Robert Charles Durman Mitchum (August 6, 1917 July 1, 1997) was an American actor, one of the earliest of the more understated "say a lot while saying very little" types, which may be at least one of the reasons why he was often cast as drifters and loners during his career.
After a colorful youth spent traveling across the country during The Great Depression, jumping railroad cars (with or without the company of motley hobos) and at one point getting arrested and put on a chain gang for vagrancy, Mitchum, who initially set out to be a writer while working various labor jobs (including but not limited to boxing), casually drifted into acting at the encouragement of relatives, making his (confirmed) official debut as a henchman in Hoppy Serves a Writ of the Hopalong Cassidy films. Gradually working his way up from supporting parts — and refusing to change his professional name to "Robert Marshall", a request from RKO that he thought was absurd given that his name wasn't particularly difficult to pronounce — he started to get leading roles in such films as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Story of G.I. Joe (where he was so convincing that some people actually thought he was the soldier he portrayed, and for which he received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor). A favorite for playing anti-heroes in film noir and westerns, his career was nearly destroyed when he did jail time for being caught smoking pot, but upon returning to RKO - which was being run into the ground by the infamous Aviator himself Howard Hughes - Mitchum was forgiven and supported to the public and became "the staff hero" as he put it, since Hughes — who seemed to have a bit of a man crush on Mitchum — kept putting the tall, dark, barrel-chested leading man into the heroic roles he thought suited him.
When his RKO days came to an end Mitchum took on one of his two most iconic roles in 1955's The Night of the Hunter, in which he played Harry Powell, a sadistic woman-hating con man who marries a widow and then murders her before chasing her kids to get money that their late father stole, and then in 1962 he was Max Cady in Cape Fear, the sadistic rapist who has come back to seek revenge on the righteous lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) who helped send him to jail years earlier - he later appeared in the early 90s remake, ironically as a Lawful Good sheriff while Peck's cameo had him playing an evil lawyer. Other noteworthy roles include Thunder Road (which inspired a Bruce Springsteen song), Out of the Past, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Sundowners, The Longest Day, Ryan's Daughter (Playing Against Type as a romantically lacking schoolteacher) and the TV miniseries The Winds of War.
Blessed with a photographic memory, Mitchum rarely (if ever) actually rehearsed, since all he had to do was glance at the script and he'd have his lines memorized and could do the scene easily, much to the envy of his fellow actors.
Mitchum built his screen persona on an image of casual indifference, which was at least partially true of his real life self - he never really lied about the fact that many of his films were far from great art and usually just done for the money and he never really took himself that seriously as an actor: he famously stated that his skill consisted of only two moods: on a horse and off a horse, and the title of his biography was Baby, I Don't Care, taken from one of his early film noir roles. His indifference was such that when the notoriously temperamental Katharine Hepburn caught him doing an accurate but unflattering impression of her to the cast and crew of 1946's Undercurrent she got in his face bellowing "You can't act! You know you can't act and you would never have gotten a single picture if you weren't handsome! I'm sick of working with people who have nothing to offer!" Mitchum's response? He just shrugged those big old ditch digger shoulders as if to say whatever. Indeed, he carried this attitude to the point that it almost wrapped all the way around back to caring: when offered the lead role in the film Patton, he turned it down not because he thought it was a bad script (just the opposite) but because he felt his indifference would reduce the film to a mediocre string of tank battles; he even recommended the film's eventual star, George C. Scott, as the kind of actor who would fight to rightly keep the character of Patton as the focus of the film.
On the flipside of his stoicism, Mitchum was easily one of Hollywood's most colorful characters - a casual ladies man and professional Deadpan Snarker, he was also known for acts of great generosity, bringing lunch to cast and crew when they needed them in outright defiance of tyrannical directors and offering advice to and support to actors who were just starting out and could benefit from his experience. He was also known for being a natural storyteller, poet, mimic of accents and even a fairly good singer. He was a long time friend of actresses Jane Russell and Deborah Kerr (the latter his leading lady in four films, including Heaven Knows Mr. Allison and The Sundowners, and by his own admission the favourite leading lady of his career).
Mitchum continued to be an actor even into the 90s. Along with the previously-mentioned Cape Fear cameo, his final role was in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. A longtime smoker, he died a month short of what would have been his 80th birthday due to lung cancer and emphysema. He was survived by his wife Dorothy and their kids (at least two of whom also took up acting, as did his brother John).
Mitchum is often considered one of the most "underrated" stars of the Golden Age. He's been highly influential on later generation of actors. Robert De Niro often stated that Mitchum was one of his favorite actors. He was also a favorite of Michael Madsen who cited Mitchum as his role model - convenient since he usually gets cast in film noir type roles himself.
- 1943 Border Patrol as Quinn
- 1943 Cry Havoc as an unnamed soldier (bit part)
- 1943 The Human Comedy as Horse (bit part)
- 1943 We've Never Been Licked as Panhandle Mitchell
- 1944 Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo as Bob Gray
- 1947 Pursued as Jeb
- 1947 Crossfire as Keeley
- 1947 Out of the Past as Jeff
- 1949 Holiday Affair as Steve Mason
- 1949 The Red Pony as Billy Buck
- 1951 The Racket as Captain Thomas McQuigg
- 1953 Angel Face as Frank
- 1953 Second Chance as Russ Lambert
- 1954 River of No Return as Matt Calder
- 1955 The Night of the Hunter as Rev. Harry Powell
- 1957 Fire Down Below as Felix
- 1957 The Enemy Below as Capt. Murrell
- 1958 Thunder Road as Lucas Doolan
- 1960 The Sundowners as Paddy Carmody
- 1962 Cape Fear as Max Cady
- 1962 The Longest Day as Brig. Gen. Norman Cota
- 1963 Rampage as Harry Stanton
- 1964 What a Way to Go! as Rod Anderson, Jr.
- 1966 El Dorado as Sheriff Harrah
- 1970 Ryan's Daughter as Charles Shaughnessy
- 1971 Going Home as Harry K. Graham
- 1973 The Friends of Eddie Coyle as Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle
- 1974 The Yakuza as Harry Kilmer
- 1975 Farewell, My Lovely as Philip Marlowe
- 1978 The Big Sleep as Philip Marlowe
- 1982 That Championship Season as Coach Delaney
- 1988 Scrooged as Preston Rhinelander
- 1991 Cape Fear as Lieutenant Elgart
- 1993 Tombstone as Narrator