Mar 062008

It may sound cliché but Robert Mitchum (August 6, 1917-July 1, 1997) was the original bad boy, who even served two months in jail for possession of marijuana. The Story of GI Joe (1945) made him a star but he rarely played establishment heroes. Instead, his career was dominated by roles in dark Westerns and darker detective stories. Despite a well-earned reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest carousers, he was a consummate professional, who unfortunately rarely challenged himself and described his acting range as with or without horse.

Early Life

Robert Mitchum’s father was a brawling, hard-drinking man, who died when he was accidentally squashed between two railcars that he was coupling together. His mother then married a reporter who turned violent when drunk and the family left him after he tried to kill her in a drunken rage. She instilled her deep love of music and literature in her children, so Mitchum would devour books as a child but also get into fights, lots of fights, largely because he was envious of kids who had dads. He somehow managed to be both the smartest kid and the biggest troublemaker in school, but eventually the troublemaker side won out and he was expelled from high school.

After the family moved to Hells Kitchen to live with his sister who had a moderately successful singing career, Mitchum’s fights with local gang members were motivated by survival not unfocused aggression but he also explored museums and libraries. When the Depression made it even harder for the family to survive, fourteen-year-old Mitchum left home, just as a traveling hobo culture came into existence. Marijuana grew wild back then and it was a poor man’s whiskey, so he gradually became a connoisseur. Mitchum also begged, stole, and did any job he could get, which made him a grown-up while he was still a teenager. After becoming seriously ill while working on a chain gang, he somehow made his way home and his mother nursed him back to health.

While Mitchum was recovering, he met and fell in love with Dorothy Spence, a thirteen-year-old friend of his younger brother. After several months of intense pursuit, she began to see something in the foul-mouthed, obnoxious, skinny boy in ill-fitting clothes who hopped around on a crutch and they became childhood sweethearts.

Tired of scraping out an existence, the family moved out to California in search of a better life. They found it but Mitchum’s wanderlust continued, and he was often gone for months. In 1937, while he was working relatively often as a stevedore, Mitchum’s older sister convinced him to act in a local theater group. His hugely successful performance proved that he wasbrimming with talent, but he still preferred to write sophisticated lines for his sister’s piano act and other acts. However, attempts to sell stories to radio shows and pulp magazines were less effective.

He eventually made it back to Philadelphia to see Dorothy. Even though practically everyone who knew her had told her to forget Mitchum, when he showed up at her office and told her they were going to get married right away, she was a bit stunned but agreed, and they were married on March 16, 1940. The marriage did not start smoothly since they ended up living in a recently cleaned chicken coop behind his family’s house when they arrived in Los Angeles. Also, Mitchum had difficulty grasping the concept of monogamy and his new wife was a little taken aback by the bohemian environment in which he lived.

Writing dialogue for struggling entertainers was enjoyable but not that well-paid, so when his wife became pregnant he had to get a real job. Fortunately, the increasing likelihood of American involvement in WWII meant that there were plenty of jobs in the armament factories and he took the graveyard shift as a sheet metal worker at Lockheed. As part of the armaments industry he was not allowed to quit once America entered the war, and he had to put in so much overtime that the stress essentially caused a loss of vision, which resulted in a release on medical grounds.


Mitchum’s vision soon returned and he found work as a bit actor in the Hopalong Cassidy series, where you were either on your way up or on your way down. His first attempt to ride a horse did not go well, and punching the horse did not improve matters. Fortunately, a cowboy’s advice to simply look as if he could ride was more effective. Working with William Boyd, the star of the Hopalongs, taught him how to be expressive while appearing to do nothing. Since the movies were filmed in a week, he also learned how to work fast. He did seven Hopalongs and he got more screen time in each movie.

By the end of the last Hopalong, Mitchum was more confident in his acting ability but he had no illusions about a big career, it just beat slaving in a factory. Fortunately for him, essentially every able-bodied male was in the military, and he had the right shape, so he played GIs in several war movies: Cry Havoc, Minesweeper, Corvette K-225, Gung Ho, Aerial Gunner and Doughboys in Ireland (all in 1943). After accepting a standard seven-year-long contract from RKO in mid-1944, the studio tried to make him into the new lead for B Westerns but Mitchum had little interest in doing a series of Zane Grey remakes. When he was offered an audition for The Story of GI Joe (1945), Mitchum knew that it was his ticket out of B pictures, so he prepared carefully and got the part.

