Bridgeport's Robert Mitchum
Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 1, 1997) was an American film actor, author, composer and singer. Mitchum is largely remembered for his starring roles in several major works of the film noir style, and is considered a forerunner of the anti-heroes prevalent in film during the 1950s and 1960s.
Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His mother, Ann Harriet (née Gunderson), was a Norwegian immigrant and sea captain's daughter, and his father, James Thomas Mitchum, was a shipyard and railroad worker. A sister, Annette, (known as Julie Mitchum during her acting career) was born in 1913. James Mitchum was crushed to death in a railyard accident in Charleston, South Carolina in February 1919, when Robert was less than 2 years old. After his death, Ann Mitchum was awarded a government pension, and soon realized she was pregnant. She returned to her family in Connecticut, and married a former British Army major who helped her care for the children. In September 1919 a son, John, was born. When all of the children were old enough to attend school, Ann found employment as a linotype operator for the Bridgeport Post.
Throughout Mitchum's childhood, he was known as a prankster, often involved in fistfights and mischief. When he was 12, Ann sent him to live with his grandparents in Felton, Delaware, where he was promptly expelled from his middle school for scuffling with a principal. A year later, in 1930, he moved in with his older sister, in New York's Hell's Kitchen. After being expelled from Haaran High School, he left his sister and traveled throughout the country on railroad cars, taking a number of jobs including as a ditch-digger for the Civilian Conservation Corps and as a professional boxer.
He experienced numerous adventures during his years as one of the Depression era's "wild boys of the road." At age 14 in Savannah, Georgia, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang. By Mitchum's own account, he escaped and returned to his family in Delaware. It was during this time, while recovering from injuries that nearly lost him a leg, that he met the woman he would marry, a teenaged Dorothy Spence. He soon went back on the road, eventually riding the rails to California.
Mitchum arrived in Long Beach, California, in 1936, staying again with his sister Julie. Soon the rest of the Mitchum family joined them in Long Beach. During this time he worked as a ghostwriter for astrologer Carroll Righter. It was sister Julie who convinced Robert to join the local theater guild with her. In his years with the Players Guild of Long Beach, he made a living as a stagehand and occasional bit player in plays. He also wrote several short pieces which were performed by the guild. According to Lee Server's biography (Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care), Mitchum put a talent for poetry to work writing song lyrics and monologues for his sister Julie's nightclub performances.
In 1940 he returned East to marry Dorothy, taking her back to California. He remained a footloose character until the birth of their first child, Jim, nicknamed Josh (two more children would follow, Christopher and Petrine). Robert then got a steady job as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
A nervous breakdown (which resulted in temporary blindness), apparently from job-related stress, led Mitchum to look for work as an actor or extra in movies. An agent he had met got him an interview with the producer of the Hopalong Cassidy series of B-westerns; he was hired to play the villain in several films in the series between 1942 and 1943.
He continued to find further work as an extra and supporting actor in numerous productions for various studios. After impressing director Mervyn LeRoy during the making of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Mitchum signed a seven-year contract with RKO Radio Pictures. He found himself groomed for B Western stardom in a series of Zane Grey adaptations.
Following the moderately successful western Nevada, Mitchum was lent from RKO to United Artists for the William Wellman-helmed The Story of G.I. Joe. In the film, he portrayed war-weary officer Bill Walker (based on Captain Henry T. Waskow), who remains resolute despite the troubles he faces. The film, which followed the life of an ordinary soldier through the eyes of journalist Ernie Pyle (played by Burgess Meredith), became an instant critical and commercial success.
Shortly after making the film, Mitchum himself was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving at Fort MacArthur, California. At the 1946 Academy Awards, The Story of G.I. Joe was nominated for four Oscars, including Mitchum's only nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He finished the year off with a western (West of the Pecos) and a story of returning Marine veterans (Till the End of Time), before transitioning into a genre that came to define both Mitchum's career and screen persona: film noir.
Mitchum would become a signature actor in the style of film known as film noir (a style used in many genres but most commonly in gangster and crime movies). His first entry into this world of dark crime stories was the well-regarded B-movie, When Strangers Marry, about a psychotic serial killer. One of Mitchum's early film noir outings, Undercurrent, featured him playing against type as a troubled, sensitive man entangled in the affairs of his brother (Robert Taylor) and his brother's suspicious wife (Katharine Hepburn). The ill-received film was Vincente Minnelli's first and last film noir as a director.
John Brahm's The Locket (1946) featured Mitchum as a bitter ex-husband to Laraine Day's femme fatale, while the Raoul Walsh-helmed Pursued (1947) combined the western and film noir genres, with Mitchum's character trying to remember his past and find those responsible for killing his family. Crossfire, also released in 1947 featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers, one of whom killed a Jew. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year, garnering five Academy Award nominations.
Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in what was arguably the definitive film of his career, Out of the Past (aka Build My Gallows High), directed by Jacques Tourneur and benefiting from the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. Mitchum played Jeff Markham, a small-town gas station owner whose unfinished business with gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and one of the most memorable of all femmes fatales, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), comes back to haunt him. Though ignored by most critics upon its release, the film was a modest box office hit and has steadily gained the highest critical praise from both film journalists and filmmakers since its release. Mitchum was photographed again by Musuraca in the Robert Wise "psychological western" Blood on the Moon the following year.
