VIP Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum (August 6, 1917 – July 1, 1997)

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, Mitchum wandered the country hopping trains. According to the exhaustively researched Mitchum biography Baby I Don’t Care by Lee Server:

Marijuana grew wild in many parts of the country and was often found in great thriving clumps along the railroad tracks. "Back then it was poor man's whisky,” Mitchum said. Those who knew what they were looking for could weed it out and stuff their pockets full before hopping a freight. . . . Robert liked it maybe even more than booze. He liked the way it seemed to slow things down, allowed the mind to wrestle with a thought at great leisure, to ponder more deeply. He liked the way it made a joke heard sound funnier and a girl look prettier. It relaxed you, it felt good, it was sexually stimulating. He couldn’t believe the Lucky Strike people hadn’t already cornered the market on the stuff. As he traveled the country he became a connoisseur of the weed, came to know its botanical history, its strengths and strains. After much practice, he claimed to be able to taste the regional characteristics in any sampling—Georgia hemp from Louisiana shitweed from California Red, and so on—at a single toke, blindfolded. In later years, he would collect seeds of the best stuff he found, and he would find a place in the yard or driveway where he lived and raise his own crop.

Mitchum tried marijuana by early 1936, while working as a punch-press operator at a factory in Toledo, Ohio. After moving to California, he made his stage debut at the age of 19, winning screams from the girls in the crowd for his rendition of "Would You?" at a Sunset Oil Company singing contest. His sister Julie then tricked him into trying out for the Long Beach Player's 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 out…that 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.…He used grass the way kids do today -- as a recreational thing."

Mitchum astonished everyone with the ease he exhibited on the stage. All agreed that he intuitively gave performances far beyond his technical capacity and experience. He was soon signed to a studio contract and began making movies, mostly Westerns at RKO.

When filming Till the End of Time on the RKO lot, other members of the company got to admire Mitchum’s “surprising” characteristics. Actress Jean Porter was impressed and delighted when Bob whipped up a comic verse on the subject of the production at hand. Johnny Sands recalled, “The story was that he drank a fifth of vodka and smoked eight ‘pakalolos’ every day,” said Sands. ”But he was just absolutely fantastic. Shoot the scene, go back to his dressing room, back to his vodka and pakalolo—his grass.”

The young actor was loaned out to another studio for a screen test for the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe, about he beloved war correspondent Ernie Pyle. As Mitchum tells it in the documentary Robert Mitchum: The Reluctant Star, director William Wellman set up the test on a full set. After Mitchum did the scene, in which he muses about the futility of war while writing a letter to the family of a fellow soldier killed in battle, he looked over and saw Wellman moved to tears. He got the role and the screen test was used in the film, for which Mitchum received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later ban Mitchum films from the White House, called it the best war movie ever made.

Mitchum frequented after-hours clubs in LA that served grass around 1945. He was fairly up front about it: after a four-seater aircraft that was flying him to Bridgeport, California to film "Out of the Past" (1947) crashed, Mitchum dusted himself off and walked into town, where his first words to the astonished cast and crew were, “Anybody here got any gage?”

Time to "Clean Up" Hollywood - Starting with Mitchum
Mitchum had married his high-school sweetheart Dorothy, and early in 1948 the couple discovered a dishonest manager had robbed them of thousands of dollars. The experience soured Dorothy on Hollywood, and she took a two-month trip East, leaving her husband to his own devices. During this time, according to biographer George 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. . . . 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."

Mitchum was warned not to associate with bartender/real estate agent Robin "Danny" Ford, but he brushed aside the advice. In early August, Ford and Mitchum went to the beach together and encountered blonde actress Lila Leeds, 20. The two began seeing each other, and smoking tea together.

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. Soon, 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.

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." 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. At that point, the industry had around $5 million worth of investment tied up in Mitchum's unreleased films. Howard Hughes's RKO and David O. Selznick's Vanguard studios shared Mitchum's contract.

A moralistic press offensive in "vociferous" opposition to RKO's release of "Rachel and the Stranger," in which Mitchum starred. But 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 Springs…only 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.