Despite his success in The Story of GI Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the studio still continued to assign him to Zane Grey Westerns but he ended up in the army before he could make the next one. The official studio line was that he had repeatedly tried to enlist but he later stated that “when they took me away, I still had the porch rail under my fingernails.” A family misunderstanding had resulted in a drunken Mitchum being confronted by two deputies one evening and when the situation escalated he landed in jail charged with assaulting the police. The judge came down hard, offering a choice between the army and 180 days in jail. Mitchum chose the army and found himself in boot camp, marching around like the characters he had been playing for the past year. After serving as a drill instructor he was transferred to the Medical Examiner’s Office where he gave rectal examinations until the Atomic bomb ended the war and he was discharged.


The Story of GI Joe transformed Mitchum into a teen idol, who oozed evil sex appeal. He had somehow managed to become a sex symbol without having kissed a single woman on screen, and while the studio was naturally pleased, he quickly became fed up with being followed and stared at everywhere he went. He was also unable to put up with inane questions from reporters but some journalists embraced his spontaneous answers and sense of independence.

Fame did not change Mitchum’s life, and he continued to hang out with his friends who were stuntmen and extras. He also lived modestly because he had to support two families, as well as a never-ending stream of former army buddies who would camp out in his living room.

Mitchum’s career did not boom as fast as it could have because RKO was not used to developing its own lead actors like MGM and Paramount did, therefore the studio did not really know how to promote him. Worse, even though he was making $120,000 a year by 1947, taxes left him with only 10% and he had no concept of managing money. Unfortunately, he got conned by a slick money manager named Paul Behrmann during a series of liquid lunches and lost all of his money. This was the last straw for Dorothy, who was fed up with his constant carousing and blatant cheating, so she made him take the family back east and she stayed when he returned to make his next film.

Mitchum’s popularity continued to grow even though he did not care who he offended. A perfect example was when he made a movie with Loretta Young, a devout Catholic, who fined anyone who swore on her set. Her assistant was explaining that it was 50 cents for ‘hell’, a dollar for ‘damn’, etc, when Mitchum raised his voice as loud as possible and asked how much Miss Young charged for a ‘fuck’? Furthermore, the only time he met David O. Selznick, who owned half of his contract for four years, he showed up drunk and suffered through an endless monologue before giving in and urinating on the carpet.

Howard Hughes’ purchase of RKO in 1948 began a strange interlude in Mitchum’s career because Hughes cancelled every project, fired half the staff, and aggressively sought out communists as if he wanted to become the number one Red hunter. In fact, his private police force spied on his employees, rivals, potential girlfriends and anyone else who caught his eye. However, Hughes soon proved to be Mitchum’s guardian angel.

Drug Conviction

When Mitchum was caught smoking marijuana at bit actress Lila Leed’s place on September 1, 1948, it turned out that the police had been tailing him for months in an effort to get a lead on the drug ring that was supplying stars. Hughes’ reaction was to inquire as to who should be paid to get the charges against Mitchum dismissed, but it was too late since the press already had the story. Instead, Hughes had him bailed out, kept away from the press and represented by Jerry Giesler, a top celebrity lawyer. It became a huge media event as conservatives railed in editorials that Mitchum was sick and had expressed no remorse for corrupting his young fans. His fans expressed their opinion by flocking to see his films.

However, Giesler realized that a long drawn-out defense would damage Mitchum’s career as too many lurid details of his life would be made public, so he decided to simply ask the court to decide the case based on the already existing evidence and testimony, which meant a criminal sentence of some kind was unavoidable. Mitchum faced a maximum sentence of six years but received two months in county jail and RKO ensured that he was soon transferred to an honor farm, where he had ten days taken off for good behavior. Although it may seem like a very light sentence, Mitchum worried that his career was over and that he would be stuck with Giesler’s huge legal bills.

Mitchum’s first film after being released from jail was made in Mexico, where he was worshipped for being caught smoking grass. However, despite public pleas for a second chance to restart his career and being assigned a probation officer to make sure he stayed out of trouble, both he and the probation officer showed up drunk. He then punched out director Don Siegel and co-star Patric Knowles when they attempted to sober him up by tossing him into a steam room. Back in Hollywood, Hughes kept him under surveillance to make sure that there was no more trouble, which would have been difficult since the terms of his parole forbade him from associating with known criminals, thus forcing him to end his relationship with most of his acquaintances to his wife’s delight.


