Robert Mitchum

Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (1917 – 1997) was an American actor known for his antihero roles and film noir appearances.
Mitchum rose to prominence with an Academy Award nomination for the Best Supporting Actor for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). His best-known films include River of No Return (1954), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Farewell, My Lovely (1975). He is also known for his television role as U.S. Navy Captain Victor “Pug” Henry in the epic miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and sequel War and Remembrance (1988).
Born on 6 August 1917 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mitchum led a gypsy-like childhood, frequently moving house and always struggling. He cut his teeth in a number of bit parts before landing his star-making turn in The Story of G.I. Joe, playing an army captain in WWII. The film brought him his sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor and solidified his screen persona as a world-weary, hardbitten antihero.
Mitchum found his greatest success in film noirs, where his cynical, playfully ironic demeanour proved a perfect match for the ultra-dark genre. Whether playing the hero in Out of the Past (1947) or the villain in The Night of the Hunter (1955), he was always the most captivating person onscreen, his gravely voice and sad eyes.
He had been a star for more than half a century, but despite appearing in films like Ryan’s Daughter and The Big Sleep as well as countless war dramas and comedies, he never won an Academy award.
“I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone else in this business,” he said in 1983. “I always thought I could do better. But you don’t get to do better, you get to do more.”
In 1940, he married his high-school sweetheart, Dorothy Spence, and settled down to raising a family and working for a Californian aircraft company. Unhappy there, he signed on as an extra in “pictures”, as he always called films. Appearances in westerns led to bit-parts in a string of “B” movies and two big war films, Cry Havoc and Gung Ho! both released in 1943.
In 1945 Mitchum made the big time as the rugged but weary captain of The Story of GI Joe, based on the memoirs of war correspondent Ernie Pyle. But his career faced the danger of crashing in 1948 when he and a starlet named Lila Leeds were arrested on charges of possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to 60 days’ jail. But he emerged from a custody facility with his usual jauntiness: “It’s just like Palm Springs without the riffraff.
His rugged good looks, bad-boy image and laconic charm made Mitchum a pin-up for millions of female film-goers, and he was romantically linked with stars including Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. But he remained modest and described himself as “a hired hand at heart” who rarely watched his own films and famously admitted: “Paint eyeballs on my eyelids and I’ll sleepwalk through any picture.”
He continued to work well into his 70s, appearing in television dramas when film roles were scarce. He appeared in the epic mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. He once remarked: “I think when producers have a part that’s hard to cast, they say, ‘Send for Mitchum; he’ll do anything’.”

10 Essential Films

Directed by Dick Richards. Screenplay by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Starring Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, Sylvia Miles.
Mitchum returned to the genre that made him a star, creating an under-appreciated noir gem. Based on the novel by Chandler, it casts him as Philip Marlowe (a role made famous by Humphrey Bogart), a Los Angeles private detective hired by paroled felon Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his ex-girlfriend, Velma (Rampling), who bears a striking resemblance to the woman Marlowe has fallen in love with. The character fits Mitchum – his face by now a little lined and weary but still magnificently handsome -like a glove. He returned to the part in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep.

Directed by Peter Yates. Screenplay by Paul Monash, based on the novel by George V. Higgins. Starring Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle.
There’s an elegiac sadness to Yates’s hyper-realistic crime drama. Mitchum gives one of his very best performances as the titular character, a small-time hood barely making ends meet for his wife and kids. Staring down a lengthy prison sentence, he agrees to inform on his criminal cohorts. Shot on the mean streets of Boston, the film has a gritty naturalism that compliments its laid back pace. At the centre is Mitchum as the aging thug who never rose through the ranks, grasping for one last chance at greatness. It’s a startling turn that proved this old Hollywood legend still had a few tricks left up his sleeve.

Directed by David Lean. Written by Robert Bolt. Starring Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Leo McKern, Sarah Miles.
Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter contains scenes of brilliance surrounded by scenes that miss the mark. Like Doctor Zhivago, it’s a romantic drama played out against the backdrop of history, this time the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. The love triangle at the centre between an Irish schoolteacher (Mitchum), his wife (Miles) and a British officer (Christopher Jones) nearly buckles under the weight of the film’s gigantic scope. Yet there’s so much that works within its three-and-a-half hour runtime that it’s hard to dismiss. Mills won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for playing the village idiot, as did cinematographer Freddie Young.

EL DORADO (1967)
Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown. Starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan.
Hawks reunited with John Wayne for this spiritual sequel to their western classic Rio Bravo, with Mitchum replacing Dean Martin as the sidekick. El Dorado casts the Duke as Cole Thornton, a gun-for-hire who teams up with his old pal, drunken sheriff J.P. Hara (Mitchum), to help a rancher family fight off a rival trying to steal their water. With a crackling script by Leigh Brackett (who also penned Rio Bravo), Hawks creates yet another expert blending of excitement and laughs, featuring two of Hollywood’s golden age veterans turning in outstanding late-career work.

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki. Screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, based on his book. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Curd Jurgens, Richard Todd, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Rod Steiger, Kenneth More.
Mitchum is one of many A-list celebrities from around the globe crammed into this WWII epic that recounts the harrowing events of D-Day, told from the point-of-view of both the Allied and German soldiers. He plays Brigadier General Norman Cota, a real life Assistant Commander of the 29th Infantry Division. Shot docudrama style in black-and-white and recreating the battle on a massive scale, The film set a high water mark for war epics to come. The film received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, winning prizes for its cinematography and special effects.

