The rumors? They're all true," he once told an interviewer on a set in Ireland. "Booze, broads, all true. Make up some more if you want to."
The tequila is over on the sideboard. Every now and then for the next two hours, a movie tough guy will stretch himself up from the sofa and amble toward a fifth of Cuervo Especial. It is full of bored insolence, this walk. It is languid as a boa's glide. It is a kind of actor's signature, though the actor himself would claim it comes merely from trying to stand up and go in a straight line.
Robert Mitchum is sitting in Pall Mall smoke and a soft green turtleneck in a suite at the Waldorf. On the sofa beside him are rumpled newspapers. In front of him are two tube lighters and a black ashtray with a dozen squashed butts in it. "I like the work. I just don't like talking about it," he says dully through a smoker's liquid hack.
The man who is "never available" for interviews has come East to talk up his new movie, "That Championship Season." Mrs. Mitchum is out shopping for shoes. She has all the luck. Why did he ever let himself get talked into this? Why didn't he just stay home in Montecito?
He is 65 years old. The double chin is huge, and the gut is a full ripe melon, and somehow he's Hollywood-handsome anyway. The voice is rich and deep, marinated by five decades' worth of rum and vodka and tequila. (All three are at the sideboard.) The hair, which you wouldn't call groomed, keeps winging down onto his temples. He wipes it back and it flops forward again. Maybe he forgot to pack a brush. Maybe he hasn't combed it since "Night of the Hunter," when he played, for director Charles Laughton, that cracked fraud of a preacher that some critics said was the most compelling study of evil in American postwar cinema.
He doesn't have a hat--but if he did it would probably look as if somebody ran over it with a truck. He has the thinnest ankles. They look like a dancer's ankles.
You can't see the famous sleepy Mitchum lids--they're hidden behind the atomic reactor tinted glasses. That's another don't-give-a-damn trademark: wearing dark glasses indoors. Mitchum, ever the myth-buster, claims his sleepy-lidded look comes from chronic insomnia and an old, double astigmatism from the days when he was a prizefighter. Whatever it comes from, the look used to drive bobbysoxers slightly frantic. Sinatra, coming across from Hoboken on the ferry to play the Paramount 40 years ago, used to really drive them frantic, but Mitchum did okay, too. In a way, Mitchum was James Dean before James Dean.
He will be in New York for four days this time, and before he goes home to California he will find himself in a nasty headline again: The New York Daily News will accuse him of throwing a basketball into a female photographer's face at the premiere party for "That Championship Season." Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. In 40 years of making movies, Robert Mitchum has been accused of worse. Once, he was accused of calling the entire 16th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army a bunch of pasties. That was during the making of "The Longest Day."
Yes, he's the essential Hollywood "nonconformist"; yes, like Sinatra (one of his few longtime Hollywood friends), he has a knack for sullying himself in public; yes, he got busted for pot back when most of America thought pot was something you cook a Sunday roast in--but it's a little more complicated than this. If this is the fabled "loner" who doesn't give a damn about the movies business, then why is he also known as the one who's almost never late on the set and invariably has his lines down cold as a mackerel? And if he's so loose, how come he can't sleep nights?
There are critics who claim that, since World War II, no one has made more first-class films in so many different moods--from "Thunder Road" to "The Sundowners" to "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" to "Home From the Hill." (There were more than a few turkeys along the way, too.) In "Thunder Road," he was Luke Doolin, running hot rods packed with corn likker down Appalachian mountainsides. In "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," he was a dogass dogface stranded on a Pacific island with a nun (Deborah Kerr). There are those, such as critic and film anthologist David Thomson, who feel that the very laconic aspect of Mitchum's acting has always meant that the acting itself never need come to the surface.
The trouble with trying to figure out Robert Mitchum is that Robert Mitchum isn't going to help any. Ask him a warm-up question about acting and he'll knock it away with: "I've done everything but midgets and women." Compliment him on a long-ago role and he'll say, "Well, it was written down." Use the word "star," and he'll say quickly, "I was never a star, not really. I just don't have that sense of popular identity that you people seem to have of me."
Mitchum has a repugnant name for these repugnant interview sessions: "flack fat." One guy regurgitates it, "and the next guy comes by to feed off of it. Why don't they just stay home and make it up?" But it isn't said with any particular nastiness.