Mitchum's cynical, mischievous attitude continued through adulthood and led him to shrug off fame as a fluke. On the set, he often played pranks on fellow actors and crew. His expulsion from 1955's Blood Alley is frequently attributed to his pranks, especially one in which he reportedly threw the film's transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. On September 1, 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, he and actress Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana. The arrest was the result of a sting operation designed to capture other Hollywood partiers as well, but Mitchum and Leeds did not receive the tip-off. After serving a week at the county jail, Mitchum spent 43 days (February 16 to March 30) at a Castaic, California, prison farm, with Life magazine photographers right there snapping photos of him mopping up in his prison uniform.
The arrest became the inspiration for the exploitation film She Shoulda Said No! (1949), which starred Leeds. The arrest did little to affect Mitchum's career in the long term, but was seen as an embarrassment by his studio, who ordered Mitchum to clean up his act. The conviction was later overturned by the Los Angeles court and District Attorney's office on January 31, 1951, with the following statement, after it was exposed as a set-up: "After an exhaustive investigation of the evidence and testimony presented at the trial, the court orders that the verdict of guilty be set aside and that a plea of not guilty be entered and that the information or complaint be dismissed."
Despite troubles with the law and his studio, the films released immediately after his arrest were box-office hits. Rachel and the Stranger (1948) featured Mitchum in a supporting role as a mountain man interested in gaining the hand of Loretta Young, the indentured servant and wife of William Holden, while the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella The Red Pony allowed him to portray a trusted cowhand to a ranching family.
Mitchum returned to true film noir in 1949's The Big Steal, where he again joined Jane Greer in an early Don Siegel film. In Where Danger Lives (1950) he played a doctor who comes between a mentally unbalanced Faith Domergue and cuckolded Claude Rains. The Racket was a noir remake of the early crime drama The Racket and featured Mitchum as a police captain fighting corruption in his precinct. The Josef von Sternberg film Macao (1952) saw Mitchum a victim of mistaken identity at an exotic resort casino, playing opposite Jane Russell. Otto Preminger's Angel Face was the first of three collaborations between Mitchum and British stage actress Jean Simmons. In the film, Simmons plays an insane heiress who plans to use young ambulance driver Mitchum to kill for her.
Though Mitchum continued to star in a number of crime dramas, some classified within the film noir genre, 1955 marked his last true noir outing and his first film as a freelance actor, the Charles Laughton helmed The Night of the Hunter. Many considered this to be Mitchum's best performance. Following a series of conventional westerns and films noir, including the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), The Night of the Hunter would become one of the landmark films of the decade. Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the film noir thriller starred Mitchum as a psychotic criminal posing as a preacher to find money hidden by his cellmate in the cellmate's home. The film remains one of the most chilling and suspenseful thrillers of the decade, though it was a critical and commercial failure upon its first release.
While The Night of the Hunter was a box office flop which went on to become critically acclaimed decades afterward, Stanley Kramer's melodrama Not as a Stranger, also released in 1955, was a box office hit for Mitchum, which has been largely forgotten today. The film starred Mitchum against type, as an idealistic young doctor, who marries an older nurse (Olivia de Havilland), only to question his morality many years later. However, the film was not critically acclaimed, especially since Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin were all too old for their characters.
Following a succession of average westerns and the poorly received Foreign Intrigue (1956), Mitchum starred in the first of three screen collaborations with British actress Deborah Kerr. The intriguing John Huston war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison starred Mitchum as a marine corporal shipwrecked on a Pacific Island only to discover his sole companion is a nun, Sister Angela (Kerr). The character study centers on the relationship between the two as they fight for survival from the elements and the invading Japanese army. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. For his role, Mitchum was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor. Mitchum and Kerr were paired again in 1960, first for the critically acclaimed Fred Zinnemann film, The Sundowners, where they played husband and wife struggling in Depression-era Australia. Opposite Mitchum, Kerr was nominated for yet another Academy Award for Best Actress, while the film was nominated for a total of five Oscars. Robert Mitchum was awarded that year's National Board of Review award for Best Actor for his performance. The award also recognized his superior performance in the Vincente Minnelli western drama Home from the Hill. He was teamed with both Kerr and previous leading lady Jean Simmons as well as Cary Grant for the extremely offbeat Stanley Donen ensemble comedy The Grass Is Greener the same year.
Mitchum's performance as the menacing southern rapist Max Cady in 1962's Cape Fear brought him even more attention and furthered his renown as playing cool, predatory characters. The 1960s were marked by a number of lesser films and missed opportunities. Among the films Mitchum passed on during the decade was John Huston's The Misfits, the last film of its stars Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, the Academy Award-winning Patton, and Clint Eastwood's breakthrough film Dirty Harry. The most notable of his films later in the decade included the war epics The Longest Day (1962) and Anzio (1968), the Shirley MacLaine comedy-musical What a Way to Go! (1964), and the Howard Hawks western El Dorado (1966), a remake of Rio Bravo (1959), in which Mitchum took over Dean Martin's role of the drunk who comes to the aid of John Wayne.
