The day after 79-year-old Robert Mitchum succumbed to lung cancer, beloved actor James Stewart died, diverting all the press attention that was gearing up for Mitchum. So it has been for much of his career. Not that Mitchum wasn't one of Hollywood's most respected stars, he was. But unlike the wholesome middle-American idealism and charm of the blandly handsome Stewart, there was something unsettling and dangerous about Mitchum. He was a walking contradiction. Behind his drooping, sleepy eyes was an alert intelligence. His tall, muscular frame, broken nose, and lifeworn face evoked a laborer's life, but he moved with the effortless, laid-back grace of a highly trained athlete. Early in his career critics generally ignored Mitchum, who frequently appeared in lower-budget and often low-quality films. This may also be due in part to his subtle, unaffected, and deceptively easy-going acting style that made it seem as if Mitchum just didn't care, an attitude he frequently put on outside the studio. But male and female audiences alike found Mitchum appealing. Mitchum generally played macho heroes and villains who lived hard and spoke roughly, and yet there was something of the ordinary Joe in him to which male audiences could relate. Women were drawn to his physique, his deep resonant voice, his sexy bad boy ways, and those sad, sagging eyes, which Mitchum claimed were caused by chronic insomnia and a boxing injury.
He was born Robert Charles Duran Mitchum in Bridgeport, CT, and as a boy was frequently in trouble, behavior that was perhaps related to his father's death when Mitchum was quite young. He left home in his teens. Mitchum was famous for fabricating fantastic tales about his life, something he jokingly encouraged others to do too. If he is to be believed, he spent his early years doing everything from mining coal, digging ditches, and ghost writing for astrologer Carroll Richter, to fighting 27 bouts as a prizefighter. He also claimed to have escaped from a Georgia chain gang six days after he was arrested for vagrancy. Mitchum settled down in 1940 and married Dorothy Spence. They moved to Long Beach, CA, and he found work as a drop-hammer operator with Lockheed Aircraft. The job made Mitchum ill so he quit. He next started working with the Long Beach Theater Guild in 1942 and this led to his becoming a movie extra and bit player, primarily in war movies and Westerns, but also in the occasional comedy or drama. His first film role was that of a model in the documentary The Magic of Make-up (1942). Occasionally he would bill himself as Bob Mitchum during this time period. His supporting role in The Human Comedy (1943) led to a contract with RKO. Two years later, he starred in The Story of G.I. Joe and earned his first and only Oscar nomination. Up to that point, Mitchum was considered little more than a "beefcake" actor, one who was handsome, but who lacked the chops to become a serious player. He was also drafted that year and served eight months in the military, most of which he spent promoting his latest film before he was given a dependency discharge.
Mitchum returned to movies soon after, this time in co-starring and leading roles. His role as a woman's former lover who may or may not have killed her new husband in When Strangers Marry (1944) foreshadowed his import in the developing film noir genre. The very qualities that led critics to dismiss him, his laconic stoicism, his self-depreciating wit, cynicism, and his naturalism, made Mitchum the perfect victim for these dark dramas; indeed, he became an icon for the genre. The Locket (1946) provided Mitchum his first substantial noir role, but his first important noir was Out of the Past (1947), a surprise hit that made him a real star. Up until Cape Fear (1962), Mitchum had played tough guy heroes and world-weary victims; he provided the dying noir genre with one of its cruelest villains, Max Cady. In 1955, Mitchum played one of his most famous and disturbing villains, the psychotic evangelist Reverend Harry Powell, in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, a film that was a critical and box-office flop in its first release, but has since become a classic.
While his professional reputation grew, Mitchum's knack for getting into trouble in his personal life reasserted itself. He was arrested in August 1948, in the home of actress Lila Leeds for allegedly possessing marijuana and despite his hiring two high-calibre lawyers, spent 60 days in jail. Mitchum claimed he was framed and later his case was overturned and his record cleared. Though perhaps never involved with marijuana, Mitchum made no apologies for his love of alcohol and cigarettes. He had also been involved with several public scuffles, this in contrast with the Mitchum who also wrote poetry and the occasional song.
Though well known for noir, Mitchum was versatile, having played in romances (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison ), literary dramas (The Red Pony ), and straight dramas (The Sundowners , in which he played an Australian sheepherder). During the '60s, Mitchum had only a few notable film roles, including Two for the See Saw (1962), Howard Hawks' El Dorado (1967), and 5 Card Stud (1968). He continued playing leads through the 1970s. Some of his most famous efforts from this era include The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and a double stint as detective Phillip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). Mitchum debuted in television films in the early '80s. His most notable efforts from this period include the miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1989). Mitchum also continued appearing in feature films, often in cameo roles. Toward the end of his life, he found employment as a commercial voice-over artist, notably in the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" campaign.
A year before his death, Robert Mitchum was diagnosed with emphysema, and a few months afterward, lung cancer. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, his daughter, Petrine, and two sons, Jim and Christopher, both of whom are actors.