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Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum

Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 2, 1997) was an American film actor, director, author, poet, composer, and singer. Mitchum rose to prominence for his starring roles in several classic films noir, and is generally considered a forerunner of the antiheroes prevalent in film during the 1950s and 1960s. His best-known films include Out of the Past (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962), and El Dorado (1966). Mitchum was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). He is also known for his role as U.S. Navy Captain Victor “Pug” Henry in the epic two-part television miniseries The Winds of War (1986) and War and Remembrance (1988).

Mitchum is rated number 23 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest male stars of Classic American Cinema.[1]

Robert Mitchum
Robert Charles Durman Mitchum

(1917-08-06)August 6, 1917
Bridgeport, Connecticut, U.S.
DiedJuly 2, 1997(1997-07-02)(aged 79)
Santa Barbara, California, U.S.
Resting placeAshes scattered into the Pacific Ocean
  • Actor
  • director
  • author
  • poet
  • composer
  • singer
Years active1942–1995
Spouse(s)Dorothy Spence (m. 1940–1997; his death)
ChildrenJames Mitchum, Christopher Mitchum, and Petrine Day Mitchum
  • Julie Mitchum(sister)
  • John Mitchum(brother)
  • Bentley Mitchum(grandson)
Robert Mitchum signature.png

Early life

Robert Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1917 into a Norwegian-Irish Methodist family.[2] His mother, Ann Harriet Gunderson, was a Norwegian immigrant and sea captain's daughter; his father, James Thomas Mitchum, was a shipyard and railroad worker of Irish descent.[3] His older sister, Annette (known as Julie Mitchum during her acting career), was born in 1914. Their father James Mitchum was crushed to death in a railyard accident in Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1919, when Robert was less than two years old and Annette was not yet five. Their mother was awarded a government pension, and she soon realized she was pregnant. Her third child, John, was born in September of that year. Ann married again, to Major Hugh Cunningham Morris, a former Royal Naval Reserve officer. He helped care for her three children. Ann and Morris also had a daughter together, Carol Morris, born July 1927 on the family farm in Delaware. When all of the children were old enough to attend school, Ann found employment as a linotype operator for the Bridgeport Post.[4]

As a child Mitchum was known as a prankster, often involved in fistfights and mischief. When he was 12, his mother sent him to live with her parents in Felton, Delaware; the boy was promptly expelled from middle school for scuffling with the principal. A year later, in 1930, he moved in with his older sister Annette, in New York's Hell's Kitchen. After being expelled from Haaren High School, he left his sister and traveled throughout the country on railroad cars,[5] taking a number of jobs, including ditch-digging for the Civilian Conservation Corps and professional boxing. He had many adventures during his years as one of the Depression era's "wild boys of the road". At age 14 in Savannah, Georgia, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a local chain gang.[5] By Mitchum's own account, he escaped and returned to his family in Delaware. During this time, while recovering from injuries that nearly cost him a leg, he met Dorothy Spence, whom he would later marry. He soon went back on the road, eventually riding the rails to California.[6]


Robert and Dorothy Mitchum (1948)

Robert and Dorothy Mitchum (1948)

Mitchum with his sons (1946)

Mitchum with his sons (1946)

Mitchum arrived in Long Beach, California in 1936, staying again with his sister Annette, now going by the name of Julie. She had migrated to the West Coast in the hope of acting in movies. Soon, the rest of the Mitchum family joined them in Long Beach. During this time, Mitchum worked as a ghostwriter for astrologer Carroll Righter. His sister Julie convinced him to join the local theater guild with her. In his years with the Players Guild of Long Beach, Mitchum made a living as a stagehand and occasional bit-player in company productions. 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 his talent for poetry to work writing song lyrics and monologues for Julie's nightclub performances.

In 1940, he returned to Delaware to marry Dorothy Spence, and they in turn moved to California. He remained a footloose character until the birth of their first child James, nicknamed Josh. They had two more children, Chris and Petrine. Back in California, Mitchum finally managed to find steady employment as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, but the noise of the machinery damaged his hearing.[6][7] He also suffered a nervous breakdown (which resulted in temporary blindness), apparently due to job-related stress. He then sought work as a film actor, performing initially as an extra and in small speaking parts. His agent got him an interview with Harry Sherman, the producer of Paramount's Hopalong Cassidy western film series, which starred William Boyd; Mitchum was hired to play minor villainous roles in several films in the series during 1942 and 1943. In 1943 he and Randolph Scott were soldiers in the Pacific Island war film Gung Ho![8]

Mitchum continued to find 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 was groomed for B-Western stardom in a series of Zane Grey adaptations.[6]

Following the moderately successful Western Nevada, Mitchum was lent from RKO to United Artists for The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). In the film, he portrayed war-weary officer Bill Walker (based on Captain Henry T. Waskow), 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. Shortly after making the film, Mitchum was drafted into the United States Army, serving at Fort MacArthur, California, as a medic. At the 1946 Academy Awards, The Story of G.I. Joe was nominated for four Oscars, including Mitchum's only nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He finished the year with a Western (West of the Pecos) and a story of returning Marine veterans (Till the End of Time), before filming in a genre that came to define Mitchum's career and screen persona: film noir.