Later Years
During an appearance on "What's My Line" circa 1956, where he was greeted with rock-star screams, Mitchum showed his ability to speak in various accents and answered a question saying he was in the theatre pages when he didn't watch himself. "Man, you're a gasser," he says to the host. While filming "Fire Down Below" (1957) in the Caribbean, Mitchum procured a sackful of a local tree bark reported to be an aphrodisiac, but threw it away after witnessing its non-effect on a couple of natives (according to co-star Jack Lemmon).

Mitchum wrote the story and title song for "Thunder Road" (1958), about a veteran comes home from the Korean War to the mountains and takes over the family moonshining business. He has to battle big-city gangsters who are trying to take over the business and the police who are trying to put him in prison. "Through the years he had passing acquaintanceship or intermittent friendships with generals, makeup men, politicians, ex-convicts, surgeons, stunt guys, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, salesman, cowboys, barflies, stewardesses, government leaders, strippers, even a few policeman (he told people that the cops always had the best dope.)" (Server) He was friendly with VIP Richard “Lord” Buckley, "with whom Mitchum shared a love of esoteric language and black dialects (it was because they both had part American Indian ancestry, they decided, and thus were both “honorary niggers.”)

Around 1962, when he filmed his signature performance in "Cape Fear," Mitchum had a friend named George Fargo. "Fargo was a marijuana smoker of such proportions that Mitchum had nicknamed him 'Gray Cloud' because of the fumes that so often enveloped his head," Eels wrote. Later, Mitchum supplied Eels with groceries and marijuana from a 6-foot-tall plant he grew at his home in Bel Air, where the den was his pot-smoking headquarters.

While returning to London from a week in India for filming on "The Winston Affair" (1963), Mitchum shocked and impressed the film's producer and director by bringing out a bag of marijuana provided to him by his driver. It was noted that Mitchum uncharacteristically didn't drink during that long flight home.

Reni Santoni, who acted with Mitchum in "Anzio," 1968, he remembered his mother remarking that Mitchum had “Mr. Moto smoke some grass, your eyes get an Asian look.” Santoni was invited to smoke "some spectacular Afghanistan hashish" with Mitchum. "He was a connoisseur, like a wine expert with this stuff. And he’d be interested in your opinion. ‘Tell me what you think of this shit.'” The two listened to the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers album one night stoned. “And I started to explain, and he very politely, with a little hand gesture, just kind of said, ‘I’m already there, man.’ He was incredibly cool.”

Mitchum traveled to Ireland in January, 1969 to begin filming Ryan's Daughter with acclaimed director David Lean. 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, his 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 grew marijuana during the long filming period and shocked Miles when he turned her mother onto pot. He also turned on the local cop sent to investigate his garden. "Soon other members of the constabulary were said to have stopped by as well for a sample of the contraband." (Server) At a U.S. college appearance to promote the film, Mitchum passed out a brick of marijuana, and the students helped themselves.

Around 1970, Santoni recalls Mitchum calling him to help score some grass. The two went to an apartment in Hollywood, where one of the dealer's friends suddenly stood up and said, "Hey, man, I had to stay and meet you! You sent us that stuff, that gym equipment, those exercise bikes," he said, mentioning a penal institution in California. "Man, we didn't have shit in that place. When that stuff showed up it was like Christmas!" Mitchum often got letters from inmates and sometimes took up their cause or sent relief. According to Server, he turned down the lead in "The French Connection" (1971) because of a distaste for playing a drug-busting hero.

On a 1971 Dick Cavett interview, Cavett asked about his bust. "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. His charges were dropped after his time was served during a corruption investigation that implicated Leeds and others.

A 1973 Rolling Stone profile of Mitchum described him as passing the hash pipe and giving away joints like calling cards. "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.

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. Rober Mitchum died in July 1997 at the age of 79.

Sources: Robert Mitchum, A Biography by George Eels, 1984; Baby I Don’t Care by Lee Server, 2001 St. Martin’s Press

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