Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 1, 1997) was an American film actor, author, composer and singer. He is #23 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest male American screen legends of all time. Mitchum rose to prominence 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, into a Methodist family. His mother, Harry Anniette (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 1914. James Mitchum was crushed to death in a rail yard accident in Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1919, when his son was less than two 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 second 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, his mother sent Mitchum 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 him 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 company productions. He also wrote several short pieces that 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, James Mitchum, nicknamed Josh (two more children would follow, Christopher Mitchum and Petrine). Mitchum 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 during 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 filming in a genre that came to define Mitchum’s career and screen persona: film noir.
Mitchum was initially known for his work in film noir. His first foray into the genre was a supporting role in the B-film When Strangers Marry, about newlyweds and a New York City serial killer. Undercurrent, another of Mitchum’s early noirs, 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 film was director Vincente Minnelli’s only film noir.
John Brahm’s The Locket (1946) featured Mitchum as bitter ex-husband to Laraine Day’s femme fatale, while Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) combined western and noir styles, with Mitchum’s character attempting to recall his past and find those responsible for killing his family. Crossfire (also 1947) featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers, one of whom killed a Jewish man in an act of anti-Jewish hatred. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, earned five Academy Award nominations.
Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in Out of the Past (also called Build My Gallows High), directed by Jacques Tourneur and featuring 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 femme fatale Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), comes back to haunt him. Though ignored by most critics on its release, the film was a modest box office hit at the time and has received a positive reappraisal as one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. Musuraca in the Robert Wise psychological western Blood on the Moon the following year photographed Mitchum again.
On September 1, 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, Mitchum 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, (he described the experience to a reporter as being “like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff”) Mitchum spent 43 days (February 16 to March 30) at a Castaic, California, prison farm, with Life magazine photographers right there taking 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 Los Angeles court and District Attorney’s office later overturned the conviction 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. ”
Whether despite, or because of, his 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 competing for the hand of Loretta Young, the indentured servant and wife of William Holden, while he appeared in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony (1949) as a trusted cowhand to a ranching family.
Mitchum returned to true film noir in The Big Steal (also 1949), where he again joined Jane Greer in an early Don Siegel film.
CAREER IN THE 1950s AND 1960s
In Where Danger Lives (1950), Mitchum 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 of the same name 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.
Mitchum’s cynical, mischievous attitude through his career had led him to shrug off fame as a fluke. His expulsion from Blood Alley (1955) is frequently attributed to his pranks, especially one in which he reportedly threw the film’s transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. According to Sam O’Steen’s memoir, Cut to the Chase, Mitchum showed up on set after a night of drinking and tore apart a studio office when they didn’t have a car ready for him. Mitchum walked off the set of the third day of filming Blood Alley, claiming he could not work with the director. Because he was showing up late and behaving erratically, producer John Wayne, after failing to obtain Humphrey Bogart as a replacement, took over the role himself.
Following a series of conventional westerns and films noirs, including the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), he appeared in Charles Laughton’s only film as director, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the film noir thriller starred Mitchum as a monstrous criminal posing as a preacher to find money hidden by his cellmate in the cellmate’s home. His performance as Reverend Harry Powell is considered by many to be one of the best of his career. Stanley Kramer’s melodrama Not as a Stranger though, also released in 1955, was a box office hit for Mitchum. 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 well received, with most critics pointing out that Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin were all too old for their characters. Olivia de Havilland received top billing over Mitchum and Sinatra.
Following a succession of average westerns and the poorly received Foreign Intrigue (1956), Mitchum starred in the first of three films with British actress Deborah Kerr. The John Huston war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison starred Mitchum as a marine corporal shipwrecked on a Pacific Island with a nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), being his sole companion. In this character study they struggle to resist 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.
Thunder Road (1958) was loosely based on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have crashed to his death on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee, somewhere between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. According to Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro, the incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum – who not only starred in the movie, but also produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay, and is rumored to have directed much of the film himself. Mitchum also co-wrote (with Don Raye) the theme song, “The Ballad of Thunder Road.”
Mitchum and Kerr reunited for the Fred Zinnemann film, The Sundowners (1960), 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 (also 1960). 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 Cape Fear (1962) 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 Dirty Harry. The most notable of his films 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. He also sang the title song to the western Young Billy Young, made in 1969.
Mitchum also co-wrote and composed the music for an oratorio that was produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl.