Robert Mitchum (1917 - 1997)

An underrated performer for much of his lengthy career, Robert Mitchum in recent years has finally earned the respect that should have been paid him years ago-although, ironically, most of his recent screen work has shown the aging lion guilty of the apathetic listlessness of which he was accused in earlier days. Tall and broad chested, with sleepy eyes, Mitchum always moved with languid, catlike grace and delivered his dialogue in deep voice with careful deliberation, a mode of acting that didn't always endear him to critics. But more often than not, something wasseething beneath that placid, casual exterior. There wasalways more to Mitchum than the obvious, whether benign or malignant. And that quality has kept him in stardom's top rank for many years.

As a youth Mitchum wandered around the country, sometimes taking odd jobs, sometimes traveling aimlessly like a hobo. The itinerant finally settled down in 1940, marrying his high-school sweetheart and taking a job in a southern California airplane factory. Bitten by the acting bug, he joined a local theater group and drifted into movie work in 1943. He played heavies (and one sympathetic secondary character) in several Hopalong Cassidy Westerns that year, including Bar 20, Hoppy Serves a Writ, Border Patrol and Colt Comrades Mitchum crashed other studios and took small roles in war films and horse operas, including Beyond the Last Frontier, The Lone Star Trail, Corvette K-225, Gung Ho!, The Leather Burners, Doughboys in Ireland, Aerial Gunner, Cry Havoc, The Human Comedy and Minesweeper-all in 1943! That year he also supported Laurel and Hardy in The Dancing Masters the first of his relatively few comedies.

RKO signed Mitchum in 1944 and gave him his big break, replacing cowboy star Tim Holt (who'd gone into wartime service) in two Zane Grey B Westerns, Nevada (1944) and West of the Pecos (1945). No great shakes as pictures, they did at least provide Mitchum with his first starring roles. He also made a cheapie thriller for Monogram, When Strangers Marry (1944), which elicited surprisingly favorable reviews, all of which directed attention to Mitchum's fine performance as a supposedly sympathetic character who turned out to be the heavy. That same year, his well-received supporting turn as Lt. Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) earned him an Oscar nomination. (After playing so many soldiers, he was finally drafted in 1945, but spent only a few months in the service before the war ended.)

Robert RyanBy now a recognizable figure, Mitchum was loaned to MGM for Undercurrent (1946) and Desire Me and to Warner Bros. for Pursued (both 1947). But his home studio, RKO, gave him a big buildup with good parts in high-profile films such as Till the End of Time, The Locket (both 1946), Crossfire, Out of the Past (both 1947, the latter being the archetypal film noir and a cornerstone in the building of Mitchum's tough-guy screen persona), Rachel and the Stranger (1948, in which he took third billing behind Loretta Young and William Holden), and Blood on the Moon (also 1948, a moody, atmospheric Western).

A well-publicized (and apparently trumped-up) 1948 arrest for marijuana possession convinced Mitchum that his career was over but, amazingly enough, the public took it in stride; perhaps such behavior wasn't very much out of character for this quietly menacing tough guy. After loaning him to Republic for the first-rate Steinbeck adaptation The Red Pony (1949), RKO kept Mitchum busy in a string of gritty melodramas and action films (and at least one lighthearted romance, 1949's Holiday Affair including The Big Steal (1949), Where Danger Lives (1950), The Racket (cast as a hard-as-nails police captain in one of his best vehicles during this period), My Forbidden Past, His Kind of Woman (all 1951), Macao, One Minute to Zero, Angel Face (all 1952), The Lusty Men (also 1952, excellent as a lonely but independent rodeo cowboy), and Second Chance (1953).She Couldn't Say No (1954), an alleged comedy starring Jean Simmons, cast Mitchum as a small-town doctor in one of his few duds; it ended his decade-long association with RKO, then only a few years from corporate extinction.

With Robert RyanAt 20th Century-Fox, Mitchum starred in two routine but enjoyable adventure films, White Witch Doctor (1953, opposite Susan Hayward) and River of No Return (1954, opposite Marilyn Monroe). Then he got a career plum: the actor was sublimely menacing as a psychotic religious fanatic (with love and hate tattooed on his knuckles!) who plots to murder two children in The Night of the Hunter (1955), an atmospheric, almost hallucinogenic allegory brilliantly directed by actor Charles Laughton. It remains one of his all-time best films-and performances.

Among the highlights of Mitchum's subsequent career:Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), in which he played a Marine trapped with nun Deborah Kerr (a favorite and frequent costar) on a Japanese-infested island during World War 2;Thunder Road (1958), a low-budget, high-octane moonshining opus that saw Mitchum's son Jim playing his dad's brother (and which gave Mitchum a hit record in the title tune!);Cape Fear (1962), a taut thriller in which he delivered a truly blood-curdling performance as a slimy ex-convict who menaces lawyer Gregory Peck and his family; El Dorado (1967), which teamed him with John Wayne in Howard Hawks' loose remake of his ownRio Bravo and David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970), which proved that he could play completely against type-here, as a quiet Irish schoolteacher.