One of the lesser known aspects of Mitchum's career was his forays into music, both as singer and composer
Mitchum's voice was often used instead of that of a professional singer when his characters sang in his films. Notable productions featuring Mitchum's own singing voice included Rachel and the Stranger, River of No Return and The Night of the Hunter. After hearing traditional calypso music and meeting artists such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader while filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in the Caribbean island of Tobago, he recorded Calypso — Is Like So... in March 1957. On the album, released through Capitol Records, he emulated the calypso sound and style, even adopting the style's unique pronunciations and slang. A year later he recorded a song he had written for the film Thunder Road, titled "The Ballad of Thunder Road." The country-styled song became a modest hit for Mitchum, reaching #69 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart. The song was included as a bonus track on a successful reissue of Calypso... and helped market the film to a wider audience.
Though Mitchum continued to use his singing voice in his film work, he waited until 1967 to record his follow-up record, That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings. The album, released by Nashville-based Monument Records, took him further into country music, and featured songs similar to The Ballad of Thunder Road. "Little Old Wine Drinker Me," the first single, was a top ten hit at country radio, reaching #9 there, and crossed over onto mainstream radio, where it peaked at #96. Its follow-up, "You Deserve Each Other," also charted on the Billboard Country Singles Chart.
Mitchum also co-wrote and composed the music for an oratorio which was produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl Mitchum made a departure from his typical screen persona with the 1970 David Lean film Ryan's Daughter, in which he starred as Charles Shaughnessy, a mild-mannered schoolmaster in World War I era Ireland. Though the film was nominated for four Academy Awards (winning two) and Mitchum was much publicized as a contender for a Best Actor nomination, he was not nominated. George C. Scott won the award for his performance in Patton, a project which Mitchum had rejected for Ryan's Daughter.
The 1970s, however, saw Mitchum in a number of well-received crime dramas. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) saw the actor playing an aging Boston hoodlum caught between the Feds and his criminal friends. Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1975) transplanted the typical film noir story arc to the Japanese underworld. Mitchum's stint as an aging Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation, Farewell, My Lovely (1975), was well-received by audiences and critics. He also appeared in 1976's Midway, about the 1942 World War II battle of the same name. Reprising the Marlowe role in 1978's The Big Sleep proved a mistake, however, as Michael Winner took the film at once closer to the source material and farther away from its spirit and context, setting the film in modern day London.
1982 saw Mitchum on location in Scranton, Pennsylvania, playing Coach Delaney in the film adaptation of playwright/actor Jason Miller's 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning play That Championship Season. Mitchum expanded into the medium of television with the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War. The big-budget Herman Wouk adaptation aired on ABC and starred Mitchum as naval officer "Pug" Henry, and examined the events leading up to America's involvement in World War II. He followed it in 1988 with War and Remembrance, which followed America through the war, and returned to the big screen for a memorable supporting role in Bill Murray's Scrooged.
In 1987 Mitchum was the guest host on Saturday Night Live where he played private eye Phillip Marlowe for the last time in the parody sketch, "Death Be Not Deadly". The show also ran a short comedy film he made (written and directed by his daughter, Trina) called Out of Gas. This was a mock sequel to his 1947 classic Out of the Past. Jane Greer reprised her role from the original film.
In 1991, he won a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globe Awards in 1992. Though Mitchum continued to appear in films throughout the 1990s, such as Tombstone and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, the actor gradually slowed his workload. His last film appearance was in the television biopic, James Dean: Race with Destiny. His last starring role was in the 1995 Norwegian movie Pakten, a final nod to his Norwegian ancestry.
He died on July 1, 1997, shortly before his 80th birthday, in Santa Barbara, California, due to complications of lung cancer and emphysema. He was survived by his wife of 57 years (something of a Hollywood record), Dorothy Mitchum, and actor sons, James Mitchum, Christopher Mitchum, and daughter Petrina (Trina) Mitchum. His grandchildren, Bentley Mitchum and Carrie Mitchum, are also actors, as was his younger brother John Mitchum, who died in 2001. His other grandson, Kian Mitchum, is a successful model. It had been widely predicted for at least a decade that his eventual death would spark a huge fascination with his film canon, but James Stewart died the very next day, immediately eclipsing Mitchum's death in the mainstream media.
Mitchum is regarded by critics as one of the finest actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Roger Ebert called him 'the soul of film noir'. Mitchum himself, however, was self-effacing; in an interview with Barry Norman for the BBC about his contribution to cinema, Mitchum stopped Norman in mid flow and in his typical phlegmatic style said, "Look! I have two kinds of acting. One on a horse and one off a horse. That's it."
Interviewer Larry King has said on a number of occasions that Mitchum's interview was his most challenging. Mitchum, a man of few words, tended to answer simply "Yes" or "No" to many of King's questions.