He clears his throat and looks away--maybe down to Mexico and those sunsets that hang like orange peels on the rims of margarita glasses. Mexico is one of his favorite places on earth. The last stronghold of individuality and adventure, he believes. The people there are funny and very decent. He could take you to places in Mexico where it's Mi Casa, Su Casa, and other places where they'll bite off your nose just to watch you bleed, just to watch your eyes cross.
He clears his throat again. There is a cigarette on his lip, but it isn't lit. It's been there two or three minutes, and it bobs as he talks. Mitchum can Bogart a cigarette as tough as anybody. "Look, I'm for hire in the movies at this fee--that's the way I've always looked at it. If you can get somebody cheaper or better, that's fine with me. But I figure I must be pretty good at what I do. Why else would they haul me around the world at these prices?"
In his time he knew them all--Gable, Hayworth, "Brod" Crawford. He was coming up when some of them were going down. He saw some parties, too. There was this one party--well, you probably had to be there. Olivia De Havilland took her vodka straight, and Lon Chaney, "he came with a nurse. She had a chain around his neck." That was the party, if he's got this right, when Sinatra started calling him "mother." For a few years after that, Frank sent him Mother's Day telegrams.
Why did he call you mother?
"Oh, because I wiped his forehead with a cool cloth, that sort of thing."
Bogart? "A comedian, one of the greatest put-on artists in the world."
Rita Hayworth? "I knew her since she was 17."
Loretta Young? "She dwells in serenity."
Gable? "Very ordinary, very cheerful fellow. He'd been passed over for insurance, you know. Had a couple of heart warnings. After he died, Hedda Hopper called me up and said, 'Your friend John Huston just killed Clark Gable.' 'I know,' I said, 'and he's trying to kill me, too.' "
Mitchum's latest picture (he calls them "pictures," as if deliberately to downgrade them) is about the 24th reunion of the fictitious basketball team that won the 1957 Pennsylvania state high school championship. "That Championship Season" is an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play of a decade ago and features a staggering lineup of well-known younger actors: Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, Stacy Keach and Paul Sorvino. Mitchum, a generation ahead of these hot dogs, plays their dying old Scranton, Pa., coach whose own racism and fraud are every bit as hypocritical as theirs. His performance is low key, maybe too low key: It was ever thus. Although the other stars in the film have come to New York this trip to talk, too, it is Mitchum the press really wants to see, it is Mitchum the flack-fat boys really lust for. It is an aura of legend and aloofness, one supposes.
Prior to working with Dern, Keach, Sheen and Sorvino (who was in the original Broadway cast), Mitchum had never seen any of them act--except maybe once when he was flicking past stations on the tube and Dern came on. He watched for a while. "I don't go to see pictures anymore," the languorous Robert Mitchum once explained to an interviewer. "I mean, where would I park?"
A grin, easy as sloe gin, rolls up now. "I guess Bruce and Stacy and Martin and Paul are all pretty much of that school that figures the longer you're on screen, the better the film has to be. I was taught to say your lines and get off."
He gets up and goes to the sideboard. Getting out of a chair, he looks like the oldest man in the world. For some reason he doesn't bring the tequila over here. It's as if he deliberately wants to force himself to get up and go across the room. Maybe it's akin to keeping the cookie jar on the highest shelf: You'll get your paw into it, of course, though not without some effort and minor guilt.
He pours himself a full-to-the-lip shot, then drinks it neat--head back, all in a silver-bullet gulp. As a scene, you could say it shrinks from cinema art right toward its own inner truths. How many times, in how many places, one wonders, has Robert Mitchum turned a bottle of booze into a dead soldier? In the pubs of Dingle (west of Ireland), he once allegedly ran up an $11,000 bill, though there he was probably standing pints of Guinness and hot malt instead of the bitch goddess, tequila. They were making "Ryan's Daughter" then, and Dingle was black as the insides of an Irish goat. The wind was coming at them 60 miles per hour. "Snowed laterally," he says, loath to recall.
You could film the scene at the sideboard today, except that Mitchum's glass is all wrong: It looks like a wine glass, or maybe one of those effete things that room service likes to bring you orange juice in--long on stem, short on bowl. In Mitchum's big stony hand, the glass looks ridiculous--like Baby Huey holding a demitasse.
