Born: 6 August 1917
Died: 1 July 1997
Source: Robert Mitchum, A Biography by George Eels, 1984
Born to a railroad worker father who died in a train accident when his son was two, Robert Mitchum learned to read by the age of three and was a published poet while still in his teens. A rambunctious, strapping youth who wandered the country and did some time on a Georgia chain gang, Mitchum tried marijuana by early 1936, while working as a punch-press operator at a factory in Toledo, Ohio. Although he maintained his experimentation at the time was limited to "an occasional, isolated instance," at least one long-time acquaintance scoffs at this.
Later that year his family moved to Long Beach where his older sister Julie, a professional dancer and singer, joined the Player's Guild. Mitchum rebuffed Julie's suggestion he join the Guild, but did agree to enter the Sunset Oil Company singing contest, thinking the prize money would enable him to travel east and claim his sweetheart Dorothy as his bride. The nineteen-year-old Mitchum, whose fan club would later call themselves Droolers, won screams from the girls in the crowd with his rendition of the popular ballad "Would You?" but failed to win the contest. Julie later tricked her brother into trying out for the Guild, and his career began to good reviews in early acting roles.
Robert Renfrow met Mitchum during his last season at the Depot Theater. "He was a magnificent guy!" Renfrow says, "He was willing to let it all hang outÉthat was one of the things that made him such a magnificent actor." Renfrow said Mitchum would drop by his house to find out if Renfrow had any joints; if Renfrow did, he would share one with his visitor. "If I didn't have any, he'd always have one or two tucked away.ÉHe used grass the way kids do today -- as a recreational thing."
Mitchum's next stage appearance in 1938 was as Duke Mantee in Robert Sherwood's "The Petrified Forest." He again astonished his acquaintances and coworkers with the ease he exhibited on the stage. Speaking of his work, they agree that he intuitively gave performances far beyond what his technical capacity and experience equipped him for. He was soon signed to a movie studio contract and began making films. In 1945 he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor playing Lieutenant Walker in "The Story of G.I. Joe," in which Burgess Meredith starred as war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
Early in 1948 Bob and Dorothy Mitchum discovered a dishonest manager had robbed them of thousands of dollars. Mitchum was earning over $3000 a week, but now had nothing to show for it. The crooked manger threatened to "do away with" Dorothy unless she stopped making trouble for him. The experience soured Dorothy on Hollywood, and she began a campaign to convince her husband to give up acting and move back East with her. At this time, she pressed him to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Hacker. Mitchum later reported Hacker "adjudged me rational, but suffering a state of over-amiability in which failure to please created a condition of self-reproach. He told me that I was addicted to nothing but good will of people and suggested that I risk their displeasure by learning to say 'no' and following my own judgment."
Dorothy took a two-month trip East, during which time, according to Eels, "His use of grass earned him membership in a group that considered themselves hip and scorned nonusers as square johns and janes. Word had spread quickly that Dorothy was at least temporarily out of the picture, and Hollywood party girls descended from all directions. Vivacious Betty Rice was so eager to be friendly with a movie star that she was forever pressing free 'reefers' on him. . . . These were girls who shared an elitist, contemptuous attitude toward any 'square' that didn't use grass. Yet even they were taken aback by Mitchum's increasing boldness. Never before had they seen a prominent star make himself such a high-visibility risk, strutting around as he did in a straw Stetson and cowboy boots, with a reefer tucked behind each ear or carrying a package of cigarettes in which the regular ones were alternated with hand-rolled joints."
One such woman, named Helen Keller, warned him he could be set up for arrest by some informer who would buy his own immunity by turning him in. Mitchum brushed aside the advice. "It was as if he felt invincible," remarked Keller's roommate, the ex-fiance of actor George Raft. "He began hanging out with people who had reputations for being snitches." Or perhaps Mitchum was so despondent about his family being away he didn't care. Mitchum was warned not to associate with Robin "Danny" Ford, a bartender attempting to become an insurance broker and real estate salesman, whom Mitchum let handle the sale of his house. In early August, Ford and Mitchum went to the beach together and encountered blonde actress Lila Leeds, 20. Leeds told Ford she liked Mitchum, who took her out for a night on the town.
On the evening of August 31, 1948 Mitchum and Ford went to visit Leeds and her roommate, dancer Vicki Evans, 25, at their three-room bungalow at 8334 Ridpath Drive in Los Angeles. Unbenownst to them, two officers, A.M. Barr and J.B. McKinnon of the Los Angeles Police Department's Narcotics Division, were hiding in the yard. The two had been conducting surveillance for eight months on members of the film industry and their hangers-on. When Mitchum arrived, he flopped on the sofa and tossed a pack of cigarettes onto the coffee table. Barr claimed Leeds picked it up and looked inside. "Oh, you've got brown ones and white ones too," she said, "I want some of the white ones." She took two joints from the pack, lit them and gave one to Mitchum.