Viewing Mitchum as a sort of on-screen alter ego, when Mitchum was exonerated in early 1951, Hughes bought out the other half of his contract from Selznick for $400,000. However, Hughes slowly ruined RKO by endlessly tinkering with films, re-editing, re-casting and re-shooting. While Mitchum shared the increasingly popular belief that Hughes was looney, he never forgot that Hughes had stood by him when he was facing serious jail time.

This loyalty was strained by Hughes’s refusal to lend out Mitchum to other studios even though it generally meant massive profits and the possibility of his top star becoming even better known by taking part in a large budget production. Mitchum was essentially confined to RKO, thus missing out on opportunities to work with top directors, which also meant that he mainly did film noirs, probably what he was best suited for but it is a pity that he was never given the opportunity to stretch his range. Worse, even though he was making $5,000 a week in his final year, he could probably have made three times as much as an independent and since the studio was in rapid decline, so was his career, regardless of his exalted position within the studio. He went on suspension in late 1954 in protest at lousy scripts but he gave in after two months because he had almost no savings. When the studio made him wait another six weeks before starting his next movie and thus his salary, and Hughes refused to take his calls, his loyalty to the studio essentially disappeared. Therefore, when the studio tried to get him to play the part of the Indian brave Colorados in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), he decided to spend the last few months of his ten years at RKO fishing.

Post-RKO Career

August 15, 1954 was Mitchum’s first day of freedom, and the departure of the studio’s main asset meant that RKO’s days were numbered. Breaking with his amiable tough-guy image, he played a preacher who kills prostitutes in God’s name and tortures children to learn the location of stolen money in Night of the Hunter (1955), which failed miserably at the box office. His second movie as a free agent was a huge financial success but then he was fired from Blood Alley (1955) where he would have received 16% of the profits. Realizing that being a free agent was riskier than he had thought he signed a contract with United Artists in March 1955.

Mitchum’s relationship with Dorothy had its ups and downs but his love for his children was genuine. Unfortunately, it was not as strong as his wanderlust, which his acting career gave him many opportunities to indulge. Since an increasing number of Hollywood films were made overseas, the children saw him less and less as they grew older. By 1959, his last eight films had been in filmed overseas, which enabled him to see the world but also kept him away from his family. It seemed as if he did so many movies overseas because he could not face a stable domestic life or maybe he preferred to cheat on his wife where it would not be so obvious.

Given his hipster talk, love of grass and generally laid-back attitude, he seemed more like a musician than an actor, which is not surprising since he often spent hours by himself listening to his huge record collection, and he identified much more with traveling musicians than actors. He gained a deep love of calypso while filming Fire Down Below (1957) in Trinidad, and even recorded a calypso record for Capitol Records but low sales meant that he did not give up his day job.

Although many people said that Mitchum was extremely intelligent and well-read, and he could get along with just about anybody if he wanted to, he had few if any close friends, just various levels of drinking partners.

Mitchum only produced one film, Thunder Road (1958), and while he enjoyed making the film, as well as drinking and chasing women, he did not keep it on schedule. However, it is undeniably the closest thing to his personal vision that ever made it on to film.

After leaving RKO, he never signed long-term contracts with a studio again, although he frequently worked for United Artists because they offered the most freedom. He gained a reputation for caring only about the size of the paycheck and he did little to change this view, especially since he routinely showed up to work after a night of carousing.

While Mitchum often played some variation of an amiable, fun-loving man who seems to enjoy violent situations, he was willing to stretch his acting in movies like The Sundowners (1960) and Home from the Hill (1960). He even played a villain in Cape Fear (1962), although he rarely took roles as establishment heroes. If he had continued to accept challenging parts he might have become one of Hollywood’s top actors. However, even when he did challenge himself by taking off-beat roles directors found that they had to push him to give the level of performance that he was capable of, instead of merely hitting his marks. Furthermore, his willingness to accept uncomfortable locations and physically taxing roles decreased as he got older, so he refused to make the Misfits (1961) with John Huston because he had no desire to spend months in the Nevada desert wrestling with horses. The offer of the lead in Patton (1970) was turned down because he knew he would not fight hard enough to do the role right.