Six things Robert Mitchum will verify:
He used to work the graveyard shift at Lockheed. This was in the early '40s, and they were making P38s and Hudson Bombers for the War. The guy who operated huge carbon-steel knives with him in a whining, lead-lined booth every night was a little red brick of an Irishman named Jim Dougherty. Dougherty was married to a gorgeous blond kid named Norma Jean Baker. Norma was just a Valley housewife then. "He used to show me wallet pictures," says Mitchum. Norma Jean, who couldn't have been more than 15 or 16, would soon arrive in the lap of Hollywood, and so would Mitchum. Only, Norma changed her name--to Marilyn Monroe.
He once did 50 days of hard time at a California penal farm on a narcotics bust. This was in 1949, and he hoed vegetables, mostly. You get the idea he'd do it again, too. "They keep you on a basic starch diet in prison," he says. "And you know why? So you maintain weight. So you can't squawk, 'Look, they're starving me.' You get a lot of rice pudding, a lot of spaghetti. I have to say, though, when we were over in Yugoslavia a while ago, I got kind of lonesome for that jail food. I ate a helluva lot better in prison, and at cheaper prices." Mitchum was in Yugoslavia to film "The Winds of War," which will be shown on TV on successive nights this February. When a lot of actors his age can't get work, Mitchum is turning down parts. The world still wants to see him, figure him out.
"We used to shoot the Hoppies out in the desert. Bill Boyd was a contemporary of Gable, nice man, married to a classy lady named Grace. It was his show, and he was the wheel. Bill had done a lot of leading men in his time. And then he got drunk. And no one heard of him for about 10 years. Then a guy at Paramount came along with the Hoppy idea. I think they kept a bottle of wine or champagne hidden on the set just in case Bill got a case of the horribles. Anyway, he got rich, retired to Palm Springs, lived to be an old guy of 77, then one day just dried up and blew away. You know, he's one of the few people I ever asked for an autographed picture. He wrote on it, 'To my favorite actor.' Ha. I bet he wrote that on everybody's."
And a skilled mimic, with dead-on imitations of tough Jesuits from Limerick, of sleazy London Tabloiders, of Brit colonials in Africa, of Mescalero Apaches, of director John Huston and his "Cyclopian" eye, of John Wayne.
When he does Wayne, he gets up to mimic the Duke's walk. "Duke had four-inch lifts in his shoes which pushed him forward--you know that don't you? I'm serious. He had the overheads on his boat accommodated to fit him. He had a special roof put in his station wagon. 'I wanna make 'em WAYNE-Conscious,' he used to tell me. The sonofabitch, they probably buried him in his goddamn lifts. It was a business to him. That's okay with me. He was Saturday's hero, wasn't he?"
This last has come out peculiarly soft.
The door opens. "Hello, Dotty," he says in the gruff voice, though smiling suddenly.
"I must have tried on every shoe in New York," a very small gray-haired woman says with a sigh. "Is there coffee?"
Robert Mitchum and the former Dorothy Spence of Camden, Del., have been married for 42 years and have raised three children. On the face of it, you would say it is an absurd match. What is their secret?
"Secret?" he says, when she has gone into the next room to change. She is going to the theater tonight; he is chained to this damn sofa for more flack fat. "Isn't that the commitment--that you're doing it for keeps? No, no, no. You don't understand. This was a commitment I made. For life. I mean, God forbid, but maybe it could get to that point when Dotty couldn't put up with me anymore."
This time there isn't an ounce of irony.
And yet, a second later, the old hard-boiled stuff: "We got married in Dover, in a kitchen. When I met her I was on crutches. I was still a kid and had been riding freights with hobos. I'd been on a chain gang in Georgia. I met Dorothy and told her I'd be back for her. We got married in the kitchen because that was the warmest room in the house. Place smelled of cabbage and a wasted preacher. He kept spitting in the sink."
What will he do next? "Nothing, I hope. Christ, I just got through working."
You might say it's always been luck and the line of least resistance for Robert Mitchum. Jason Miller, who directed Mitchum in "That Championship Season" and wrote the script from his own Broadway play, is a very intense sort of fellow, Mitchum says.
"He would come over and say, 'Bob, now this is like the half, you've got to get them together, pump them up, okay?' A little while later he'd come over and say, 'Bob, it's now late in the third quarter. You've got to pull it all out.' He kept doing that, and I didn't have the heart to tell him until the last day that I've never even seen a whole basketball game. Christ, who'd ever want to see a whole basketball game?"