Home   >   Movie Stars   >   M   >   Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum

Robert Charles Durman Mitchum was an American film actor and singer. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Mitchum is largely remembered for his starring roles in several major works of the film noir genre, and is considered a forerunner of the antiheroes prevalent in film during the 1950s and '60s.

Early life and career

Robert Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 6, 1917 to shipyard and railroad worker James Thomas Mitchum and Ann Gunderson Mitchum, a Norwegian immigrant and sea captain's daughter. His father was a former soldier and known barroom brawler of Scots-Irish ancestry (on his father's side) and Blackfoot descent (on his mother's side). James Mitchum was crushed to death in a shipyard accident when Mitchum was eighteen months old, leaving Ann to find work as a linotype operator at a newspaper.

Throughout Robert's childhood, he was known as a prankster, often involved in fistfights and pranks. When he was 12, Ann sent Robert 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, waitress and stage actress Julie (originally Annette) Mitchum, 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 a ditch-digger for the Civilian Conservation Corps and a professional boxer. He experienced numerous adventures during his years as one of the Depression era's wild boys of the road. 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. It was sister Julie who convinced Robert 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 plays. He also wrote several short pieces which 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, Jim, nicknamed Josh (two more children would follow, Christopher and Petrine). Robert then got a steady job as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation . An apparent nervous breakdown from this encounter with conformity led him 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 and he was hired to play the villain in several films in the series between 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 loaned out 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, 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. At the 1946 Academy Awards, the film 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 another war film (Till the End of Time), before transitioning into a genre that came to define both Mitchum's career and screen persona: film noir.

Work in film noir

Mitchum would become the signature actor in the genre known as film noir. His first entry into this world of dark crime stories was the well regarded B-movie, When Strangers Marry, about a psychotic serial killer. One of Mitchum's early film noir outings, Undercurrent, 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 ill-received film was Vincente Minnelli's first and last film noir as a director. John Brahm's The Locket (1946) featured Mitchum as a bitter ex-husband to Laraine Day's femme fatale, while the Raoul Walsh-helmed Pursued (1947) combined the western and film noir genres, with Mitchum's character trying to remember his past and find those responsible for killing his family. Crossfire, also released in 1947 featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers who killed a Jew and featured themes of anti-semitism and the failings of military training. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year, garnering five Academy Award nominations.

Following Crossfire, Robert Mitchum starred in what was arguably the definitive film of his career, Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur and benefiting from 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 one of the most memorable of all femmes fatales, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), comes back to haunt him. Though the film was ignored by most critics upon its release, the film was a modest box office hit and has steadily gained critical praise from both film journalists and filmmakers since its release. Mitchum was photographed again by Musuraca in the Robert Wise psychological western Blood on the Moon the following year.

Mitchum's cynical, mischievous attitude continued through adulthood and led him to shrug off fame as a fluke. On the set, he often played pranks on fellow actors and crew. His expulsion from 1955's Blood Alley is frequently attributed to his pranks, especially one in which he reportedly threw the film's transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. In August 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, he was arrested by narcotics officers for marijuana possession and sentenced to 60 days at a Castaic, California prison farm. The accident did little to affect his career in the long term, but was seen as an embarrassment by his studio, who ordered Mitchum to clean up his act. The conviction was later overturned by the Los Angeles court and District Attorney's office 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."

Despite 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 interested in gaining the hand of Loretta Young, the indentured servant and wife of William Holden, while the John Steinbeck adaptation The Red Pony as a trusted cowhand to a ranching family.

Robert Mitchum returned to true film noir in 1949's The Big Steal, pairing Mitchum and Jane Greer once again in an early Don Siegel film. The Racket was a noir remake of the early crime drama The Racket 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. Otto Preminger's Angel Face saw 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.

Career in the '50s and '60s

Though Mitchum would continue to star in a number of crime dramas, some classified within the film noir genre, 1955 marked his last true noir outing and his first film as a freelance actor, the Charles Laughton helmed The Night of the Hunter. Following a series of conventional westerns and films noir, including the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), The Night of the Hunter would become one of the landmark films of the decade. Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the film noir thriller starred Mitchum as a psychotic criminal posing as a preacher to find money hidden by his cellmate in the cellmate's home. The film remains one of the most chilling and suspenseful thrillers of the decade, though it was a critical and commercial failure upon its first release. While The Night of the Hunter was a box office flop which went on to become critically acclaimed decades afterward, Stanley Kramer's melodrama Not as a Stranger, also released in 1955, was box office hit for Mitchum, which has been largely forgotten today. 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.

