime passes to the O'Farrell.) Artie's children have denounced the fund, claiming it is intended to whitewash Artie's murder. On their website, they describe their father's murder as premeditated and motivated by greed and jealousy, and claim that the depictions of Artie in the books and movie are inaccurate.
Shortly before his death, Jim wanted to change California's nickname to "the Prison State" and design a license plate saying so. He intended to protest the efforts of law enforcement officers and prison guards to lobby for longer prison sentences.
Jim Mitchell died at his ranch in western Sonoma County on July 12, 2007, from an apparent heart attack. The funeral in Jim's boyhood town of Antioch, California on July 19 was attended by 300 people, including Mayor Willie Brown, ex-District Attorney Terence Hallinan, and many O'Farrell ecdysiasts. He was buried next to his brother.
Biographies of the brothers are X-Rated by David McCumber (1992, ISBN 0-671-75156-5) and Bottom Feeders: From Free Love to Hard Core by John Hubner (1993, ISBN 0-385-42261-X).
In 2000, their story was dramatized in the movie Rated X starring real life brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as Artie and Jim, with Estevez also directing. The film was shot in Toronto, Canada, although the entire story occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 2001 the TV series Forensic Files aired an episode called "Sibling Rivalry", which documented Artie's murder and the use of forensic animation and sound analysis at Jim's trial.
The 2007 book 9½ Years Behind the Green Door (ISBN 1934248622) by Simone Corday describes the brothers from the perspective of a dancer at the O'Farrell and girlfriend of Artie.