It was right up his alley. Robert Mitchum made acting look easy, effortless, like it was just a lark, a simple card game you could always win. Maybe it was because he came up the hard way and got knocked around.
Born in 1917 in Bridgeport, CT, Mitchum’s father died a year and a half later in a tragic railyard mishap. After that, Mitchum’s life went through a series of twists and tumbles which saw him hopping freight trains, living as a hobo and being arrested for vagrancy in Georgia. (He escaped after seven days.) He was even a professional boxer for 27 fights!
By 1937, Mitchum moved to Long Beach, Ca., where he wrote and directed plays, ghost wrote for an astrologer, and sold shoes. Mitchum’s film work began back in the Forties when a meeting with actor/producer William Boyd let to a string of eight Hopalong Cassidy westerns. The early days were a wild potpourri for Mitchum, who played everything from a villain in a Laurel and Hardy feature to a less than stellar appearance in a musical Western. (Later, Mitchum would even record an LP!)
Who knows how wild and crime-ridden Mitchum’s life would have become if it weren’t his success in Hollywood? Though acting distracted him and he worked tirelessly, he was still rowdy, and he was arrested in 1948 for conspiracy to possess marijuana. He worried that his $3000 a week career would end, but he just kept on going. And his public adored him.
For all his wayward moments of womanizing and drinking, Robert Mitchum was a nose to the grindstone kind of guy. For instance, he made 18 films in 1943, a feat that no actor today would dream of repeating. It wasn’t mere volume that made Mitchum a star, however. It was never-ending quality. signaled Mitchum’s passage to stardom. It led to his first (and only) Academy Award nomination. Jaunty, tough, good-looking and cynical, Mitchum was the perfect actor for RKO’s film noir dramas of the ’50s. “The Big Steal,” and “Out Of The Past,” for instance, are considered by critics to be two of the greatest films Hollywood has ever made.
In 1955, Mitchum appeared in arguably his most memorable role as a wild, eerie evangelist in the Charles Laughton-directed “Night of the Hunter.” His beautifully understated menacing in the original “Cape Fear” is much deeper than Robert DeNiro’s beefy Max Cady in the fairly recent Martin Scorcese remake.
Mitchum had a second life as a supremely popular actor in television miniseries later in life. He stayed married to his first wife, who was nearby when he died of emphysema in 1997. Fans will always remember Mitchum as the consumate actor – self-effacing, hard working, handsome and, finally, timeless and, finally, legendary.