Robert Mitchum, who died on July 1 at the age of 79, was too much for
this, the All-Things-In-Moderation Generation. He did what he wanted to
do when he wanted to do it. He lived hard. He played hard. He drank.
He smoked (emphysema and lung cancer finally did him in). One of his
last professional tasks was to remind us that we're carnivores and that
Brussels sprouts are NOT what's for dinner.
Mitchum was the genuine article -- the Hollywood tough guy as
hard-boiled as the heroes he played. He'd walked the walk, a runaway who
hit the rails as "a thin, ferret-faced kid" of 14 and who, two years
later, wound up on a chain gang in Georgia. He was a drifter, a boxer,
a shoe salesman and even a poet. He wrote a play optioned by the
Theater Guild and an oratorio that Orson Welles produced and directed in
the Hollywood Bowl in 1938.
And, eventually, he became an actor. In the course of a long, full
career, he created a unique and extremely popular on-screen image.
Somehow he managed to be both cool and reckless, heroic and vaguely
sinister, laconic to the point of inertia, yet still a man of action.
And above all, he was tough. Today's movie tough guys don't even come
close. Well, maybe Michael Madsen, but first he'll have to stop cutting
cops' ears off. As for the others, next to Mitchum, Eastwood looks
perplexed. Nolte seems punch-drunk. De Niro, Pacino and Keitel are kids
playing grown-up. And as for Willis and Stallone and Schwarzenegger, can
you imagine Mitchum wearing a Planet Hollywood T-shirt?
Speaking of which, his off-screen persona was pretty unusual, too. He was
a celebrity who didn't give a damn about celebrity, who didn't give a
damn about image, who didn't give a damn, period.
Twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to observe all this firsthand.
A short chat about his then-current movie turned into a four-hour,
vodka-soaked afternoon in his office on Sunset Boulevard. Most of it
wound up on tape. Four hours of conversation with a guy who spoke like
Raymond Chandler wrote. It was Q&A overkill for a commissioned piece
of less than 1,000 words. But who was to complain? Not I.
One of the Los Angeles TV stations, in presenting the news of the
actor's death, recalled his comment after being released from prison in
1948 for "conspiring to possess marijuana." Asked by a reporter what
the 60 days incarceration had been like, Mitchum answered, "Like
Palm Springs without the riff-raff." That started me wondering what
might be on those tapes, long unused and forgotten.
As it turned out, a lot of it was boozy nonsense, but there were a few
of his career memories worth recalling. Like his fractious relationship with director
Josef von Sternberg during the making of "Macao." "Things got so bad on that one, I would
have no more of it. But the crew said, 'If you don't work, we don't
work,' so I agreed to come back. I got drunk in a bar on Monday night,
slept under the table, got to work by 10 the next morning, an hour
late. Joe was standing on his box -- he was like a 4-feet-8er --
and he was hollering at Tommy Gomez about something inconsequential. I
wandered in and asked, 'To whom should I apologize?' 'Don't be silly,'
Joe said, 'We're delighted by your presence.'
"He was autocratic toward the crew, really belaboring people. I'd tell
them, 'Let's quit. Fuck him and the boat that brought him. Let's go
home.' And Joe would go, 'Ho, ho, ho,' like it was all a big joke. He'd
be nice to 'em when I was there and when I was away, not so nice. What
was I gonna do, bat him around? He only came up to here."
On the rodeo film "The Lusty Men": "(Producers) Jerry Wald and Norman
Krasna -- one or the other -- would call me at the office and ask for
ideas. So I gave them one -- a modern Western. They reached into a
drawer and came up with a title. They had titles to fit just about any
type of movie. They were quite a team. One would walk up and down and
cry while the other sat down to talk to you. Then they'd reverse. I
always thought that the producer was The Producer. I didn't know I was
makin' more money than they were and that if I sneak-talked to the boss
(Howard Hughes), they'd be out. I didn't know that, no shit. So Howard
called me one day and said, 'Bob, for God's sake tell me you don't want
to do this picture so I can get this son-of-a-bitch Wald off my back.'
But I told him I wanted to do the picture. He asked, 'Is the script that
good?' I told him we didn't even have a script, but we'd whip one up.
And I wanted Nick Ray to direct it.
"The next day Wald called me to tell me in hushed tones that 'Howard's
OK'd the story and guess who we have as director? Nick Ray.' Then he
hired Niven Busch and the guy who wrote 'They Shoot Horses,' Horace
McCoy, to do the writing. They were at opposite ends of the lot and they
kept passing each other by. Finally they passed each other and went
right out the gate. Nick and I , both stoned, worked out the script.