By 1975, Mitchum's personal popularity and box-office potency had eroded, but he had a surprise hit in that year's Farewell, My Lovely which cast him as Raymond Chandler's world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe. Although he was too old (and too paunchy) for the part, Mitchum acquitted himself nicely in the carefully made, faithfully adapted period piece. (He played Marlowe again in a 1978 remake of The Big Sleep an updated misfire set and shot in England.)

Since then Mitchum has kept himself busy in a succession of theatrical movies, telefilms, and miniseries of varying quality. He even played William Randolph Hearst in a TV movie (1985's The Hearst and Davies Affair his last starring vehicle for the big screen was The Ambassador (1984). A games-player in interviews, he professes indifference about his craft, but the evidence reveals otherwise. It's also clear that in spite of many mediocre films in recent years, he's still capable of delivering the goods when inspired by first-rate material (and/or a good director), as witness The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza (1975), and Mr. North (1988).

Mitchum relaxes on the set of Ryan's Daughter.Mitchum, who had always eschewed TV series work, starred in the short-lived series "A Family for Joe" (1990), about which commitment he later claimed to have been deceived. He was also much praised for his work in the starring role of the miniseries "The Winds of War" (1983) and its sequel "War and Remembrance" (1988-89). Sons Jim and Christopher followed in the family footsteps, although without the old man's success. He gave a witty, knowing performance as a police lieutenant in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991), and returned to the Western genre as narrator in Tombstone (1993). He also appeared in Midnight Ride (1993).

What people had to say on Mitchum

DICK LOCHTE on Mitchum

"Mitchum was the genuine article -- the Hollywood tough guy as hard-boiled as the heroes he played. He'd walked the walk, a runaway who hit the rails as "a thin, ferret-faced kid" of 14 and who, two years later, wound up on a chain gang in Georgia. He was a drifter, a boxer, a shoe salesman and even a poet.

And, eventually, he became an actor. In the course of a long, full career, he created a unique and extremely popular on-screen image. Somehow he managed to be both cool and reckless, heroic and vaguely sinister, laconic to the point of inertia, yet still a man of action. And above all, he was tough. Today's movie tough guys don't even come close. Next to Mitchum, Eastwood looks perplexed. Nolte seems punch-drunk. De Niro, Pacino and Keitel are kids playing grown-up."

Kathrine Hepburn to Mitchum (furious at Mitchum's indifference on set)

"You know you can't act, and if you hadn't been good-looking you would never have gotten a picture."

Martin Scorsese on Mitchum

"I'm not sure that Robert Mitchum would have become a star had he been born at an earlier time. His world-weary reserve and sad-eyed nonchalance were so much of a product of his era, they would have made little sense in the '20s or '30s. Even Humphrey Bogart, who originated the depiction of disenchantment in American movies, had hope. For Mitchum, hope was never even a possibility."
Martin Scorsese

Mitchum on Mitchum

In an interview in the late 1970s Robert Mitchum had this to say about his acting career: " "Somebody says, 'We really want you to do this script.' And I say, 'I'd need an awful lot of money in front to do that one.' And that never seems to be a problem. The less I like the script, the higher my price. And they pay. They may pay in yen, but they pay. Not that I'm a complete whore, understand. There are movies I won't do for any amount. I turned down 'Patton' and I turned down 'Dirty Harry.' Movies that piss on the world. If I've got $5 in my pocket, I don't need to make money that fucking way, daddy."

Mitchum getting nasty with Polly Bergin in Cape Fear 1961Movies bore me, especially my own.

The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I've spent more time in jail."

"I gave up being serious about making pictures around the time I made a film with Greer Garson and she took 125 takes to say no.

"I started out to be a sex fiend but couldn't pass the physical."

"I've still got the same attitude I had when I started. I haven't changed anything but my underwear."

"Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right and looking straight ahead." (on his acting talents)

"People think I have an interesting walk. Hell, I'm just trying to hold my gut in."

(on press stories) "They're all true - booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to."

"When I drop dead and they rush to the drawer, there's going to be nothing in it but a note saying 'later'."

An early production shotEdward Dmytryk on Mitchum

"On the surface he is irresponsible and vague and yes - wacky. Underneath he knows the score as few men in Hollywood do."

Charles Laughton on Mitchum

"All the tough talk is a blind. He is a literate, gracious, kind man with wonderful manners and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. He would make the best Macbeth of any actor living."

John Huston on Mitchum

"He is a rarity among actors, hard-working, noncomplaining, amazingly perceptive, one of the most shockingly underrated stars in business."

Fred Zinneman on Mitchum

"He is one of the finest instinctive actors in the business, almost in the same class as Spencer Tracy."

David Lean on Mitchum

"Mitchum can, simply by being there, make almost any other actor look like a hole in the screen

Vincent Price: "He writes his poetry and his songs and tells his stories - some true, some not. It doesn't matter, because they're all funny. But he is a complete anachronism. He claims he doesn't care about acting, but he's an extraordinary actor. He's one of that group in Hollywood who are such extraordinary personalities that people forget they're marvelous actors."