Shortly, Mitchum jumped up and ran to the window, saying he'd seen two faces looking in. Barr and MacKinnon moved to the back door and scratched at it, imitating Leed's two boxer dogs. Evans opened the door and the officers, guns drawn, showed her their badges. They pushed their way into the room where Mitchum, Leeds and Ford were all holding or smoking marijuana joints. Mitchum's cigarette pack had fifteen more joints inside. The police called for back up to handcuff and transport the four partiers to jail. It was just after midnight on September 1. "I'm ruined," Mitchum pronounced. Not only had he been caught with marijuana, he was a married man caught spending time with two young women.
At L.A. County Jail, Mitchum greeted newspaper reporters and photographers with, "Yes, boys, I was smoking a marijuana cigarette when they came in," adding, "I knew I'd get caught sooner or later." After posing for photographs he speculated that Dorothy would doubtlessly leave him. When the booking officer asked his occupation, Mitchum replied, "Former actor." Sergeant Barr chilled Hollywood with his statement, "We're going to clean the dope and the narcotics users out of Hollywood! And we don't care who we're going to have to arrest." Mitchum. meanwhile, was stripped and shackled, and left stark naked to be questioned by a psychiatrist.
The next morning Mitchum cancelled a speaking engagement scheduled for the steps of City Hall to celebrate National Youth Day. A few hours later, attorney Jerry Giesler, who had successfully defended other prominent people in legal trouble, was retained to defend Mitchum. Both Howard Hughes's RKO and Daivd O. Selznick's Vanguard studios, who shared Mitchum's contract, asked the public to withhold judgement on their star. Selznick infuriated Mitchum by describing him as "a very sick man in need of medical treatment instead of a lawbreaker."
At that point, the industry had around $5 million worth of investment tied up in Mitchum's unreleased films: "Rachel and the Stranger" with Loretta Young, "Blood on the Moon" with Barbara Bel Gededes, and at Republic studios, "The Red Pony" with Myrna Loy. Hollywood film studios, plagued by the incursion of television, a thirty-percent drop in box office revenues, escalating production costs and a shrinking market abroad, were eager to avoid further inroads into their profits.
The next day, Hearst newspaper chain's syndicated motion picture columnist, Louelle O. Parsons, called the charge "shocking" and claimed Mitchum was "in a state of mental collapse." She quoted Selznick saying he believed Mitchum should enter a sanitarium at once "to undergo treatment for his shattered nerves." Later in the story she reflected, "None of the executives at RKO or Selznick studios is willing to believe that Mitchum is a real addict. They say he never gave any signs of being doped, and that he turned in some very fine performances."
Far from committing himself to any sanitarium, Mitchum was conferring with his lawyers, Jerry Giesler and Norman R. Tyre, who issued a statement: "There are a number of unexplained facts and peculiar circumstances surrounding the raid made yesterday in which Mitchum was involved." Giesler expressed surprise that the case would be turned over to the district attorney, and amazement when the district attorney announced that the probe would be expanded to investigate alleged "widespread use of narcotics in the film colony," alluding to "other top stars' reported use of marijuana cigarettes and other habit-forming narcotics." Giesler immediately rejected the DA's invitation for Mitchum to testify before the grand jury.
Dorothy returned to Bob with their sons, seven-year-old Jim and five-year-old Chris, announcing in a statement that the pair had reconciled their differences. She called her husband "a sick man" for becoming "mixed up in a situation like this" and said "I am indignant that not only Bob, but our whole family should have to suffer simply because he is a motion picture star. Otherwise I do not think all this fuss would be made just because a man may have gotten mixed up with bad company." The pair appeared together for photographers and Bob remarked, "I'm awfully happy that my wife feels the way she does. It's a great comfort to me."
A moralistic press offensive started in Indiana. The Indianapolis Star published an article that opened: "Now that the ugliest and most devastating of all scandals--dope--once more has smeared the motion picture industry, it will be curious in the next few weeks to see just what the overlords of Hollywood will do, if anything, to counteract a tidal wave of public criticism already sweeping in on the business." The blast was matched by its closing volley: "Right now Hollywood has the biggest problem of all on its hands. The public never did--never will--laugh off a dope scandal involving a screen favorite performer." The article mentioned the tragic tale of Wallace Reid, star of "The Birth of a Nation," an alcoholic who became hooked on morphine after a train accident left him injured. Reid died in a sanitarium at the age of 31 in 1922.
Even before the Star article on Mitchum appeared, Variety reported "vociferous" opposition to RKO's release of "Rachel and the Stranger" from the Bulletin, a weekly publication of the Associated Theater Owners of Indiana. In Missouri the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote, "Hollywood has let the lid off the garbage can againÉNow we have a young swoon actor, the idol of teenagers, caught in a marijuana party--a reefer smoking fest known to the trade as 'kicking the gong around.' " (More likely, that phrase referred to opium smoking, as in the Hoagy Carmichael song "Hong Kong Blues" that he sings in "To Have and Have Not" (1944).)
