Robert Mitchum: Hollywood's First Bad Boy And Star Pothead, Stories And Scandals
Left: Actor Robert Mitchum smokes a cigarette outdoors, circa 1948. Right: Mitchum with Marilyn Monroe in 'River Of No Return' (1954). Sources: Hulton Archive/Getty Images; IMDB
Actor Robert Mitchum was the original Hollywood bad boy, a rough-and-tumble young actor who was even busted for marijuana, an unforgivable sin in an era when movie studios were hyper-protective of stars' images. It's now fairly standard for handsome up-and-coming actors to cultivate an air of rebellion and danger, hoping to be perceived as the next James Dean, Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen -- but Mitchum fit the description years before those kids came along. He was a fighter and a drunk who didn't seem to care who he offended. In trouble with the law from a young age, Mitchum was known for his lifelong contempt for authority figures. "The only difference between me and my fellow actors," Mitchum famously said, "is that I've spent more time in jail."
However, the first man to tell the public he didn’t care and became loved anyway was the one and only Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s sleepy-eyed heartthrob style contrasted with leading men like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando, who took themselves and their careers very seriously. The silver-tongued Mitchum didn’t care for celebrity culture or the adulation that came with fame and fortune.
As he put it, “I have two styles of acting – with or without a horse." He exemplified cool before society even understood what the word meant. He also fared pretty well as an actor. The American Film Institute ranked him 23rd of the 50 greatest American screen legends.
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Mitchum was born into hardship in 1917. At the age of 2, his father was killed in a railyard accident. After a childhood full of fights and mischief, Mitchum hopped on a railroad car and became a vagabond. He took whatever work he could find, including ditch digging and boxing. Eventually, he was arrested for vagrancy and put on a chain gang. According to Mitchum, he escaped, hitching a ride on the railroads to California.
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Mitchum made it to the West Coast and worked more odd jobs, living with his sister who worked as a nightclub singer. Stagehand, ghostwriter, sheet metal worker, and shoe salesman were among his professions before he started as a movie extra. Conflicting stories credit an interview with William Boyd or a cameo in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo as Mitchum’s big break. Naturally, Mitchum would have given a much less impressed answer like, "I don't care what I play; I'll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything."
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Despite a hall of fame career, Mitchum always seemed to find some diversion or distraction that kept him away from Hollywood. Some interruptions, like being drafted into World War II, were entirely out of his control. Others, like his 60-day jail sentence for smoking marijuana with starlet Lila Leeds, were more of his doing. Of course, Mitchum didn’t mind doing time. When asked what jail was like, he responded, ''It's just like Palm Springs without the riff raff.''
A scandal like that would have sunk most celebrities back in those days. For Mitchum, it only emboldened his popularity. The conviction was stricken from his record due to improper police work,.
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Although Mitchum received rave reviews from critics on a regular basis, he never paid them much attention. In his mind, "I never will believe there is such a thing as a great actor." After all, he never finished his formal education, acting or otherwise. As far he was concerned, taking acting lessons "is like going to school to learn to be tall." As you can probably tell, the man’s wit was second to none and a huge part of his popularity. Add that to his good looks and humble pie attitude, Mitchum embodied a type of celebrity no one had experienced before.
In 1948, such a blasé approach was unheard of. “For a while it looked like I was going to be stuck in westerns. I figured out I could make 6 a year for 60 years and then retire. I decided I didn't want it. So I started blinking my eyes every time a gun went off in the scenes. That got me out of westerns.”
Nevertheless, Mitchum said it and people embraced his counter-culture attitude. A few more gems like ''I agree with the producer who said I looked like a shark with a broken nose.'' And another like, “When you're successful in the movies Hollywood doesn't let you do better. They just let you do more,'' and his legend status was sealed.
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