Film noir

Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947)

Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947)

Mitchum was initially known for his work in film noir. His first foray into the genre was a supporting role in the 1944 B-movie When Strangers Marry, about newlyweds and a New York City serial killer. Undercurrent, another of Mitchum's early noir films, 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). John Brahm's The Locket (1946) featured Mitchum as bitter ex-boyfriend to Laraine Day's femme fatale. Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947) combined Western and noir styles, with Mitchum's character attempting to recall his past and find those responsible for killing his family. Crossfire (also 1947) featured Mitchum as a member of a group of World War II soldiers, one of whom kills a Jewish man. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk, earned five Academy Award nominations.[6]

Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in Out of the Past (also called Build My Gallows High), directed by Jacques Tourneur and featuring the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. Mitchum played Jeff Markham, a small-town gas-station owner and former investigator, whose unfinished business with gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and femme fatale Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) comes back to haunt him.

On September 1, 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, Mitchum and actress Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana.[9] The arrest was the result of a sting operation designed to capture other Hollywood partiers as well, but Mitchum and Leeds did not receive the tipoff. After serving a week at the county jail (he described the experience to a reporter as being "like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff"), Mitchum spent 43 days (February 16 to March 30) at a Castaic, California, prison farm. Life photographers were permitted to take photos of him mopping up in his prison uniform.[10] The arrest inspired the exploitation film She Shoulda Said No! (1949), which starred Leeds.[11] The conviction was later overturned by the Los Angeles court and district attorney's office on January 31, 1951, after being exposed as a setup.

Whether despite, or because of, Mitchum's troubles with the law and his studio, his 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 competing for the hand of Loretta Young, the indentured servant and wife of William Holden. In the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella The Red Pony (1949), he appeared as a trusted cowhand to a ranching family. He returned to film noir in The Big Steal (also 1949), where he joined Jane Greer in an early Don Siegel film.

Career in the 1950s and 1960s

Mitchum with Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Mitchum with Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Dorothy and Robert Mitchum (1955)

Dorothy and Robert Mitchum (1955)

Mitchum with Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Mitchum with Deborah Kerr in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962)

Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962)

In Where Danger Lives (1950), Mitchum played a doctor who comes between a mentally unbalanced Faith Domergue and cuckolded Claude Rains. The Racket was a noir remake of the early crime drama of the same name and featured Mitchum as a police captain fighting corruption in his precinct. The Josef von Sternberg film, Macao (1952), had Mitchum as a victim of mistaken identity at an exotic resort casino, playing opposite Jane Russell. Otto Preminger's Angel Face was the first of three collaborations between Mitchum and British stage actress Jean Simmons. In this film, she played an insane heiress who plans to use young ambulance driver Mitchum to kill for her.

Mitchum was expelled from Blood Alley (1955), purportedly due to his conduct, especially his reportedly having thrown the film's transportation manager into San Francisco Bay. According to Sam O'Steen's memoir Cut to the Chase, Mitchum showed up on-set after a night of drinking and tore apart a studio office when they did not have a car ready for him. Mitchum walked off the set of the third day of filming Blood Alley, claiming he could not work with the director. Because Mitchum was showing up late and behaving erratically, producer John Wayne, after failing to obtain Humphrey Bogart as a replacement, took over the role himself.[12][13]

Following a series of conventional Westerns and films noir as well as the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), Mitchum appeared in Charles Laughton's only film as director: The Night of the Hunter (1955). Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the thriller starred Mitchum as a monstrous criminal posing as a preacher to find money hidden by his cellmate in the cellmate's home. His performance as Reverend Harry Powell is considered by many to be one of the best of his career.[14][15] Stanley Kramer's melodrama Not as a Stranger, also released in 1955, was a box-office hit. 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. However, the film was not well received, with most critics pointing out that Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Lee Marvin were all too old for their characters. Olivia de Havilland received top billing over Mitchum and Sinatra.