In her syndicated column, Hedda Hopper took a milder stand, calling for punishment for Mitchum if found guilty, but lamenting his name being dragged through the mud "with a free-for-all splurge in 57 varieties of scandal, malicious tongue-wagging and dirt." Dore Schary, Chairman of the Motion Picture Industry Council, minimized the significance of Mitchum's arrest and emphasized the "good reputation of 32,000 other Hollywoodites." Across the country, Hopper and Schary were attacked for "pocketbook morality" due to the well-publicized $5 million dollar industry investment involved.
In the face of all the controversy RKO management apparently felt it had nothing to lose by releasing "Rachel and the Stranger." And it didn't. Box office reports of the grosses amply demonstrated how out of touch with their readers newspaper editorial and feature writers were. Everywhere crowds lined up for "Rachel and the Stranger." In Los Angeles, sustained, lusty applause greeted Mitchum's first appearance in the movie. In Minneapolis audiences applauded the film at the end of each showing. In New York, Denver, Providence, Chicago. Omaha, Cincinnati, Kansas City--from border to border and coast to coast--"Rachel and the Stranger" was a robust hit. It was even held over in conservative Boston.
Mitchum, Leeds and Ford stood trial in January 1949 and were pronounced guilty of conspiracy to possess marijuana. Evans jumped bail and was apparently never convicted. On February 9, Mitchum and Leeds were each sentenced to two years probation and 60 days in jail. Mitchum was immediately taken to Los Angeles County Jail and later transferred to an honor farm in Castaic. There, on several occasions, Mitchum found marijuana in his cell, hidden by fellow prisoners setting him up for a snitch so they would be rewarded. Each time, he reported the find to guards. On March 30, he was released from the farm, which he called, "just like a weekend in Palm SpringsÉonly you meet a better class of people."
Jane Greer, who appeared in Mitchum's next film, "The Big Steal," reported that locals were constantly trying to foist joints on him while filming in Mexico. The same happened to him in the states. Howard Hughes hired Kemp Niver, a former LAPD officer, to keep Mitchum out of trouble, and Niver took care of such incidents.
Instead of heroic roles, Mitchum played a lot of bad guys after his bust, most memorably in "The Night of the Hunter" (1955) and "Cape Fear" (1962). Although he often astonished directors with his ability to memorize multiple pages of scripts, even in foreign languages, but when he didn't like the script Mitchum barely prepared and openly expressed his displeasure to the studio and the press.
When deciding whether or not to take a romantic role starring opposite the spritely young Shirley MacLaine in "Two for the SeeSaw" (1962), Mitchum's friend George Fargo was the only one to correctly assess the situation. "Fargo was a miarjuana smoker of such proportions that Mitchum had nicknamed him 'Gray Cloud' because of the fumes that so often enveloped his head," Eels wrote. Fargo warned Mitchum, "that dame will eat you alive. The audience will never know you're there." The reviewers agreed.
Mitchum traveled with Dorothy to Ireland in January, 1969 to begin filming "Ryan's Daughter" with acclaimed director David Lean ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago"). In interviews at the Dorchester Hotel in London, he came out against legalizing marijuana but said that if he had a son who asked about trying it he would hand him a roach and warn him to be careful of the company he kept while using it.
In the summer of 1983, "Ryan's Daugher" co-star Sarah Miles wrote, "Mitchum claims not to give a damn about acting and cries all the way to the bank. I believe he wants desperately to be a good actor and as long as he had his dope he wouldn't need money at all. . . He's really not an actor, you see. He's more of a human being."
Mitchum also won acclaim in later years for his role as Navy captain Pug Nelson in the TV miniseries "The Winds of War." Although older and taller than the character in the Herman Wouk novel, Mitchum was the only actor the producer/director Dan Curtis wanted after meeting him. "He's the only Gary Cooper still alive," commented Gary Nardino, then president of Paramount's television division. James Butler, the ABC-TV publicist whose notes on the epic production were published by ABC, said, "Mitchum represents something free and untamed in the American nature, something incorruptible, and that understated determination and honor are key elements in Pug Henry as well."
"Why don't you smoke pot, it smells better," Lee Majors says to a teenager smoking a cigarette in an elevator in the movie "Agency" (1980), which stars Mitchum with a strong performance as the dastardly head of an ad agency gone bad. In a special celebrity appearance on What's My Line circa 1956, where he was greeted with rock-star screams, Mitchum said he was in the Theatre pages when he didn't watch himself. "Man, you're a gasser," he says to the host. On a 1971 Dick Cavett interview, Cavett asked about his "bust," a rare occurrence at the time. "In my set it wasn't rare," said Mitchum. "It happened I couldn't care less," he said, alluding to a war between police agencies that caught him the crossfire.
On October 7, 1983 Mitchum received the third Lifetime Annual Achievement Award of the American Theatre Arts. Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed a Robert Mitchum day and the actor received messages or tributes on stage from the Secretaries of the Army and Navy, the Governor of California, Bette Davis, Frank Sinatra, and many others. Mitchum died in July 1997 at the age of 79.
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