Remembering Robert Mitchum
Now the only ones left are the wimps. These days, Hollywood hangs the ”bad boy” tag on every surly kid who happens to wreck a hotel room. But no bad boy will ever come down the pike with as much mad devotion to the calling as Robert Mitchum. The 79-year-old actor, who died in his sleep last week after battling emphysema and lung cancer, presided for more than five decades as a drawling, cocktail-chugging, punk-poetic patriarch to every big-screen badass from Nicholson to Penn.
Mitchum’s rough ride started early. His father was killed in a railroad accident when he was 2; Mitchum left home at 16. While his future colleagues set out to study the thespian arts, Mitchum traipsed off to study life, embarking on a personal Juilliard of hard labor and harder liquor. He slept in train cars. Dug ditches. Mined coal. Got arrested for vagrancy and worked on a chain gang.
When Mitchum finally moseyed into Hollywood and wound up as a heavy in a 1943 Hopalong Cassidy flick, Hoppy Serves a Writ, he stuck to the same what-the-hell work ethic. Mitchum made 18 movies in 1943 alone — a standard that seems superhuman today. ”I came at a fortunate time,” he once said, brushing off his breakthrough. ”They wanted ordinary guys who looked ugly, and there I was, all broken up.”
Mitchum landed an Oscar nomination for 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, but three years later his distaste for moderation nearly derailed his career: The actor was sentenced to 50 days in jail for smoking a joint. (The scandal was so ahead of the curve that TIME magazine had to run a footnote explaining what marijuana was.) Later, the smoke cleared and Mitchum went on to creep the hell out of us in Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter, to brawl with sailors and boxers, to drink and smoke like a stevedore, to cut a couple of calypso albums, and to dazzle starlets with his strange, slow, frog-eyed charms — despite a 57-year marriage to his wife, Dorothy, who survives him. ”The rumors?” he used to say. ”They’re all true. Booze, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to.” True or not, Mitchum never apologized for any of it. ”Anybody who really has known me for a long time,” he said, ”knows I never changed anything except my socks and my underwear.”
OUT OF THE PAST (1947) Tangling sexily with Jane Greer — one of the great tawdry B-movie femmes fatales in one of the twistiest noirs ever.
THE LUSTY MEN (1952) Embodying poise, cynicism, and tenderness as a rodeo rider drawn to Susan Hayward.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) His killer preacher (below left) in Charles Laughton’s eerie fable remains an essential movie villain.
CAPE FEAR (1962) The violence that’s always lurking under a Mitchum performance finally pops out — too bad for Gregory Peck and family.
FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) Long after Hollywood and Mitchum stopped making straight detective films came this graceful Philip Marlowe thriller.