His best-known films include Out of the Past, and The Night of the Hunter.
Ten of his movie roles in 1942 – 1944 were uncredited.
The Human Comedy
Hoppy Serves a Writ
Follow the Band
We’ve Never Been Licked
The Lone Star Trail
Beyond the Last Frontier
Doughboys in Ireland
The Dancing Masters
Riders of the Deadline
Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Any More
Mr. Winkle Goes to War
When Strangers Marry
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
The Story of G.I. Joe
West of the Pecos
Till the End of Time
Rachel and the Stranger
Blood on the Moon
The Red Pony
The Big Steal
Where Danger Lives
My Forbidden Past
His Kind of Woman
One Minute to Zero
The Lusty Men
White Witch Doctor
She Couldn’t Say No
River of No Return
Track of the Cat
The Angry Hills
The Wonderful Country
The Last Time I Saw Archie
The List of Adrian Messenger
Man in the Middle
What a Way to Go!
The Way West
5 Card Stud
Young Billy Young
The Good Guys and the Bad Guys
The Wrath of God
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Farewell, My Lovely
The Last Tycoon
The Amsterdam Kill
The Big Sleep
That Championship Season
Tombstone – Narrator
Woman of Desire
Waiting for Sunset
James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young
He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Story of G I Joe.
I kept the same suit for six years and the same dialogue. They just changed the title of the picture and the leading lady. ~ Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 6, 1917. 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. 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; she soon realized she was pregnant; her and James’ second son 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.
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, 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. 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.
Robert Mitchum arrived in California, in 1936. His sister Julie convinced him to join the local theater guild with her. In his years with the Players Guild of Long Beach, he 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 East to marry Dorothy Spence, taking her back to California. He then got a steady job as a machine operator with the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
A nervous breakdown, which resulted in temporary blindness, apparently from job-related stress, led Mitchum to look for work as an actor or extra in films. His agent got him an interview with the producer of the Hopalong Cassidy series of B-Westerns; he was hired to play the villain in several films in the series during 1942 and 1943. He 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 found himself groomed for B-Western stardom in a series of Zane Grey adaptations.
Following the moderately successful Western Nevada, Mitchum was lent from RKO to United Artists for the William Wellman-helmed The Story of G.I. Joe. In the film, he portrayed war-weary officer Bill Walker 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 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. 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 off 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.
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 films noir, 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 (1947) featured Mitchum as a member of a group of soldiers, one of whom kills a Jewish man in an act of anti-Jewish hatred. It featured themes of anti-Semitism and the failings of military training.
Following Crossfire, Mitchum starred in Out of the Past, 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.
In September 1948, after a string of successful films for RKO, Mitchum and actress Lila Leeds were arrested for possession of marijuana. 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 in the county jail, Mitchum spent 43 days at a Castaic, California, prison farm, with Life photographers right there taking photos of him mopping up in his prison uniform. The arrest became the inspiration for the exploitation film She Shoulda Said No! (1949), which starred Leeds. The conviction was later overturned by the Los Angeles court and district attorney’s office.
Whether despite, or because of, his troubles with the law and his studio, the 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, while he appeared in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony (1949) as a trusted cowhand to a ranching family. He returned to true film noir in The Big Steal (also 1949), where he again joined Jane Greer.
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 (1953) was the first of three collaborations between Mitchum and Jean Simmons, in which she plays an insane heiress who plans to use young ambulance driver Mitchum to kill for her.
Following a series of conventional Westerns and films noir, as well as the Marilyn Monroe vehicle River of No Return (1954), he 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. 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.
In 1955, Mitchum formed DRM (Dorothy and Robert Mitchum) Productions to produce five films for United Artists though only four films were produced. 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), being 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. 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.
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. The incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum – who not only starred in the movie, but also produced the film, co-wrote the screenplay, and is rumored to have directed much of the film himself. 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.
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. 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 menacingly vengeful 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. He then teamed with Martin for the 1968 Western 5 Card Stud, playing a homicidal preacher.
One of the lesser-known aspects of Mitchum’s career was his forays into music, both as singer and composer. 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.
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. 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 the 1980’s, he acted in three well known television mini-series. He played naval officer “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War (1983), George Hazard’s father-in-law in North and South (1985). He followed it in 1988 with War and Remembrance,
Mitchum continued to act in films until the mid-1990s, 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.
A lifelong heavy smoker, Mitchum died on July 1, 1997, in Santa Barbara, California, due to complications of lung cancer and emphysema.