CAPE FEAR (1962)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Screenplay by James R. Webb, based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald. Starring Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam.
There are few movie characters as terrifying as Max Cady, a violent, sadistic criminal terrorising the straight-laced lawyer (Peck) who sent him to prison for rape. Mitchum plays Cady with a simmering menace that makes our skin crawl (especially when he’s harassing Peck’s wife, played by Polly Bergen), but he’s not just all malevolence: rather, there’s a soothing, charismatic charm to this monster, who laughs as he’s tormenting us. Mitchum made a cameo appearance in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake as a cop who encourages the attorney to take matters into his own hands (original stars Peck and Martin Balsam also showed up).

Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Huston and John Lee Mahin, based on the novel by Charles Shaw. Starring Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum.
Mitchum and Kerr are the whole show in this two-hander from Huston, so it’s a good thing they’re always engaging to watch. They play a devout nun and a coarse marine stranded on an island in the South Pacific inhabited by enemy Japanese during WWII. Their oddball friendship develops naturally thanks to a smart script, not to mention commanding performances by the two leads. Kerr earned an Oscar nomination in Best Actress, as did Hustonand Mahin.

Directed by Charles Laughton. Screenplay by James Agee, based on the novel by Davis Grubb. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters.
Dismissed in its time by critics and audiences, the film has reemerged as one of the great masterpieces of cinema, an odd, expressionistic horror story about the evil lurking within goodness. The only film directed by actor Laughton, it gives Mitchum the role of a lifetime as Harry Powell, a sinister preacher with the words love and hate tattooed on his fingers. While behind bars, he discovers his cellmate (Peter Graves) hid $10,000 in his home, so he marries the man’s widow (Winters) so he can get the loot. But her moon-eyed children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) won’t tell him where the money is stashed.

Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by Frank Fenton, story by Louis Lantz. Starring Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun.
Set in the American Northwest during the gold rush, it centres on a farmer (Mitchum) who rescues a gambler (Calhoun) and his saloon girl wife (Monroe) from a leaky raft. To return the favour, Calhoun steals his only rifle and horse and leaves his bride behind. With Indians on the warpath, Mitchum, Monroe and his young son set sail down the treacherous river to safety. The Cinemascope cinematography beautifully captures the vast landscape and glamorous stars.

Directed by William Wellman. Written by Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore and Philip Stevenson. Starring Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum.
The film proved a turning point in Mitchum’s career, providing him with his first meaty film role and bringing him his sole Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Based on the writings of Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Meredith), it looks at the lives of American soldiers during WWII, focusing on a platoon led by the gruff, hard-nosed Lt. Bill Walker (Mitchum). Director Wellman shoots in a style mimicking the harsh reality of newsreel footage, making for a strikingly modern portrait of warfare.


Robert Charles Durman Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 6, 1917, into a Methodist family of Scottish-Irish, Native American, and Norwegian descent.
With a deep voice, six-foot boxer’s build, laconic, crooked smile and heavy-lidded gaze made the actor a natural for playing lone wolf, maverick characters. His own life prepared him for these parts. ‘Mitch’ was a wild boy whose father had died when he was two years old. Aged fourteen, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang. He escaped and ‘rode the rails’ to California where his sister was working in cabaret. Arriving in LA in 1936, Mitchum found work for the Lockheed Aircraft Company but suffered a nervous breakdown due to job-related stress.
With the encouragement of his sister, Mitchum joined the Players Guild of Long Beach and began working as an extra in the Western movie series Hopalong Cassidy. Various bit parts earned Mitchum the attention of director Mervyn Leroy (who produced The Wizard of Oz and also discovered Clark Gable and Lana Turner). Mitchum signed a seven-year contract with RKO and was cast in Western ‘B-movies: short films played as the prelude to the featured film. His breakthrough came when RKO loaned Mitchum to United Artists to make The Story of G. I. Joe (1945).
In the same year, Mitchum was drafted into the US Army and worked as a medic in the induction department. He was equally irreverent about his career in Hollywood. When Marlon Brando and James Dean introduced Method acting to the screen in the 1950s, Mitchum drawled ‘these kids only want to talk about acting method and motivation.”
Despite his reported affairs with other women, including actresses Lucille Ball, Ava Gardner, Jean Simmons, Shirley MacLaine, and Sarah Miles, Mitchum and wife Dorothy remained together until his death in 1997.
The 1950s saw Mitchum teamed with some of Hollywood’s greatest sirens including Jane Russell (Macao 1952), Jean Simmons (Angel Face 1953) and Marilyn Monroe (The River of No Return 1954). His favourite leading lady was Deborah Kerr with whom he co-starred in three films including The Grass is Greener. In 1955, Mitchum was cast as a vicious criminal masquerading as preacher Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. It is acknowledged to be his finest film even though Mitchum would demur and say ‘I have two acting styles: with and without a horse’.
The pot-smoking, saxophone-playing, alcoholic insomniac was a beatnik before the phrase had even been coined. It was his injuries as a teenage boxer and his insomnia that Mitch put his signature drooping-lidded look down to. The roles he played in the 1960s continued to darken. He played psychotic rapist Max Cady in the 1962 film Cape Fear. In 1970, Mitchum played against type as a mild-mannered schoolmaster in the David Lean film Ryan’s Daughter. A year later, he turned down Dirty Harry: the film that made Clint Eastwood a star.
In 1975, Mitchum was cast in the role he was born to play as Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private detective Philip Marlowe in a film adaption of Farewell My Lovely. He reprised the role in the 1978 film The Big Sleep.
Years of hard drinking took its toll as Mitchum was treated for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center in 1984.
Aged 79, the swaggering, sleepy-eyed actor with slick black hair and a classically cleft chin who was among the last of the giants of Hollywood’s golden era, died July 1, 1997 at his home in Santa Barbara, California.


Leave a Reply