Actor Robert Mitchum, whose tough-talking, rough-living macho film persona was nourished as much by his off-screen exploits as by the roles he played, died Tuesday in his sleep at his Santa Barbara home. Mitchum, 79, had been suffering from emphysema for a year and was diagnosed in spring with lung cancer.
The actor was a popular leading man from the 1940s on, but few of his 100 or so films offered roles that tested his talent. But when they did, as in “Out of the Past,” “The Night of the Hunter,” “The Sundowners” and “Cape Fear,” he was virtually without peer. Like Bogart, Cooper and Tracy, Mitchum’s acting appeared effortless. His heavy-lidded eyes and laconic demeanor lent sex appeal to his unconventional good looks.
Mitchum’s conviction (later overturned) for marijuana possession in 1948 never hurt his career, at least at the box office. But he adopted an air of nonchalance about the acting profession, and his showy, reckless personal behavior may have subtly influenced the caliber of roles he was offered.
Creature of circumstance
Circumstance also figured into his career. Howard Hughes wouldn’t let him out of his contract to star in “From Here to Eternity,” a role that brought full-blown stardom to Burt Lancaster. He was also kept from starring on stage as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which gave significant boosts to the careers of Marlon Brando and, later, Anthony Quinn. He turned down other meaty roles in pix such as such as “The Misfits,” “Patton” and “Cat Ballou” (surprising in that he accepted parts in more than his share of bad or indifferent films).
Robert Charles Duran Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 6, 1917. He went through a period of juvenile delinquency and told anecdotes about that period that were so outrageous, it was hard to determine what was true and what was exaggerated. Mitchum claimed to have worked as a ditchdigger, songwriter, coal miner, deckhand, ghostwriter for astrologer Carroll Richter, and professional boxer, lasting 27 fights.
He also said he had been arrested for vagrancy in Savannah, Ga., and escaped from a chain gang after six days.
He married Dorothy Spence in 1940 and settled in Long Beach, working as a shaper operator with Lockheed Aircraft Corp. The job made him mentally and physically ill, he said, and he quit it to work with the Long Beach Theatre Guild.
Soon he was working as a film extra and bit player. After a minor role in the 1943 “The Human Comedy,” RKO Radio Pictures put him under contract, and in 1945 he copped his sole Academy Award nomination in a supporting role in the World War II drama “The Story of G.I. Joe.”
That same year he was drafted but spent only eight months in the Army, most of it touring for his film, before receiving a dependency discharge.
Over the next several years, he largely played soldiers, cowboys and gumshoes in several notable films, including “Till the End of Time,” “Crossfire,” “Rachel and the Stranger,” the 1947 “Out of the Past” and “Blood on the Moon.”
“After the war, suddenly there was this thing for ugly heroes, so I started going around in profile,” he remarked. He also gained a reputation as a boozer and a ladies’ man.
But on Aug. 31, 1948, in what Mitchum contended was a frame-up, he was arrested at the home of fledgling actress Lila Leeds for marijuana possession. He hired two of the best attorneys in town, Jerry Giesler and Norman Tyre, but was found guilty and sentenced to 60 days in jail, which he served at an honor farm in Castaic. “It’s just like Palm Springs, without the riffraff,” he said of his stay. The conviction was subsequently overturned and stricken from his record.
After his arrest, he returned to film with a John Steinbeck story, “The Red Pony,” and his popularity, both with producers and the public, proved stronger than ever.
Film noir fit
His granite face, barrel chest and cynical attitude were a perfect fit for RKO’s film noir dramas of the era, such as “The Big Steal,” “The Racket,” “Where Danger Lives” and “Second Chance.”
The controversy fueled his career, and by the early 1950s he was receiving $4,500 a week. Hughes cast him opposite actresses such as Jane Russell and Jane Greer in a number of B-grade projects, in which he was always better than the material.
But it wasn’t until his contract expired a couple of years later and he went freelance, that Mitchum began to snare more interesting and varied roles, in such pics as Otto Preminger’s 1954 “River of No Return” and Stanley Kramer’s 1955 “Not as a Stranger.”
One of his classic characterizations was as the psychopathic evangelist in Charles Laughton’s stylized “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), largely disregarded at the time. His softer, more romantic side was displayed two years later, in John Huston’s “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” opposite Deborah Kerr.
In 1958, he produced and wrote the songs for “Thunder Road,” which co-starred his 16-year-old son Jim. Another son, Christopher, would begin to act in the 1970s.
Two performances in 1960 — as the wealthy philanderer in “Home From the Hill” and as the Australian sheep farmer in “The Sundowners” (again with Kerr) — were the most praised of his career.
“As an actor, he is superb. However you read a line, he has anticipated it. He is a fantastically sensitive, decent human being,” Kerr said.
Mitchum once shrugged off such praise: “I still have the same attitude I had when I started. I haven’t changed anything but my underwear. 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.”
Other high points over the next decade included the romantic drama “Two for the Seesaw” and “Cape Fear” (both in 1962), Howard Hawks’ 1967 “El Dorado” and David Lean’s 1970 “Ryan’s Daughter.” By the time of 1968’s “5 Card Stud,” Time magazine reported he was earning $200,000 in salary and 27% of the gross.
Leading in the ’70s
Into the 1970s, he was in demand as a leading man in such films as “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973), “The Yakuza” and “Farewell, My Lovely” (both in 1975); in “Lovely,” he played Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, a role he repeated three years later in “The Big Sleep.”
In 1982, he made his vidpic debut in “One Shoe Makes It Murder,” and subsequently made a handful of telefilms, including the 1983 “A Killer in the Family,” the ’86 “The Hearst and Davies Affair” and 1989’s “Jake Spanner, Private Eye.”
He received $1 million to star in the 1983 miniseries of Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War” and, subsequently, “War and Remembrance.”
He appeared in a cameo role, as did his original “Cape Fear” co-star Gregory Peck, in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.
In the last few years, he also did extensive voiceover work, becoming the spokesman for beef and the Oppenheimer Fund, among others. He also narrated the 1993 pic “Tombstone.”
The hard-drinking, mischievous Mitchum seemed to thrive on his controversial image and be in constant need of flaunting it. “I choose not to say why I act the way I do,” he told Barry Rehfeld in a now infamous 1983 Esquire interview. “It is all a matter of momentary instinct. Sometimes I piss on myself a little, but I do as well as I can most of the time. I think if I die of anything, it will be of embarrassment.”
In that same interview, he brought down the wrath of American Jews for anti-Jewish remarks that he later said were quoted out of context and were actually uttered as illustrations of the bigoted character he was playing in the film version of “That Championship Season.” But he made politically incorrect statements about women, black and gays in the same piece.
He feigned indifference to the fact that he was never a superstar. However, in an ’83 interview, he said, “I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone else in this business. I always thought I could do better. But you don’t get to do better, you get to do more.”
He is survived by his wife; sons Jim and Christopher, both actors; daughter Petrine, a writer; siblings John and Julie, both singer-actors, and Carole Allen.
The funeral will be private, and Mitchum’s ashes will be scattered at sea, according to a family spokesman.