On March 8, 1955, Mitchum formed DRM (Dorothy and Robert Mitchum) Productions to produce five films for United Artists; four films were produced.[16] The first film was Bandido (1956). Following a succession of average Westerns and the poorly received Foreign Intrigue (1956), Mitchum starred in the first of three films with Deborah Kerr. The John Huston war drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, starred Mitchum as a Marine corporal shipwrecked on a Pacific Island with a nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), as his sole companion. In this character study, they struggle to resist 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. In the WWII submarine classic The Enemy Below (1956), Mitchum gave a strong performance as U.S. Naval Lieutenant Commander Murrell, the captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer who matches wits with a German U-boat captain Curt Jurgens, who starred with Mitchum again in the legendary 1962 movie The Longest Day. The film won an Oscar for Special Effects.[17]

Thunder Road (1958), the second DRM Production, was loosely based on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have fatally crashed on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee, somewhere between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. According to Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro, the incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum. He starred in the movie, and also produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay, and is rumored to have directed much of the film. Mitchum also co-wrote (with Don Raye) the theme song, "The Ballad of Thunder Road". He returned to Mexico for The Wonderful Country (1959) and Ireland for A Terrible Beauty/The Night Fighters for the last of his DRM Productions.[18]

Mitchum and Kerr reunited for the Fred Zinnemann film, The Sundowners (1960), 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 (also 1960). He was teamed with former leading ladies Kerr and Simmons, as well as Cary Grant, for the Stanley Donen comedy The Grass Is Greener the same year.

Mitchum's performance as the menacing rapist Max Cady in Cape Fear (1962) brought him even more attention and furthered his renown for 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 were John Huston's The Misfits (the last film of its stars Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe), the Academy Award–winning Patton, and Dirty Harry. The most notable of his films 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 (1967), 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.[6] He teamed with Martin for the 1968 Western 5 Card Stud, playing a homicidal preacher.


Album cover of Mitchum's calypso record, Calypso — is like so ...

Album cover of Mitchum's calypso record, Calypso — is like so ...

One of the lesser-known aspects of Mitchum's career was his forays into music, both as singer and composer. Critic Greg Adams writes, "Unlike most celebrity vocalists, Robert Mitchum actually had musical talent."[19] Mitchum's voice was often used instead of that of a professional singer when his character sang in his films. Notable productions featuring Mitchum's own singing voice included Rachel and the Stranger, River of No Return, and The Night of the Hunter. After hearing traditional calypso music and meeting artists such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader while filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in the Caribbean islands of Tobago, he recorded Calypso – is like so ... in March 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 Thunder Road, titled "The Ballad of Thunder Road". The country-style song became a modest hit for Mitchum, reaching number 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.[6]

Although 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-10 hit at country radio, reaching number nine there, and crossed over onto mainstream radio, where it peaked at number 96. Its follow-up, "You Deserve Each Other", also charted on the Billboard Country Singles chart. He sang the title song to the Western Young Billy Young, made in 1969. Mitchum co-wrote and composed the music for an oratorio which was produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl.


YearAlbumU.S. CountryLabel
1957Calypso — is like so ...Capitol
1967That Man Robert Mitchum ... Sings35Monument


YearSingleChart positionsAlbum
U.S. CountryU.S.
1958"The Ballad of Thunder Road"62That Man Robert Mitchum ... Sings
1962"The Ballad of Thunder Road" (re-release)65
1967"Little Old Wine Drinker Me"996
"You Deserve Each Other"55

Later years

Mitchum in October 1976

Mitchum in October 1976

Mitchum at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival

Mitchum at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival

Mitchum made a departure from his typical screen persona with the 1970 David Lean film Ryan's Daughter, in which he starred as Charles Shaughnessy, a mild-mannered schoolmaster in World War I-era Ireland. At the time of filming, Mitchum was going through a personal crisis and planned to commit suicide. Aside from a personal crisis, his recent films had been critical and commercial flops. Screenwriter Robert Bolt told him that he could commit suicide after the film was finished and that he would personally pay for his burial.[20] 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 not nominated. George C. Scott won the award for his performance in Patton, a project Mitchum had rejected for Ryan's Daughter. The 1970s featured Mitchum in a number of well-received crime dramas. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) had the actor playing an aging Boston hoodlum caught between the Feds and his criminal friends. Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1974) transplanted the typical film noir story arc to the Japanese underworld. He also appeared in 1976's Midway about an epic 1942 World War II battle. Mitchum's stint as an aging Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Farewell, My Lovely (1975) was sufficiently well received by audiences and critics for him to reprise the role in 1978's The Big Sleep.

In 1982, Mitchum went on location to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to play Coach Delaney in the film adaptation of playwright/actor Jason Miller's 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season.

