I couldn’t come up with just one way to celebrate Robert Mitchum, so I offer 26 of them to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday on August 6, 2017.
“Actors that are good at their craft help create the illusion and help people escape.” – Robert Mitchum
A – Artist
Robert Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 6, 1917, but his family moved to Charleston, South Carolina soon after. By all accounts his childhood was a tough one. His father died in a freak train accident when Bob was just two years old. Despite poverty and behavior problems, however, Bob and his siblings learned music and poetry from his Norwegian immigrant mother. She was a self-taught musician for whom artistic expression was important. This stayed with Bob Mitchum his entire life and although he downplayed this artistic side to his personality, he dabbled seriously in music now and again.
Mitchum was occasionally a singer and composer either as a side interest or as part of his film career with his voice used often – instead of professional singers – when one of his characters sang in his movies. These include Rachel and the Stranger (1948), River of No Return (1954) and a memorable rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). These performances were included in the films’ soundtracks or Bob would record separate entries as was the case in 1947 when he and Gary Gray recorded the songs from Rachel and the Stranger (1948) for Delta Records’ soundtrack album.
Bob Mitchum also recorded several studio albums:
In 1998, these songs were released on a compilation CD as entitled Robert Mitchum Sings.
B – From Beach bum to actor
When he was 9 Bob Mitchum was sent to live with relatives in Delaware along with his younger brother, John. Not happy about the move it didn’t take long for young Bob to run away and return home. With the Depression in full swing in 1929 the then 14-year-old Bob, ever restless, took to riding the rails, a tough and lonely life for such a young person by anyone’s estimation. Making matters worse Bob was arrested for vagrancy and put to work on a chain gang in Georgia. He escaped and returned home, but soon found himself in his older sister’s house in Long Beach, California where he became an expert beach bum. By then the young Mitchum’s shoulders had filled out and he was prone to fighting with anyone who provoked him.
Aware that she had to get her brothers to do something constructive, Mitchum’s older sister suggested he join the Long Beach Players Guild, but Bob had no interest in acting whatsoever. Well, that is until his sister mentioned that there were only four guys in the Guild and sixty girls. Bob reluctantly took up acting, but thought it embarrassing so he picked up again and returned to South Carolina where he married Dorothy. He was 16 and she was 14.
Bob and Dorothy moved to California where got a job in a factory, a job he hated. Maybe acting wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Bob Mitchum got himself an agent and the rest is history as a storied, memorable acting career was born.
“If I ever acted in my whole life I did it without knowing.” – Mitchum
“Bob would never be caught acting. He just is.” – Jane Greer
Mitchum didn’t believe in training as an actor or learning to do it. “It’d be like going to school to learn to be tall.”
“He just is. That’s his power as an actor.” – Polly Bergen
“There can’t be too much of a trick to acting because Rin Tin Tin did it great.” – Mitchum
“I think Bob is one of the very great actors and that his resources as an actor have never been fully tapped. He could be a Shakespearean actor. In fact, I think that he could play King Lear.” – John Huston
Bob Mitchum may have downplayed his talent and the significance of the acting profession, but I’m with John Huston – Mitchum was a great among greats. In several film genres he had an impressive array of tools at his disposal. He could be dangerous, intelligent, sexy, mysterious, vulnerable and funny and any combination of those he allowed to come through.
C – Contradictions
In truth Robert Mitchum was a mass of contractions. I could have easily included just one letter in this homage to this actor and covered the important aspects of his life and career. That’s not to say he was a simple man or that he made simple decisions, but rather the opposite. Mitchum, it seems, was equal parts of a number of contrasting traits both in real life and on screen.
“He can sound like a scholar one minute and a hoodlum the next.” – Saturday Evening Post, 1963
- As a child Bob Mitchum was a fighter and an artist – as an adult he was oftentimes loud and boisterous with a commanding presence, yet he was also shy and sensitive.
- Mitchum is one of the silver screen’s legendary macho men, but there is also always sensitivity just below the surface.
- He could come across as crass and arrogant in interviews, but many of his co-workers – fellow actors and directors – praised his generosity and professionalism.
- His arrest for marijuana possession in the late 1940s was a major scandal. Hollywood history has shown people just don’t come back after such an embarrassing ordeal. Or at least not immediately. But that wasn’t the case with Mitchum. Not only did he “come back” immediately, he did so with the public’s love and support.
- When actors found a niche in the golden age they stuck to it. For instance, Cary Grant never played an evil villain because he was “Cary Grant.” This was not so with Mitchum. He did it all from romantic lead to reluctant hero to two of the most memorable psychopaths in filmdom.
The New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael once said that he had a gut that was an honorary chest—and Mitchum is all stomach and heart, all at the same time.
“He’s a very tender man, a very great gentleman. One of my favorite people in the whole world.” – Charles Laughton
D – Dorothy
“What is the secret to a long marriage?” and interviewer asked Robert Mitchum. “Deviousness,” he replied.