His romance with seventeen-year-younger Shirley Maclaine was more than just an on-location fling so common when filming love stories, which put a strain on his marriage. Since both of their spouses were somewhere else they were able to travel together to Paris, London and New York. Maclaine’s time as the Rat Pack’s token female had prepared her to be Mitchum’s companion and the relationship lasted three years with lengthy breaks to see their respective spouses. Despite Maclaine’s increasingly direct and violent urgings, he refused to commit and eventually broke it off.

Although he had stayed out of political discussions, Mitchum performed two two-week-long USO tours in Vietnam, much of it just going from camp to camp. He came back with a huge list of messages and spent several days calling wives and parents. After seeing numerous dead and wounded American boys, he would repeatedly defend America’s involvement in Vietnam.

Later Career

As he got older, he worked less and drifted around more. Like Henry Fonda, he was a prisoner of his image. Critics savaged David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter partially because he had made Mitchum seem weak. However, the film reminded Hollywood of Mitchum’s existence but he turned down leads for Dirty Harry (1971) and the French Connection (1971).

Towards the end of his career, critics began to realize that he had somehow slipped under their radar and started to look past the brawling, drug-taking and skirt-chasing to appreciate his work. However, he did not calm down so much. Studio publicists must have dreaded arranging interviews since there was as good a chance as not that the interview would consist of streams of profanity, complaints about the quality of his films, and threats of violence for disturbing him. However, since he was basically his own agent, and usually signed a contract for just that movie, there was little that could be done.

Farewell My Lovely (1975) had one of Mitchum’s best performances, and he then made a series of brief yet lucrative appearances in movies like he had always dreamed of. He loved Midway (1976) because he filmed all of his scenes in one day while lying in a hospital bed. The search for short but profitable roles meant that he did not look that carefully at the quality of the script and some of his later movies were essentially B movies.

Realizing that his movie career was fading, Mitchum agreed to star in the television mini-series The Winds of War (1983) for a million dollars. It was a year-long-shoot, six days a week, and while he was given periodic vacations, he was showing his age.

His famous bad temper with reporters was no longer amusing. Showing up drunk for the premiere of That Championship Season (1982), he fondled one female reporter’s breast and threw a basketball at another photographer. The resulting lawsuit cost him the salary for the movie and part of the loot from Winds of War. However, Winds of War was a huge hit and the authority he exuded in the role brought him a great deal of respectful publicity.

Although his body was showing the toll of all of the stunts, fights and carousing, Mitchum did not stop drinking and he became a vicious drunk who made an embarrassment of himself and sometimes passed out in public, so family and friends intervened and took him to the Betty Ford Center in May 1984. Unfortunately, he celebrated leaving the center by getting drunk.

Mitchum’s career lasted so long that he had few peers left towards the end. Although he and Dorothy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1990 he continued to make TV cameo appearances where he looked completely out of place but professional. He needed the paychecks because he had not been the most careful investor but he also did not know how to retire. When he was diagnosed with emphysema, he lit another cigarette and kept looking for jobs. His last great work was a small role in Dead Man (1995) but he still kept plugging away. In 1997, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and Dorothy forced him to get radiation treatments but he still died in his sleep on the night of June 30, 1997.

Mitchum’s death received a huge amount of attention and it increased when Jimmy Stewart died the next day since their images were the opposite of each other.

Historical Movies:

Minesweeper (1943)

Directed by William Berke, starring Richard Arlen and Jean Parker
Following Pearl Harbor, a deserter rejoins the US navy using a false identity and is assigned to hazardous duty on a minesweeper, where he is constantly worried about being exposed.

‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943)

Directed by Ray Enright, starring Randolph Scott and Alan Curtis
The Marine raid on Makin Island

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson
Following the shock of Pearl Harbor and a series of Japanese victories, Col. Doolittle is sent to lead a bombing attack on Tokyo, which requires training bomber pilots to take off from an aircraft carrier. (Full Review)

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

Directed by William Wellman, starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum
War correspondent Ernie Pyle accompanies an infantry company as it fights its away across first North Africa and then Italy, while observing firsthand how the men endure the endless boredom and sudden bursts of terror.

Till the End of Time (1946)

Directed by Edward Dmytyrk, starring Guy Madison and Robert Mitchum
Three WWII veterans have trouble adjusting to life after the war.