At the premiere for That Championship Season, Mitchum, while intoxicated, assaulted a female reporter and threw a basketball that he was holding (a prop from the film) at a female photographer from Time magazine, knocking two of her teeth out.[21][22] She sued him for $30 million for damages.[22] He eventually paid her his salary from the film.[21]

That Championship Season may have indirectly led to another debacle for Mitchum several months later. In a February 1983 Esquire interview, he made several racist, anti-Semitic and sexist statements, including, when asked if the Holocaust occurred, responded "so the Jews say."[21][23] Following the widespread negative response, he apologized a month later, saying that his statements were "prankish" and "foreign to my principle." He claimed that the problem began when he recited a racist monologue from his role in That Championship Season, but the writer had misunderstood the words to be his. Mitchum, who claimed that he had only reluctantly agreed to the interview, then decided to "string... along" the writer with even more incendiary statements.[23]

Mitchum expanded to television work with the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War. The big-budget Herman Wouk story aired on ABC, starring Mitchum as naval officer "Pug" Henry and Victoria Tennant as Pamela Tudsbury, and examined the events leading up to America's involvement in World War II. He returned to the role in 1988's War and Remembrance,[6] which continued the story through the end of the war.

He played George Hazard's father-in-law in the 1985 miniseries North and South, which also aired on ABC.

Mitchum starred opposite Wilford Brimley in the 1986 made-for-TV movie Thompson's Run. A hardened con (Mitchum), being transferred from a federal penitentiary to a Texas institution to finish a life sentence as a habitual criminal, is freed at gunpoint by his niece (played by Kathleen York). The cop (Brimley) who was transferring him, and has been the con's lifelong friend and adversary for over 30 years, vows to catch the twosome. In 1987, Mitchum was the guest-host on Saturday Night Live, where he played private eye Philip Marlowe for the last time in the parody sketch, "Death Be Not Deadly". The show ran a short comedy film he made (written and directed by his daughter, Trina) called Out of Gas, a mock sequel to Out of the Past. (Jane Greer reprised her role from the original film.) He also was in Bill Murray's 1988 comedy film, Scrooged.

In 1991, Mitchum was given a lifetime achievement award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, in the same year he received the Telegatto award and in 1992 the Cecil B. DeMille Award from the Golden Globe Awards.[6]

Mitchum continued to act in films until the mid-1990s, such as Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, and he narrated the Western Tombstone. He also appeared, in contrast to his role as the antagonist in the original, as a protagonist police detective in Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear, but the actor gradually slowed his workload. His last film appearance was a small but pivotal role in the television biopic, James Dean: Race with Destiny, playing Giant director George Stevens. His last starring role was in the 1995 Norwegian movie Pakten.[6]


A lifelong heavy smoker, Mitchum died on July 2, 1997, in Santa Barbara, California, due to complications of lung cancer and emphysema. He was about five weeks shy of his 80th birthday. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea. He was survived by his wife of 57 years, Dorothy Mitchum (May 2, 1919 - April 12, 2014, Santa Barbara, California, aged 94);[24] his sons, actors James Mitchum and Christopher Mitchum; and his daughter, writer Petrine Day Mitchum. His grandchildren, Bentley Mitchum and Carrie Mitchum, are actors, as was his younger brother, John, who died in 2001. Another grandson, Kian, is a successful model.[25]


Estoria Street Tunnel mural of Mitchum in Atlanta, Georgia

Estoria Street Tunnel mural of Mitchum in Atlanta, Georgia

Mitchum is regarded by some critics as one of the finest actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Roger Ebert called him "the soul of film noir." Mitchum, however, was self-effacing; in an interview with Barry Norman for the BBC about his contribution to cinema, Mitchum stopped Norman in mid flow and in his typical nonchalant style, said, "Look, I have two kinds of acting. One on a horse and one off a horse. That's it." He had also succeeded in annoying some of his fellow actors by voicing his puzzlement at those who viewed the profession as challenging and hard work. He is quoted as having said in the Barry Norman interview that acting was actually very simple and that his job was to "show up on time, know his lines, hit his marks, and go home".[26][27] Mitchum had a habit of marking most of his appearances in the script with the letters "n.a.r.", which meant "no action required", which critic Dirk Baecker has construed as Mitchum's way of reminding himself to experience the world of the story without acting upon it.[28]

AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars lists Mitchum as the 23rd-greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema. AFI also recognized his performance as the menacing rapist Max Cady and Reverend Harry Powell as the 28th and 29th greatest screen villains, respectively, of all time as part of AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains. He provided the voice of the famous American Beef Council commercials that touted "Beef ... it's what's for dinner", from 1992 until his death. A "Mitchum's Steakhouse" is in Trappe, Maryland,[29] where Mitchum and his family lived from 1959 to 1965.


  • Gregory Monro (Director) (2017). James Stewart/Robert Mitchum : The Two Faces of America (Motion picture).



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