"So we get the picture finished and Wald had insisted on this ending
that was impossible. We snuck into the editing room, made off with the
end sequence and burned it. The production number was still active, so
we went out and shot another ending, bang-bang-bang, like that. And
Jerry Wald traveled to colleges around the county lecturing on the art
In the mid-'50s, Mitchum drew critical raves for his performance as the
homicidal self-styled preacher in "Night of the Hunter." "That was a
lovely exercise. But they worked on it for five months after I was
finished and Charles (director Charles Laughton) put in a lot of shots
of owls and pussycats. Said he thought I was too horrific and he didn't
want people dragging their children off the streets when I passed by.
The character was too strong for him, but that was what he asked me for
to begin with. So he tried to undercut it with root beer floats and
The bootlegger epic "Thunder Road," which Mitchum's company produced,
and for which he sang the title song, "could have been a great film.
That's my fault. I didn't realize I owned it. Honestly. It was popular.
You can't believe how popular. I'm sorry it wasn't better."
When the producers of the original "Cape Fear" first tried to hire him,
"I told them I'd prefer if they got someone else. Unfortunately, I'd
demonstrated that I knew more about the behavior of the functional
criminal that anyone else they could get. So no mother way would they
try someone else. Then, after I agreed, the story was drawn through a
suck hole. You know, given the Hollywood treatment. There had to be a
heavy and a hero. So they made a hero out of a crooked lawyer who had
committed God knows how many trifling felonies."
Director Howard Hawks phoned to offer him the role opposite John Wayne
in the western "El Dorado." "'What's the story?' I asked. (A deep-voiced
impression of Hawks) 'No story, Bob. It's just character.' I said
'Swell.' Hawks is a consummate all-around writer-director, but he has a
habit of standing there on the set, staring out into space. 'Don't bug
him,' people say, 'he's writing in his head.' I kept tabs on him one day
and caught him checking his watch to see if it was time to break."
Kirk Douglas was one of the producers of "The Way West," a movie that led to this reminiscence: "I told them I'd play the scout, so they
got Dick Widmark for the other part, the one who had all the dialogue
with Kirk. I was off in the distance, giving it that hand over the
eyebrow, looking for redskins, right? Gave me plenty of time for trout
fishin' and foolin' around. Kirk was sort of runnin' the company, which
was all right with me. Except that one day I'm going around goosin' the
grips and trying to head down to shore when I hear a voice saying,
'There'll be no levity in this company.' A big lecture. I wondered to
myself, who's putting up with this shit? I turned around and Kirk was
smiling. I went back and continued my way down the rocks and I hear
Kirk giving out with another tirade. I turn around and he's smiling
again. A month or two later, I was talking with some guys and I said,
'Who's the asshole in the company who was putting up with all that
bullshit of Kirk's?' And they answered, 'He was talking to you.'
"Life's tough for Kirk. One of his kids was giving him some lip one
time and he drew back his fist and told the boy, 'If you weren't a
promising young actor, I'd ... ' Well, hell, he makes his own problems.
'No levity on the set.' Right."
While making "Ryan's Daughter" with director David Lean, Mitchum and character actor Trevor Howard
became drinking buddies of a sort. "Strange guy, Trevor. The first day
I met him, he hit me in the head. Whap! Then he said, 'You sweet thing'
and he kissed me. Then: Whap! again. We closed a few pubs. Hell of a
"Lean was convinced that nobody could be a sincere ack-tor and fool
around on the set like I did. So he shouted, 'Roll them,' or whatever
they say over there, 'Ack-shun.' And I did this pretty tender scene in
one take. Lean was decimated. Had tears in his eyes. 'I cahn't tell
you how luv-ly that was,' he said. I shrugged and said, 'You don't think
it was too Jewish?' What did he expect at those prices?"
Mitchum always got "those prices" in those days. "Somebody says, 'We
really want you to do this script.' And I say, 'I'd need an awful lot
of money in front to do that one.' And that never seems to be a
problem. The less I like the script, the higher my price. And they
pay. They may pay in yen, but they pay. Not that I'm a complete whore,
understand. There are movies I won't do for any amount. I turned down
'Patton' and I turned down 'Dirty Harry.' Movies that piss on the
world. If I've got $5 in my pocket, I don't need to make money that
fucking way, daddy."
I remember him sitting on a sofa, big, rawboned, Philip Marlowe come to
life, saying, "I've been called a cynic, which I surely can't deny
because I am a cynical-style girl. I happen to believe a certain amount
of cynicism is inherent in the beast. But there's a little romanticism
in there, too. And more than a little hedonism. You can use this to sum
it all up: I know what I'm doing is bullshit. But I've got to admit,
it's also a pretty good ride."
Mitchum kept riding almost to the end. He once said that he drank as a
preparation for death. "When that great day comes, I will be completely
inured to it. It will be just one more hangover."
I hope it worked for him.