Reportedly, Bob Mitchum had numerous affairs throughout his marriage to Dorothy and that is probably true. But you still can’t discount a nearly 60 year marriage that lasted until his death on July 1, 1997. Bob and Dorothy had three children, James, Christopher, and Trini.
E – Evil
For my money Mitchum played two of the most despicable characters to ever appear in the movies. The first is Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s masterful The Night of the Hunter (1955) and the second is Max Cady in J. Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear (1962).
As Powell, a psychopathic self-proclaimed preacher, Mitchum delivers what I believe is his best performance. His impressive frame and the way he uses it added to the dry, sneer-laced, low-key and cold delivery of every single word he utters make it difficult to forget this character, a man who hunts two small children to get the money their dad left them. Harry Powell remained one of Mitchum’s favorite roles and he was dedicated to it from the moment he read David Grubb‘s novel, “The Night of the Hunter” on which the film is based. As great as Robert Mitchum is as Powell he wasn’t Laughton’s first choice for the role. The director initially wanted Gary Cooper who turned it down (thank goodness). However, Laughton was immediately impressed by Mitchum who when told by the director he was looking for a “diabolical, no account creep” immediately answered, “Present!”
Seven years after The Night of the Hunter Robert Mitchum took on the role of another psychopath. As Max Cady Mitchum now tracks down, stalks, threatens and eventually attacks Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) and his family. Cady believes Bowden responsible for his having been imprisoned. Mitchum was reluctant to take on Max Cady because The Night of the Hunter had failed at the box office, but Peck convinced him. What Mitchum did with the role is play Max Cady in the most arrogant, sadistic manner imaginable.
Robert Mitchum is one of four actors (with Jack Nicholson, Bette Davis, and Faye Dunaway) to have two villainous roles ranked in the American Film Institute’s 100 years of The Greatest Heroes and Villains – Cape Fear‘s Max Cady at #28 and Reverend Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter at #29.
“The despicable characters were the most fun because they would inspire the biggest reaction from people.” – Mitchum
F – Film Noir
To me Bob Mitchum is the archetypal film noir actor, the quintessential reluctant hero doomed from the beginning by fate and his association with a certain woman. I feel this way mostly due to his portrayal of Jeff Bailey in Jacques Tourneur‘s Out of the Past (1947), but Mitchum did well by film noir many times.
Jane Greer who co-starred with Mitchum in Out of the Past and in Don Siegel‘s The Big Steal (1949) said that out of the movie detective genre – the Bogarts and the Dick Powells and others – Mitchum seemed to care more, was more vulnerable, showed more emotion, was hurt more – and it made all the difference. I couldn’t agree more.
Out of the Past was a critical and financial success for RKO and it cemented Robert Mitchum’s image as a tough guy. He’d repeat the noir look and feel many more times…
G – The Story of GI Joe (1945)
William Wellman‘s The Story of G.I. Joe made Robert Mitchum a star and got him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Bob Mitchum was under contract with RKO when he was lent out to Selznick Studios for GI Joe. As always, Mitchum was prepared to go through the motions of motion picture acting, which for him meant a steady paycheck and reading lines. But directors and the public saw the truth in his performances. They saw much more than a man with an impressive look standing there, that’s for sure. Mitchum arrived at Selznick, read the script and tested for the part of Lieutenant Walker in a film depicting the story of real-life war journalist Ernie Pyle played by Burgess Meredith.
William Wellman loved Mitchum’s test so much he used it in the picture. If you’ve ever seen The Story of GI Joe it’s the affecting scene between Lieutenant Walker and Ernie Pyle in the tent. Well, anyway after Wellman yelled “cut” Mitchum said he looked over and noticed the director crying. Mitchum retold the story years later in typical fashion downplaying his acting skills, “either I was very bad or he (Wellman) was very moved.”
“The only difference between me and my fellow actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail.”
[asked what jail was like, after being released on a marijuana possession charge] “It’s like Palm Springs without the riff-raff.” and “It’s just like Hollywood, but a better class of people.”
“Fear of failure is what drives people in Hollywood.”
[on press stories] “They’re all true – booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to.”
“I never changed anything, except my socks and my underwear. And I never did anything to glorify myself or improve my lot. I took what came and did the best I could with it.”
“I’ve survived because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”
“You know what the average Robert Mitchum fan is? He’s full of warts and dandruff and he’s probably got a hernia too, but he sees me up there on the screen and he thinks if that bum can make it, I can be president.”
 “Stars today are just masturbation images.”
When you start with nothing and are prepared to end up with nothing you have nothing to lose. I think that’s why Robert Mitchum was truthful.
I – Indifference
“That was Mitchum for you, a superb actor who affected a weary indifference to his work.” – Roger Ebert
Robert Mitchum reeked of indifference in many of his interviews about his career and some parts of his life. All things point to that not being the case in the real world for him, but it worked mighty well in his movies, as part of his characterization.
J – Jail
Mitchum’s face in the picture below, which shows when he and Lila Leeds were sentenced 60 days in jail on charges of conspiracy to possess marijuana, is priceless. The look yells, “what a crock!” He was released ten days early for good behavior and was open about the arrest and circumstances all of his life. I include “jail” as the “J” entry only because I love this picture.