Following a succession of average westerns and the poorly received Foreign Intrigue (1956), Mitchum starred in the first of three screen collaborations with British actress Deborah Kerr. The intriguing John Huston war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison starred Mitchum as a marine corporal shipwrecked on a Pacific Island only to discover his sole companion is a nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). The character study centers on the relationship between the two as they fight for survival from 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. Mitchum and Kerr were paired again in 1960, first for the critically acclaimed Fred Zinnemann film, The Sundowners, 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. 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 1962's Cape Fear 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 Clint Eastwood's breakthrough film Dirty Harry. The most notable of his films later 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.

Music career

One of the lesser known aspects of Robert Mitchum's career was his forays into music. His voice had long been used instead of the professional singers when characters portrayed by Mitchum sang in his films. Notable productions featuring Mitchum's own singing voice included Rachel and the Stranger (1948), River of No Return (1954) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). 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 of 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.

Later career and death

Robert Mitchum made a departure from his typical screen persona with the David Lean classic Ryan's Daughter in 1970. In the critically acclaimed film, he starred as Charles Shaughnessy, a mild-mannered schoolmaster in World War I era Ireland. Though the film was nominated for four Academy Awards (winning two) and Mitchum was much publicized as a contender for a Best Actor nomination, he was passed over. George C. Scott won the award for his performance in Patton, a project which Mitchum had passed over for Ryan's Daughter.

The 1970s, however, saw Mitchum in a number of well-received crime dramas. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) saw the actor playing an aging hoodlum caught between the Feds and his criminal friends. Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1975) supplanted the typical film noir story arch in the Japanese underworld. Mitchum's stint as an aging Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation, Farewell, My Lovely (1975), was well-received by audiences and critics. Reprising the role three years later in The Big Sleep proved a mistake, however, as Michael Winner took the film at once closer to the source material and farther away from its spirit and context, setting the film in modern day London.

Robert Mitchum expanded into the medium of television with the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War. The big-budget Herman Wouk adaptation aired on ABC and starred Mitchum as Pug Henry, a naval officer and examined the events leading up to America's involvement in World War II. He followed it in 1988 with War and Remembrance, which followed America through the war. The same year, he returned to the screen for a memorable supporting role in the Bill Murray A Christmas Carol interpolation, Scrooged.

Though Mitchum continued to appear in films throughout the 1990s, such as Tombstone and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, the actor gradually slowed his workrate. His last film appearance was in the television biopic, James Dean: Race with Destiny. He died on July 1, 1997 in Santa Barbara, California due to complications of lung cancer and emphysema. He left his wife, Dorothy Mitchum, and actor sons, James Mitchum, Christopher Mitchum, and daughter Trini Mitchum behind. His grandchildren, Bentley Mitchum and Carrie Mitchum, are also actors. In 1991, he won a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review and the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globe Awards in 1992. It had been widely predicted for at least a decade that his eventual death would spark a huge fascination with his film canon, but James Stewart died the very next day, immediately eclipsing Mitchum's death in the mainstream media.

Regardless, Mitchum is today venerated by critics as one of the finest actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Noted critic Roger Ebert called him 'the soul of Film-Noir'.

Note: This profile was written in or before 2006.

Robert Mitchum Facts

Birth NameRobert Charles Durman Mitchum
BirthdayAugust 6, 1917
BirthplaceBridgeport, Connecticut, USA
Date of deathJuly 1, 1997 (age 79)
Height6' 1½" (1m87)  How tall is Robert Mitchum compared to you?
Awards1992 Golden Globe Awards: Cecil B. DeMille Award

Selected Filmography

Gung Ho
High Plains Drifter
Hollywood Collection: Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend
Breakheart Pass
The Winds of War
El Dorado
Thompson's Last Run
Continue » Find more details on the Robert Mitchum Movies page