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Robert Mitchum: Bad Boy

   Mitchum and friend Robin Ford after
   1948 arrest (UPI)

"Booze, broads, it's all true.
Make up some more if you want."
--Robert Mitchum on his bad boy reputation.

Mitchum's offscreen life reads like a bad boy primer. His father was a railroad worker who was killed when Mitchum was a boy. Robert was a good student, but a born troublemaker. He and his brother John, were routinely referred to as "them ornery Mitchum boys," which became the title of John's autobiography. Bob eventually ran away from home, once trying to get work aboard a salvage vessel. Once they found out he was only fourteen, he was immediately put ashore. During the depression, the teenage Mitchum rode the rails, ending up on a chain gang in Georgia. He escaped and limped all the way back home to Connecticut.

Breaking the law

After becoming a star, Mitchum had two more run-ins with the law: in 1948, he was arrested for possession of marijuana. The arrest was the result of a sting operation designed to capture other Hollywood partyers, as well, but only Mitchum didn't receive the tip-off and walked right into the arms of the law. Mitchum spent 60 days in the local lock-up, with Life magazine right there snapping photos of him mopping up in his prison uniform. Mitchum later claimed to have enjoyed his jail stay: it gave him respite from his chronic insomnia, "the best sleep I ever got," he said, and left jail a trimmer, fitter man.

   Bob mops up in jail (UPI)

The RKO studio stood by Mitchum and he resumed work on The Big Steal, shooting in Mexico. Asked later whether his arrest affected his chances for different roles, Mitchum replied, "Well, I couldn't play eagle scouts, but other than that, no, it didn't hurt my chances." Actually, it did hurt his chances for the lead role in Battle Hymn, and his son was expelled from the private school he attended, due to his father's bad reputation.

The other arrest occurred in 1953, when he was pulled over for doing 74 mph in a 35 mph zone. He asked the officer "You got any witnesses?" when the cop said, "No," Mitchum responded, "Neither have I. See you in court," and took off. Mitchum was tracked down later, arrested and fined $200.

More scandals

Throughout his life, notoriety would follow Mitchum offscreen. False stories circulated in the tabloids, including one that had Mitchum attending a party dressed only in ketchup, saying, "This is a masquerade party isn't it? Well, I'm a hamburger." Mitchum sued over that one. In Cannes, a woman flung herself at the stunned actor, dropping her bikini top just as the paparazzi began clicking. The result: international scandal, and some explaining to the wife.

Brawling and drinking

Tough guy Mitchum also found himself the unwilling recipient of barroom challenges, some of which he couldn't decline. One of the most notorious scrapes came in 1951 during the filming of One Minute to Zero in Colorado. The male cast headed for a local bar and actor Charles McGraw and a soldier had an altercation. Mitchum intervened to protect McGraw, with the soldier getting the worst of it. The incident hit the papers, and it was reported that the soldier, whom Mitchum had knocked unconscious, had been a former light heavyweight professional boxer, and a good one. Mitchum himself had been a boxer briefly, and this incident only added fuel to the fire of his bad boy image. While on location in Tobago for Fire Down Below, Mitchum was assaulted by three sailors, and again won that contest, single-handed. Another brawl occurred at a Dublin bar where Mitchum was filming The Night Fighters. This one was started when a belligerent fan called Mitch "Kirk Douglas" and insisted on an autograph and Mitchum obliged, after a fashion, by scrawling an expletive on the man's piece of paper. Needless to say, the autograph was not well received and several actors,including Richard Harris, got involved in the ensuing melee.

Drinking and brawling

It goes without saying that Mitchum drank, but put him together with Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, and Broderick Crawford, while filming Not as a Stranger, and you've got a lot of destruction. The men smashed up their dressing rooms, and even threw Crawford off a second-floor balcony.

Richard Fleischer, who directed Mitchum (uncredited) in His Kind of Woman shared an anecdote about working with the volatile actor. Filming had run several months over schedule, and Mitchum had taken to drink. "The happy hour became an established institution in his dressing room. It started at five o'clock and you could forget about working with him after that." During the last scheduled shot, Mitchum fights his way out of a boatful of men trying to kill him. He was supposed to let the stuntmen get the better of him, but he was drunk, and in a genuine fighting mood. Mitchum sent the stuntmen flying in take after take. "It was turning into a real brawl," wrote Fleischer. "Mitchum stood in the center of the set fuming, like a grenade with its pin pulled." But not for long. Mitchum destroyed the set and his dressing room. The next day Bob was apologetic, and the picture wrapped up quickly.

Director Otto Preminger had declared there was to be no drinking on the set of River of No Return. One day he saw an actor crossing the set with a glass of vodka. He lambasted the actor who said, "I'm just taking this to Mitchum." The director paused and said, "Oh, that's different," and allowed the actor to complete his mission. Preminger had learned not to cross Mitchum in the earlier Angel Face (see below).

Mitchum gets his way

A perhaps apocryphal story attached to Mitchum concerns a director telling Mitchum, "I have a habit of yelling at actors, but don't take it personally, it's just my way." Mitchum supposedly responded. "I have a habit of punching directors, which I hope you don't take personally." It is also supposed that said director did not, in fact, find occasion to yell at Mitchum. Another time, Mitchum threatened to start slapping Otto Preminger, who demanded Mitchum slap Angel Face co-star Jean Simmons in take after take.

To get back at another dictatorial director, Josef von Sternberg on the set of Macao, Mitchum and crew collapsed Sternberg's tent around his ears and spread limberger cheese on the radiator of his car. Another time, the producer of The Night of the Hunter's car suffered Mitchum's revenge. For slighting him, Mitchum peed inside his convertible!


And then there are the pranks. There are so many pranks Mitchum pulled, and he himself never told a story the same way twice, that it's impossible to confirm the accuracy of most of them. On the set of Angel Face another glass of vodka figured in the court room scene in which Jim Backus gives his summation speech. For emphasis, he pauses, then drinks a glass of water. Only, Bob had substituted vodka for water. Backus spluttered and nearly spit it out, but, mindful of the lengthy shot which would have to be redone if he did, swallowed. Preminger liked the sputtering effect, little knowing its cause, and kept it in the film.

Co-stars Jane Russell and Deborah Kerr testified that if visitors strolled onto the set, Mitchum would immediately stop acting and start acting up. Russell recalled one time he licked her back for the benefit of goggle-eyed onlookers. Kerr helped Mitchum scandalize a religious monitor on the set of the nun/marine picture Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison by playing an unscripted seduction scene, which is of course far from the gentle, unconsummated romance of the film.

Mitchum's pranks could, and did, go too far: He was fired from the set of Blood Alley for more supposed prank-pulling. And, of course, his reputation as Bob Mitchum, bad-boy, womanizer, and all-around hellraiser continues to this day to override his reputation as Bob Mitchum, consummate actor.