Crossfire (1947)

Directed by Edward Dmytyrk, starring Robert Young and Robert Mitchum
Several demobilized American soldiers are accused of murdering a man and the police detective investigating the case discovers that anti-Semitism is the cause.

Blood on the Moon (1948)

Directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Preston
A drifter finds himself in the middle of a dispute between a cattleman and homesteaders but finds that the leader of the homesteaders is simply using the homesteaders to cheat the cattleman out of his cattle.

One Minute to Zero (1952)

Directed by Tay Garnett, starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth
At the beginning of the Korean War, an American officer evacuates all American civilians and then organizes the defense until General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon turns the tide.

Man With The Gun (1955)

Directed by Richard Wilson, starring Robert Mitchum and Jan Sterling
A man comes to a town looking for his estranged wife and is hired to tame a town in the grip of outlaws working for a ruthless cattle baron. However, the citizens soon begin to wonder if his violent methods will destroy the town.

Bandido (1956)

Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Ursula Thiess and Robert Mitchum
An American mercenary schemes to steal an arms dealer’s weapons for a rebel faction during the 1916 Mexican Revolution. (full review)

The Enemy Below (1957)

Directed by Dick Powell, starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens
An American destroyer hunts a German U-boat in the South Atlantic during the Battle of the Atlantic and each captain quickly realizes that the other will not easily be defeated.

The Hunters (1958)

Directed by Dick Powell, starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner
A veteran pilot leads a squadron of F-86 Sabrejets against MiGs based in China during the Korean War. While hunting a Chinese ace, he also falls in love with the wife of one of his pilots. (full review)

The Angry Hills (1959)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Robert Mitchum and Stanley Baker
An American journalist in Greece during the German invasion is given a list of names of partisans and becomes involved in the Greek resistance.

A Terrible Beauty (1960)

Directed by Tay Garnett, starring Robert Mitchum and Richard Harris
A member of the IRA begins to question the group’s cooperation with the Nazis who are planning to invade England in 1941.

The Longest Day (1962)

Directed by Ken Annakin, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne
It tells the story of D-Day (June 6, 1944), from both the Allies’ and the Germans’ points of view.

El Dorado (1966)

Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum
Essentially a remake of Rio Bravo. A gunfighter refuses a contract because it would mean fighting an old friend, who is the local sheriff. When the sheriff becomes a useless drunk, he has to sober him up while facing down the powerful landowner who wants to take over the town.

The Way West (1967)

Directed by Andrew V. McLagen, starring Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum
In 1843 Missouri, an ex-senator leads a wagon train across 2,500 kilometers of Indian territory to start a new town in Oregon. However, his relentless ambition threatens the lives of the members of the wagon train.

Villa Rides (1968)

Directed by Buzz Killik, starring Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum
An American soldier of fortune finds himself working with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. (full review)

Anzio (1968)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Falk
Allied forces land at Anzio, Italy during WWII but are unable to expand the beachhead and breakthrough the German lines.

Young Billy Young (1969)

Directed by Burt Kennedy, starring Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson
A peace-loving man accepts the position of deputy marshal of a town in order to gain revenge on the chief troublemaker in the town but also has to deal with a young gun fighter.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)

Directed by Burt Kennedy, starring Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy
An aging marshal on the edge of retirement teams up with an old opponent/outlaw to stop a gang of young outlaws from robbing the town.

Midway (1976)

Directed by Jack Smight, starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda
The American Navy wins its first decisive victory against the Japanese Navy following Pearl Harbor.

The Ambassador (1984)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn
An American ambassador to Israel finds his efforts to resolve the Palestinian question are complicated by his wife’s affair with a PLO leader.

Further Reading:

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care-Lee Server, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002.

Server has produced a well-written, well-researched look at Mitchum, both the man and the image. It stands out as one of the more enjoyable books that I have read about a star, and one of the few where I would burst out laughing at yet another story of Mitchum getting drunk and having fun. Server is a good writer who knows how to turn a phrase (picnic in a cemetery) but it is Mitchum’s quotes that make the book stand out.


  • Pingback: Bandido »

  • I’ve been watching a fair bit of Mitchum’s stuff of late and really enjoyed this write-up on the man. A great actor and a great life too. I second your recommendation of Server’s autobiography.

    • historyonfilm

      Thanks, I appreciate it. I really had fun reading about Mitchum. Most stars are a little boring in real life, but not Mitchum. I always get the impression that he toned it down for the movies.