This month marks the 98th birthday of Robert Mitchum, one of Hollywood's most charismatic leading men. He was the epitome of a "movie star", not because he was guaranteed box office, though he was certainly that for many years, but because he had something that very few actors possessed - you could put him in a piece of junk, and he'd still be watchable. And as far as he was concerned, he appeared in a lot of junk. He was never one to over glamorize the movie business, and while that may have cost him a few supporters in the Academy, it never changed the feelings of his admirers....
An actor doesn’t need to be arrested on marijuana charges to become a star, but it sure didn't hurt Robert Mitchum. Of course, by the time of his 1948 pot bust, Mitchum had already received an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "The Story of GI Joe" (1945), and in 1947 he'd appeared in two noir classics, "Out of the Past" and "Crossfire." But after a week in the county jail and 43 days at a Castaic, California prison farm turned Mitchum into a certified Hollywood bad boy. The role fit him like the proverbial glove..
It was Mitchum's casual reaction to the arrest that endeared him to the public. He treated the incident as a lark, amusing the press with jokes about prison life. “It's like Palm Springs,” he said. “But without the riffraff.”
It's no surprise that Mitchum breezed through a short jail sentence, since tough times were nothing new to him. After spending part of his childhood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, he dropped out of school to ride the rails with his brother. As he crossed the country at the height of the Depression, Mitchum earned money with odd jobs like digging ditches — even boxing. This rough and tumble kid even did some time on a chain gang in Savannah, Georgia after being popped for vagrancy at age 14.
Mitchum’s relationship with the studio was shaky at the time of his arrest, but RKO boss Howard Hughes sensed Mitchum would be a hot property once he was back on screen. To cash in on Mitchum’s new heat, Hughes rushed him into several new pictures. Each one was a hit. Customers couldn’t get enough of Hollywood’s newest rebel. Before rock ’n’ roll, there was Mitchum.
Not surprisingly, Mitchum looked back on his days at RKO with some derision.
"RKO made the same film with me for ten years. They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat. They made a male Jane Russell out of me. I was the staff hero. They got so they wanted me to take some of my clothes off in the pictures. I objected to this, so I put on some weight and looked like a Bulgarian wrestler when I took my shirt off. Only two pictures in that time made any sense whatever. I complained and they told me frankly that they had a certain amount of baloney to sell and I was the boy to do it."
His bad boy image followed him for several years. He was allegedly fired from "Blood Alley" (1955), for getting drunk and arguing with a crew member whom he then proceeded to throw into a nearby river, a charge Mitchum denied. Mitchum had a precarious relationship with his image as a trouble maker. "They're all true," he once said of the stories. "Booze, brawls, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to."
Still, the next 40 years saw Mitchum bring his sleepy-eyed swagger to a variety of memorable roles. Among the best were his turns as the insidious Reverend Harry Powell in “Night of The Hunter” (1955), the predatory Max Cady in “Cape Fear” (1962), and the small-time Boston hoodlum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973). In between there were plenty of westerns, war epics, and even a few romantic roles. For "Thunder Road" (1958) a film that is still a cult favorite among car buffs, he not only starred in the film, but he wrote the story and sang the theme song! Mitchum's singing voice also lead to his recording a calypso album at the height of the calypso craze in the late '50s. His recording of "Little Old Wine Drinker Me" even made the top 10 in the country charts in 1968.