K – Killer Eyes
Sleepy, dreamy, lazy and sly. And did I say dreamy?
L – Loner
Often played loners and drifters and one gets the impression at least a part of the real-life Mitchum was like that.
M – anti-Method
- Though respectful of Robert De Niro‘s talent, Mitchum was amused by the young Method actor’s habit of remaining in character all day as film studio chief Monroe Stahr during the filming of The Last Tycoon (1976).
- While filming El Dorado (1967) Mitchum was amused by co-star John Wayne‘s attempts to play his screen persona to the hilt in real life. He recalled that Wayne wore four-inch lifts to increase his height and had the roof of his car raised so he could drive wearing his Stetson.
“These kids only want to talk about acting method and motivation; in my day all we talked about was screwing and overtime.” – Mitchum
“He has nothing of that, ‘I’m feeling the part nonsense.’ He could just turn it on.” – Jane Russell
N – Nevada (1944)
Bob’s first leading role was as a winner at crap’s who’s wrongly accused of murder in Edward Killy’s Nevada.
O – Observant
“He knew people.” – Edward Dmytryk
P – Poet
Robert Mitchum had poems published in a local paper when he was 6 years old. He continued to write poetry his entire life, but it was something that embarrassed him, something he felt was private. That said, he couldn’t hide the fact that poetry was a part of him. He was an avid reader, an intellectual, a thinker and a great storyteller.
Deborah Kerr who co-starred with Robert Mitchum in four movies – Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1947), The Sundowners (1960), The Grass is Greener (1960) and Reunion at Fairborough (1985) – became good friends with him. She talked about how she expected to meet the tough and rough man she’d heard about prior to making Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, but that he couldn’t have been more different. The man she met and came to greatly admire was a gentle, poetic man who she spent a lot of time with just contemplating the scenery. “The macho thing is partly true,” Kerr said, “but there’s a gentleness you never expect.”
Q – Quiescent
R – RKO
“Every studio had one mule and I was their mule.”
Bob Mitchum always said that he played the same character while at RKO, that he just changed leading ladies. While that may have been true at the beginning it wasn’t later when he got meatier, movies to sink his teeth into. In some interviews he spoke quite fondly of his years at RKO and of the people he worked with there, which he referred to as family. Plus, once Bob made his mark he was the big cheese on the lot and got everything he wanted, including a chair with his name on it.
At the height of his popularity with RKO the studio set up a fan club, The Mitchum Droolets, which Mitchum referred to as “salivating jailbait.”
S – Sexy
During his 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, Mitchum told the story of the first time he’d seen himself on the big screen. He recalled it was one of the Hopalong Cassidy pictures and he was with his wife when – as soon as he appeared on the screen – he overheard a woman say, “My God, who is that man? That is the most immoral face I’ve ever seen.”
Mitchum told the story to illustrate how easily actors or movie stars are judged, but I imagine the woman sighed as she said “immoral” with a tinge of longing.
“He is all man.” – Jane Russell
T – Tough
U – Unrelenting
113 films, 133 total acting credits in a career that spanned 6 decades. That’s an unrelenting career, an unrelenting desire to work, and an unrelenting desire for expression. Imagine if Robert Mitchum had actually liked acting, imagine if he didn’t think it was just a job.
“I’ve played everything except midgets and women. People can’t make up their minds whether I’m the greatest actor in the world – or the worst. Matter of fact, neither can I. It’s been said I underplay so much, I could have stayed home. But I must be good at my job. Or they wouldn’t haul me around the world at these prices.”
V – Voice
Robert Mitchum’s deep baritone sound matched his impressive physique perfectly. That’s particularly true in his Western and crime roles and when he played the bad guy. He once said that “once I quit horses and started on girls,” referring to romantic roles he’d also serve quite well, “I had to modulate my voice otherwise the needle would go all over the place for the sound guys.”
W – Westerns
“RKO made the same film with me for ten years. They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat. They made a male Jane Russell out of me. I was the staff hero. They got so they wanted me to take some of my clothes off in the pictures. I objected to this, so I put on some weight and looked like a Bulgarian wrestler when I took my shirt off. Only two pictures in that time made any sense whatever. I complained and they told me frankly that they had a certain amount of baloney to sell and I was the boy to do it.”
Bob Mitchum starred in seven Hopalong Cassidy movies and always felt that he had that to fall back on if needed – he said it only half jokingly. He had fun making those pictures, which were produced quickly and followed a strict formula. Mitchum also liked working outdoors and having little dialogue. As he described it, “I rode horses all day and got paid.”
As you know, Mitchum would go on to make numerous notable Westerns throughout his career. As was the case with film noir, he was a natural riding the range on either side of the law.
X – EXciting
Y – Youthful
Z – Zeitgeber
zeitgeber, a rhythmically occurring event that cues organisms’ biological rhythms.
“I can’t describe what Mitchum’s appeal is. It’s just there. It’s palpable.” – Sydney Pollack